Monthly Archives: July 2016

Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5

It was 1858 in San Fransisco, California. Gold had been discovered at nearby Sutter’s Mill just ten years before. Initial planning for the nation’s first transcontinental railroad was underway, and Congress had recently authorized funding for any company which could ensure stage coach delivery of mail from St. Louis to San Francisco in less than 25 days.

Following San Fransisco’s first great fire of 1849 and a series of destructive fires in the early 1850s, the booming port town formed a volunteer Fire Department and, in 1858, installed its first fire hydrants.

As one San Fransisco museum describes, “The men comprising the first volunteers of the Fire Department consisted of some of the most influential men of the community.  None were so high in office or so proud of position that he was not honored by a membership in the early fire brigade.”

While the volunteers put pride aside when a fire was particularly serious, individual fire companies were notoriously competitive, always seeking to put “firs water” on a fire – a competition which “led to many physical combats, and some of the fights reached riot proportions.”

Following the alarm bells one afternoon, the poorly under-manned Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5 was falling behind, much to the mockery of rivals Manhattan No. 2 and Howard No. 3. A fifteen year old child from a locally prestigious family saw the Knickerbocker’s plight while walking home from school. The teen immediately jumped into action, helping to man the fire truck’s ropes and shouting, “Come on, you men! Everybody pull and we’ll beat ‘em!”

The teen was no man. She was Lillie Coit, who continued to play an important role to Company No. 5 and San Fransisco firefighters for the rest of her life.

As a woman, she never officially occupied the same role as her male counterparts. She was elected an “honorary” member of the Knickerbockers in 1863 and is commonly referred to as the “patroness” of San Fransisco’s volunteer fire companies. But throughout her youth, she played an active role in the company – always dashing off at the sound of the alarm and otherwise engaging in activities unseemly for a young lady of her standing.

As an adult she was known for having a number of shocking habits such as wearing trousers, smoking cigars, and gambling. Stories say she often dressed as man in order to participate in the latter activity. And she always remained involved and supportive of her beloved fire company.

Upon her death in 1929, Coit left one-third of her fortune to San Fransisco, “to be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved.”

In 1933, those funds were used to build the Lillian Coit Memorial Tower, which stands 64 m tower atop Telegraph Hill. A notable sight along a city’s skyline. And while the story is said to be apocryphal, one can’t help notice the similarity between the tower’s design and the popular story: that in honor of the remarkable Lillie Coit, the tower is shaped like the nozzle of a fire hose.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedintumblrmail

Knowledge and Wonder

In his autobiography, Life on the Mississippi, Samuel Clemens – better known as Mark Twain – describes his changing relationship with the great river.

He grew up along the Mississippi, working as a typesetter and dreaming of some day becoming a steamboat pilot. In fact, his chosen pen name, “Mark Twain” is a steamboat cry, indicating a safe depth of 2 fathoms. In his early 20s, Twain was taken on as an apprentice pilot and he spent the next two years learning everything there was to know about the Mississippi.

He describes a magnificent sunset which left him bewitched in when steam boating was new to him, and he describes the awe he felt at the secret knowledge he was learning to glean from the river’s captivating surface.

The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book ‐ a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing. There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparklingly renewed with every reperusal. The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an italicized passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting exclamation points at the end of it, for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated. It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to a pilotʹs eye. In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it, painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dread‐earnest of reading matter.

Twain knew something the “uneducated passenger” didn’t know. He could see more and feel more as his knowledge of the river deepened. But, eventually, something changed:

Now when I had mastered the language of this water and has come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river!

…No, the romance and beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beautyʹs cheek mean to a doctor but a ʺbreakʺ that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown think with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesnʹt he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesnʹt he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?

Gaining full knowledge of the river removed the mystery, removed the wonder. The river was no long a thing a beauty – it was an object to be analyzed factually.

