Elegiac

January 13, 2017

(Hey, look at this! I’m blogging!)

So I finished Hillbilly Elegy today.

I figured I should read it, as my beloved wife is a native of Middletown, OH and a good hunk of her family still lives there. I have a few thoughts.

In many ways, this is an inspiring narrative, and one that resonates with me, though – and I want to make this absolutely clear – I am not from a broken home. Indeed, for whatever issues I have had with my family (and it would be intellectually and morally dishonest to say that we have not had issues), I am forever grateful that my home life was so stable. It really does make a difference. We may have been rural, but my parents would never let us be “rednecks.” This is one of the reasons I so often ask why it is necessary to conflate the two, and why so many people (both within and without the rural community) encourage such conflating.

But, as is said in Revelation, I have a few things against thee, JD Vance.

First of all, I don’t entirely agree with your characterization of several sections of Middletown. This is a minor point, but there is more going on than you state. Downtown, for example, has some neat things underway, even if it’s not there yet. I am willing to attribute this to two things. A) We have a tendency – and clearly I am guilty of this – to either overromanticize our hometowns or exaggerate the perceived awfulness, and; B) It sounds like you haven’t been back in a few years. Completely understandable, and I am willing to concede this particular point to these two ideas.

My second point consists of a sharper criticism, one that I believe is linked to Mr. Vance’s current situation. Mr. Vance rightfully points out several flaws with the culture that produced him, and indeed you must change the culture to change the situation for the greatest number of people. But apart from some perfunctory slaps on the wrist, Mr. Vance is almost completely unwilling to assign any of the blame to corporate and financial practices that contribute to the problems. There was a telling moment when he describes working for former Ohio state senator Bob Schuler, who was opposed to further payday lending regulations. Vance says that these predatory loan places were the only place people from his background could go to get financial assistance, and that if more people from his background were part of the system, governments would not be so quick to impose further regulations on these institutions.

As Joe Biden might say, that’s malarkey. There are other ways to get assistance without having to resort to near-usury.

Keep in mind that, no matter Vance’s beginnings (and it is an inspiring narrative), he cut his legislative teeth working for a state senator determined to protect predatory lenders, and he is currently the principal for a major financial firm in the Bay Area, one which is founded by Peter Thiel. I am not so blind as to not understand the importance of both capital and the ability to move capital in our current system (indeed, it is why I cannot endorse the idea of wholesale destruction of the financial sector), but Vance is not exactly a disinterested party. By shifting the blame away from financial policies that could have mitigated the situation, and from corporations and investors that intentionally drained money from communities, Vance is able to maximize his otherwise just criticism of his native culture while signaling that he is – to use a phrase that I have heard many times in different circumstances – “one of the good ones.”

This same idea permeates my third criticism, that he is too dismissive of the social contract. Throughout the work, there is almost no mention of the role of government and political structures in assistance, except to say that Child Protective Services is often viewed by Appalachian culture as “the enemy.” There are moments of criticism for the government programs that provided assistance, but – in keeping in line with someone published regularly in Bill Buckley’s National Review – the ideology of the book is rooted in encouraging bootstrap-pulling among those who are bootless.

I am not completely against the book. Vance has clearly overcome many obstacles, and he makes a compelling argument for transcending one’s limitations and beginnings. He does, to his credit, consider arguments from all over the political spectrum, and is as quick to blame conservative fake news as he is liberal snootiness. I just wish he wasn’t so determined to maintain the Horatio Alger narrative, as it doesn’t tell the full story and in some cases deliberately shifts blame. I would still recommend it, approving quotes from David Brooks and all, because unlike other conservative writers, Vance is at least trying to figure it out.

(This review, by Alex MacGillis in The Atlantic, hits on similar points.)

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Playing around with Storify

July 24, 2016

I put this up as a Tweetstorm. Maybe it fits here too. Maybe I’ll start podcasting again too.

Trump, Trolls, and Other Trifles

WF


against cynicism

August 1, 2014

As you probably remember, in June I took part in the Morris Area Climate Dialogue. This was a fascinating experience in which I and 14 other Morris-area residents sat down and discussed the challenges and opportunities facing west-central Minnesota with regard to changing climates. We did not attempt to rehash the debate over whether it was happening; rather, we tried to address how to handle what is happening. We came from widely divergent backgrounds, statuses, and viewpoints, but in the end we produced what I think is a solid document and starting point. (That document can be viewed here.) You get to see a couple of pictures of me as well, including one right on the front, and there’s a quote from me in there. See if you can find it!)