Interestingly, Henry Thoreau expressed something similar as he worried about his work as a surveyor and found himself complicit in defining the wilderness of land as private property:

I have lately been surveying the Walden woods so extensively and minutely that I now see it mapped in my mind’s eye – as, indeed, on paper – as so many men’s wood-lots, and am aware when I walk there that I am at any given moment passing from such a one’s wood-lot to another’s. I fear this particular dry knowledge may affect my imagination and fancy, that it will not be easy to see so much wildness and native vigor there as formerly. No thicket will seem so unexplored now that I know that a stake and stones may be found in it.

As Kent Ryden describes in Landscape With Figures, “In the end, Thoreau viewed his profession of surveyor with a profound and deep-seated ambivalence, in that it simultaneously sustained and destroyed the visual, spiritual, emotional, and imaginative relationships with landscape and nature that he valued so highly.”

Knowledge has practical purpose and value, both Twain and Thoreau seem to find, but it also destroys something greater; knowledge is incompatible with beauty and wonder.

I don’t believe I could disagree with that sentiment more strongly.

In his autobiography, A Mathematician’s Apology, the brilliant G. H. Hardy wrote: “It may be very hard to define mathematical beauty, but that is just as true of beauty of any kind — we may not know quite what we mean by a beautiful poem, but that does not prevent us from recognizing one when we read it.”

Physicist and Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek has written extensively on the beauty of natural laws, which he argues is a sentiment with deep historical roots in physics:

The nineteenth-century physicist Heinrich Hertz once described his feeling that James Clerk Maxwell’s equations, which depict the fundamentals of electricity and magnetism, “have an independent existence and an intelligence of their own, that they are wiser…even than their discoverers, that we get more out of them than was originally put into them.” Not long after, Albert Einstein called Niels Bohr’s atomic model “the highest form of musicality in the sphere of thought.” More recently, the late Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, describing his discovery of new laws of physics, declared, “You can recognize truth by its beauty and simplicity.” Similar sentiments are all but universal among modern physicists.

Both Twain and Thoreau describe the loss of beauty through a process of learning, but more importantly, through a process of objectification. Through their respective work they come to see nature as a thing to be conquered, an object which can be possessed. They come to view the river or the woods through completely utilitarian means. They domesticate the natural world.

Real knowledge isn’t about that. It is about understanding the world, about reading the wonderful book as Mark Twain so eloquently describes; but ultimately it’s about constantly unlocking deeper levels of mystery, finding new layers of awe.

Knowledge builds beauty; the book never ends.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedintumblrmail

Unfavorable Candidates

“Lock her up” – a chant referring to presumptive Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton – has been called the unofficial slogan of the Republican National Convention. When I first heard the crowd break into this cheer, my immediate reaction was that it went too far. Disagree with your opponent, say they have the wrong vision, but…calling for their imprisonment? That is a disrespect that goes too far.

But, of course, that reaction reveals my own partisan biases. Would I have been so scandalized if something similar had happened at the 2004 Democratic Convention? Accusing then-President George W. Bush of war crimes? And of course, we don’t even know what is in store for next week’s Democratic National Convention. I’m sure they’ll have some disparaging remarks of their own.

The primary difference is perhaps whose remarks I happen to agree with.

As I thought about this more, it really struck me how notable it is that both party’s candidates have the highest unfavorables of any nominee in the last 10 presidential election cycles. That will have a dramatic effect on our post-election nation regardless of who wins. Secretary Clinton is “strongly disliked” by just shy of 40% of the electorate, slightly outpacing President George W. Bush’s 2004 numbers. Trump’s average “strongly unfavorable” rating goes even higher, at 53 percent.

If Secretary Clinton wins the general election, some significant portion of the population will think she should be locked up for acts one conservative paper has described as bordering on treason. If Trump wins, a significant portion of people will believe we’ve handed the nuclear launch codes to an egotistical, xenophobic blowhard who values nothing but his own prestige.

Either way, it’s bad for democratic engagement.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedintumblrmail

Lost Things

Sometimes,
I’ll spot an abandoned shoe by the side of the road.

Perhaps a pair of shoes.

Out in the middle of nowhere.
I wonder where they came from.

In the winter,
There are gloves and hats and scarves.
Hanging daintily from a fence post.