Earlier this week, I got the chance to spend a few minutes talking with Kyle Bozentko, the executive director of the Jefferson Center, an organization out of St. Paul which seeks to expand citizen involvement. The Jefferson Center sponsored the Morris Area Climate Dialogue, in conjunction with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. We had a nice conversation, and it got me to thinking about what I can do, what you can do, what we all can do to fix our broken system.

Then I started wondering just why the system is broken. The simplest explanation is the presence of nearly-unlimited cash in the electoral process. While the phrase “you cannot solve a problem throwing more money at it” is often used to excuse not only inaction but also harmful cuts, in this case it is absolutely applicable. But that’s not all. Money has to be used toward a purpose, and I think I’ve discovered the purpose for all this campaign cash.

We assume that the tons of cash thrown into the electoral process is designed to get you to vote for someone or something. I believe that to be a false assumption. However, I also believe it is wrong to assume that the cash is there to get you to vote against someone or something. Rather, I believe the current political system is designed to get you to stop caring. The media, which is mostly corporate-owned, helps perpetuate this cynicism with the nonstop search for “balance,” which is narrowly interpreted to mean “we must find something bad for Team Red if we show something bad for Team Blue and vice versa.” The recent decisions increasing the rights of corporations over actual human persons as well as declaring money to be equal to speech tie into this as well. From all sides, the message is clear: You don’t matter. So have a Coke and a smile, and don’t try to change anything.

My experience taking part in the MACD with the Jefferson Center showed me that, even if you have differences that appear to be unbridgeable, you can still work together to change things – but only if everyone is acting in good faith and admits that things need to be changed. This is clearly not the case right now in Washington, and that attitude is affecting our state capitals, county courthouses, and city halls as well. These attitudes are hardened by gerrymandering and by the promise of easy campaign cash (or a post-election or post-term sinecure on K Street) for any candidate willing to, say, parrot the Koch Brothers. You have a group of people who are so cynical, they don’t believe government can work at all, and then they get elected and try to prove it. They dress this up with lines like “we believe in Constitutional government.” They then ride roughshod over the needs, desires, and hopes of actual human persons in their slavish devotion to corporate cash. Seems I Timothy 6:10 is still relevant here.

So what can we do?

Three words: Stop being cynical. The process will be frustrating. Take part anyway. On many issues there may not be that much difference between candidates. Vote anyway.

You will lose more often than you win. Get involved anyway. Our Constitution was written for idealists with a realistic streak (or possibly realists with an idealistic streak). It was not written for the cynical, and we should not let it be hijacked by the cynical.

It won’t be easy. It wasn’t meant to be easy. I’m not going to lie – it is hard to be an informed, engaged citizen in a time when so many people are doing so many things precisely to keep you from being that. But our Founders knew that the only way this works is if we believe in it. I’ve joked about modern finance being the scene in Peter Pan when Tinkerbell tells the audience to clap harder, but – and this is a little scary when you think about it – clapping harder is exactly what we need to do to keep our representative democracy alive. We must invest ourselves fully and without question or pause in the belief that this thing called America is worth supporting and fighting for. You will lose more than you win. Get involved anyway. And always follow the advice of Molly Ivins:

“So keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin’ ass and celebratin’ the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.”

If you want to learn more about the Jefferson Center, please visit their website at www.jefferson-center.org.

WF


A New Birth of Freedom

July 3, 2014

“I haven’t seen him. But I suppose he will be a pain. A birth-pain, perhaps, but a pain.”
“Birth-pain? You really believe we’re going to have a new Renaissance, as some say?”
“Hmmm-hnnn.”

– Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

INTRODUCTION

Tomorrow marks the 238th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence; today is the 151st anniversary of the conclusion of the Battle of Gettysburg. I have always been a Civil War buff – you may recall my meditation upon the Burnside Bridge at Antietam – so I like to filter American history through that conflict.

So much has happened this past week that I am only now able to process it. Part of this is due to some personal things (which remain nobody’s business but ours, though I will say that I think we’re on the far side of it now), and part of it is because it, on the surface, seems so antithetical to everything I hold dear. We’ve seen the Supreme Court of the United States decide that corporations are not only people, they have more rights than actual people. This same SCOTUS has created the possibility that any non-tax law can be ignored or broken if the person – well, in actuality, the corporation – has “sincerely-held” beliefs on a topic. As if to rub it in, the same decision attempted to vacate that possibility by claiming only one belief was subject to this ruling.