Perhaps their owners will find them.

I’ve seen pacifiers and well-loved toys.
Somewhere a child is screaming,
But I WANT it.

Sorry, kid.
It’s gone.

Until you happen upon it again,
Or someone else claims it as their own.
Or perhaps it makes it’s way
to some giant trash pile.

The final resting place of forgotten things.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedintumblrmail

Open Carry in Ohio

With the Republican National Convention taking place in Cleveland this week, and on the heels of deadly police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, the Cleveland Police Union is pushing for a temporary ban on that state’s open carry gun law:

“We are sending a letter to Gov. Kasich requesting assistance from him. He could very easily do some kind of executive order or something — I don’t care if it’s constitutional or not at this point,” Stephen Loomis, president of Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, told CNN. “They can fight about it after the RNC or they can lift it after the RNC, but I want him to absolutely outlaw open-carry in Cuyahoga County until this RNC is over.”

In preparation for the convention, the City of Cleveland has announced a ban on at least 72-items within the “event zone.” The list includes tennis balls, ice chests, metal-tipped umbrellas, and locks. The ban also includes a general provision against “any dangerous ordinance, weapon, or firearm that is prohibited by the laws of the State of Ohio.”

There’s just one thing: there’s not that much banned by the state of Ohio.

While the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” the Ohio State Constitution takes a somewhat differs tact:

The people have the right to bear arms for their defense and security; but standing armies, in time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, and shall not be kept up; and the military shall be in strict subordination to the civil power.

While there are some restrictions on the use of firearms within a motor vehicle and establishments with a liquor license, Ohio State law generally allows for the open carry of firearms and does not require a permit or license for purchase.

For his part, Governor Katich declined to implement a temporary ban, arguing through a statement from his spokeswoman Emmalee Kalmbach:

Ohio governors do not have the power to arbitrarily suspend federal and state constitutional rights or state laws as suggested. The bonds between our communities and police must be reset and rebuilt – as we’re doing in Ohio – so our communities and officers can both be safe. Everyone has an important role to play in that renewal.

On the surface, I am inclined to agree. It may seem absurd that tennis balls are banned as dangerous while firearms are permitted, but state law is quite clear in this area. The City of Cleveland explicitly banned only those weapons which are banned by state law because they don’t have the power to ban anything further.  The Governor may have state-wide purview, but he still doesn’t have the power to suspend the state constitution.

There’s an interesting argument that was made by gun rights activists during the debate on whether to prohibit people on the terror watch list from buying guns: the terror watch list is notoriously bad. Using it as a filter creates a dangerous precedent for arbitrarily restricting citizens’ constitutional rights.

If the government proposed restricting the 1st amendment rights of citizens named by some poorly formulated, clearly imprecise list that it is nearly impossible to get off of, I would be justifiably upset.

Quite frankly, when it comes to the 1st amendment and conventions, I’m not even a fan of so-called “free speech zones,” areas where protestors are pushed off to the side, hidden from media, and delicately repressed in the name of safety.

A temporary ban on firearms seems constitutionally quite similar to this – though the danger posed by free speech is quite less.

Interestingly, Cleveland was planning a Free Speech Zone around the convention, but following a suit from the ACLU was forced to minimize restrictions on 1st amendment rights.

Also interestingly, firearms are explicitly banned within the arena itself – this area falls under the jurisdiction of the Secret Service which, from what I can tell, has the purview to ban whatever it wants.

All of this, however, relies on the argument that the 2nd amendment is the same as the 1st amendment.

If I would have a problem with the temporary suspension of the 1st amendment, I should logically have a problem with the temporary suspension of the 2nd amendment – or any other amendments for that matter. Just because I have a personal distaste for a certain amendment doesn’t give the state the right to treat the amendment differently.

This all makes sense and sounds rational on paper, but – here’s the thing: the 2nd amendment isn’t the same.

The Bill of Rights exists to protect me, to protect citizens, from an overbearing, centralized government. The Bill of Rights stands as a testament to the ideal that this government will never be able to strip be of my fundamental rights.