Essentially, the majority of Justices have proclaimed that religious freedom only truly applies to one issue, and even then only if you take the most conservative stance on that issue. At the same time, they have left the door open to allow corporations the right to (a) refuse fair compensation if the corporation feels the money is supporting a cause in which the corporation does not believe, and (b) ignore or disobey laws that do not take the most conservative viewpoint on a religious issue. This is not “freedom of religion.” This is a clear favoring – perhaps the term “establishment” might be more appropriate – of one particular religion over others. I am neither a lawyer nor a Constitutional scholar, but I tend to recall one of the early Amendments to the Constitution frowned on that sort of thing. And as we’ve seen, it’s already gone way past just Hobby Lobby.

Here’s the thing: this actually has nothing to do with religion, much as everyone – including the victors – is trying to make it about religion. It’s about the expansion of corporate power and money at the expense of regular citizens. It started with Citizens United…no, it started with Buckley v. Valeo…no, it started with the Santa Clara cases and the misbegotten and ill-applied doctrine of corporate personhood. Others have written more informatively about the effects of corporate personhood, both intentional and otherwise, and I will defer to their words. Rather, I choose to focus on what can and should be done.

WE CANNOT HALLOW THIS GROUND

The line of American history can be read as one of expansion. We can easily visualize this in terms of territory, as we’ve all seen the sixth-grade maps showing how first we were just at the crest of the Appalachians, then to the Mississippi, then the Pacific, then our noncontiguous lands. We called this Manifest Destiny, and to be sure, it didn’t end well for a lot of people who deserved way better. The expansion of which I speak, however, is an expansion of the rights contained in the Constitution to all of us. This expansion began almost immediately, and continues to this day. Sometimes, it’s a fairly smooth process. Other times, blood is spilled – as mentioned above, this is the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

There are always those who fight the expansion. I am reminded of Sen. Richard Russell (D-Georgia), who, when told he was fighting nothing more than a delaying action against civil rights, replied “I know, but I am trying to delay it – ten years if I’m not lucky, two hundred years if I am.” We have seen this fight before – in the marches of Susan B. Anthony and over the Equal Rights Amendment (a still-incomplete battle). We saw it in the factories of Pullman and Detroit, in the front of the bus in Montgomery, in the farms of the Central Valley of California, in the streets of Greenwich Village, and anywhere one person has stood up to say, “I count.” Now we have seen the beginning of a new fight. The pushback against the expansion is coming from a different sector this time – corporate personhood. In an attempt to limit the rights of actual human beings, those who have always opposed the expansion have found a new path. They can claim the mantle of expansion for themselves (for are they not giving rights to a new class of “people?”), and wrap themselves in the Bill of Rights and in the flag, while in truth they are doing their level best – as they always have – to limit the rights of the rest of us. In this cause, they have been ably assisted by a network of organizations devoted single-mindedly to the limitation of our rights as citizens in the name of acquiring ever more of our shared inheritance. And, like Sen. Russell, they know that delay can turn into denial; we, however, know that delay can turn into victory, when the outcry is strong enough. My job – our job – is to raise that battle cry: “I count.”

I honor the memory of those who gave blood, toil, tears, and sweat to rally around that battle cry. Our words alone can never do proper justice to their memory. Our actions will show how we honor them, by taking up their fights as our own. And even though we may not win every battle – this week was proof of that – I maintain faith that Dr. King’s arc still bends toward justice. So we must keep fighting, even though the odds are overwhelming, even though we are tired, and saddened, and angry, and hurt.

OF THE PEOPLE, BY THE PEOPLE, FOR THE PEOPLE

I fight because the story does not end. Each generation remakes the United States according to its interpretation of the ephemeral idea of “America.” The Founders were brilliant men, though it should be stated for the record that their idea of the “common man” was a white male landowner. In this, as noble as their intentions and as good as their plans were, they fell short. The rest of the story is how succeeding generations took the promise of the Constitution – government of, by, and for the people, forming a more perfect union – and expanded that to include more and more of their fellow-citizens. “We cannot escape history,” said Lincoln, and that is as true today as it ever was. Through war and reconstruction, the suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, and now the fight for full equality, the story goes on. I know not when it will end, but I hope – even in the darkest moments – that infinite chapters, developing all that is best in our collective plot, will continue to pour from the pens and keyboards of We, The People. For after all, we are the true authors of our liberty and of our history. We should never want to escape history; it is our story, and we owe it to ourselves and our posterity to write the best possible story we can.

WF


expletive deleted

May 20, 2014

Continuing with the twin themes of Richard Nixon and resentment as a political tool, here are two links which have been on my mind recently.

This link considers prejudice against Appalachians in academia, and this link examines Sauk Centre, MN, Sinclair Lewis’s hometown and the model for Gopher Prairie in Main Street.

The first article makes me think – what happens when someone willingly embraces the stereotypes of that group, and then uses those stereotypes as a marker of culture? Do the stereotypes become self-generating at that point? Is it a matter of “You think I’m a redneck? I’ll show you a redneck!” There is a natural human response of wagon-circling when a member of your tribe is attacked, to be sure, and I suspect there’s some of that at work here. But it can go to far, and ideology can obscure reality. (Read that link, by the way. It is outstanding.) Sinclair Lewis hit on this when he wrote Main Street. In an insular community, outsiders – or more specifically, ideas promulgated by outsiders – are rarely accepted or even tolerated. I found this out earlier this year when my hometown was in the news for less than good reasons. Even though it was home in a technical sense, I never felt like I belonged there, much in the same way that Lewis never felt like he belonged in Sauk Centre. Yet, that is where his ashes are buried, and it is not beyond the pale of possibility that my earthly remains will at least in part end up back home as well. I have felt the resentment of those who accepted things as they were, and I have also nurtured strong resentments myself at those same people. I love my family, and I wouldn’t trade my upbringing for anything, but Bedford is not home. It is simply where I am from. (Short form: having a non-majority temperament or views in a small town is tough. I doubt I’m alone in this.)

This politics of resentment is how Nixon captured the White House in 1968. He was careful enough to not be openly resentful in the way that George Wallace was (and arguably having Wallace in the race, instead of splitting the Right, allowed Nixon to use better code language and secure his position as the “Center”), but he still tapped into that. His language throughout his term in office (“Silent Majority,” the constant allusions to a giant conspiracy during Watergate) sent dog-whistles to the resentful base. And as we saw in yesterday’s post, he came by this honestly and at an early age.

I get Nixon. But for differences on political issues, I could be Nixon. In many cases, so could you. And that is why, as much of a populist as I am on economic issues, I have to keep it in check. Because when unchecked, it turns a President who was truly masterful at many aspects of foreign policy* into a punchline, a paranoiac, and a cautionary tale.

This has been a rather rambling excursion into my brain. I hope it resonated with at least some people.

*I propose that Nixon did what he did domestically (EPA, price/wage controls, Keynesian economic policy, etc.) to keep the heat off his foreign policy, making him the mirror of LBJ (who was hawkish in Vietnam to keep his opponents on his side, allowing him to pass his domestic policies).

WF


let me make one thing perfectly clear

May 19, 2014

Recently, I have been reading several things that make me think about Richard M. Nixon, the uses of power, and the politics of resentment.

If you know anything about Nixon’s college years, you know that there was a group of well-heeled upper-class types on the Whittier College campus known as the Franklins. Nixon would have never been accepted as part of this group, coming as he did from a working-class background. So he created an alternate group – the Orthogonians. Throughout his life Nixon set himself in opposition to the elites, even if – nay, especially if – they were from his own party. He was, if it is possible to be such a thing, the consummate outsider. At the height of his power, at a point when he was quite literally the single most powerful person the world had known up to that point, he used that power in ways both subtle and obvious to take (in his opinion) the elites down a peg.

He wasn’t the first outsider President; his immediate predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, was also from the wrong side of the tracks. LBJ grew up in a formerly stable family that had fallen on hard times. Like Nixon, he could not afford to go to a major university (Nixon went to the local college; LBJ went just down the road to what was then a teachers’ college and is now Texas State University – San Marcos), and like Nixon, he was all too willing to believe that his humble origins were the subject of scorn and mockery by the wealthier, the smarter, the better-connected.

In both cases, perhaps there was a kernel of truth to the fear. Robert Caro speaks of the Kennedy loyalists referring to LBJ (though never, to be sure, after the assassination) as “Rufus Cornpone.” Film critic Pauline Kael was famously lambasted for elitism after expressing surprise at Nixon’s victory since “no one I know voted for him.” And hey, everyone on the political spectrum from George Wallace to Occupy Wall Street finds “the elite” to be a suitable target for opprobrium. Where it gets dangerous is when Populism – an honest political movement, and one with honorable intentions and goals – crosses a line into what might be termed “elitism of the lowbrow.” When that happens, knowledge and expertise are themselves suspect, since they come from experts. (See this recent article in MacLean’s for a Canadian take on the situation.)

There more coming here, though I’m not quite sure what yet. I suspect it will have to do with feeling an outsider (something I know all too well) and what counts as acceptable prejudice (see this article for more, but don’t read the comments).

WF


smart ALEC

December 10, 2013

Back at the old place, I’d written about the dangers of the American Legislative Exchange Council.

People are starting to finally realize just how big a threat this group is to our representative democracy.

Fortunately, we have our own group – ALICE (American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange). It’s not nearly as well-funded, but it serves to advance the cause of progressive legislation wherever it can.

WF