But the 2nd amendment doesn’t make me feel empowered, it doesn’t make me feel safe. It makes me feel scared of my fellow citizens.

I have to image that those who uphold the 2nd amendment feel much differently – that they genuinely see themselves as part of a well-regulated militia, ready to jump into action to ensure the freedom of the State.

But to me, the 2nd amendment is very different. I worry about a government which can strip our right to protest. I worry about a government which can have secret trials and which can unreasonably search its citizens.

I don’t worry about a government which restricts the ability of people to keep and bear arms – I’m more worried about the functioning of a government which can ban tennis balls but not weapons.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedintumblrmail

Human Capacity to Govern

One core question of political theory centers around how much trust we should put in humanity. Theorists tend to interpret that question through their own judgements of which types of people ought to trusted, but the fundamental question remains the essentially the same.

Earlier this week, for example, I compared the work of Walter Lippmann – who had a great distrust of “the people” as a mass entity – with the analysis of James C. Scott, who highlights the awful acts elites can execute if given too much power.

Both differ in their specific fears, but they share a similar conviction that humanity is imperfect and fundementally lacks the capacity to engineer a better society.

Scott is particularly concerned with the danger of believing the opposite: it is not just elites who wreak havoc, but elites who are audacious enough to believe that they do have the capacity to engineer a better world.

Lippmann, too, shares this concern in his own way. It is not only that the people are not up to the task of governing, but that our current political failings can be traced directly to the belief that humanity does have this capacity. Until we recognize the public as the “trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd,” until we put the public “in its place,” our system is doomed to failure.

Lippmann’s argument is often contrasted with that of his contemporary, John Dewey. While Lippmann bemoaned the rule of the people, Dewey encouraged it. To Dewey, the problem wasn’t that the people had too much power, but rather that they had too little. The nominal role of citizenship encouraged people to not fully engage in democracy as a way of living, it undermined the who democratic endeavor.

Dewey was certainly aware of humanity’s imperfections, and he agreed with Lippmann on the general prognosis of civil society, but his remedy was entirely different. Rather than penalize the public for poor political acumen, he argued that the flaw lay in the systems and institutions. Give the people a real voice and real agency in their political lives and they will rise to the challenge. If civil institutions educated citizens to live fully; to see themselves as intricately connected to the whole and to engage with others in collaborative imagination and problem-solving, a Great Community would be realized.

He didn’t aim for some perfect, static utopia – impossible to achieve because needs and contexts are always changing – but Dewey imagined a future in which diverse people could work together as equals to continually grow and improve themselves and the world around them.

As Erin McKenna describes of Dewey’s philosophy, faced with current problems and our imperfect system, “we must try to do something. Old ideas often hang on because we have nothing with which to replace them. Here, imagination must fill in and try on new possibilities and critical intelligence must evaluate how well they work.”

The limiting factor, then, isn’t humanity’s fundamental capacity to achieve a vision, but rather a lack of imagination to conceive those visions.

Roberto Unger takes this vision to extremes. In False Necessity, Unger argues: “People treat a plan as realistic when it approximates what already exists and utopian when it departs from current arrangements. Only proposals that are hardly worth fighting for – reformist tinkering – seem practicable.”

He proposes wild and dramatic changes to current political structures, and argues for creating a branch of government solely tasked with uprooting and reforming and institutions which have become complacent.

Unger fully embraces the capacity of humanity. Our current systems are so broken that we must boldly reimagine them, and we shouldn’t let ourselves be held back by concerns about what seems practical or achievable. We must stage a revolution in which every institution as we know it is wholly reformed.

Implicit in this argument is the assumption that we – or whomever stages the revolution – are capable of designing better systems. It is exactly this sort of brazen social engineering which Scott fears.

Lippmann, Dewey, Unger, and Scott cover a range of political views, but their all of their work circles around this question of humanity’s capacity.

If you assume that people are and always will be flawed, that there are serious limits to any person’s capacity to design good social systems, then you might lean towards the work of Lippmann or Scott – building institutions with a humble sense of your own failings and the failings of those who will govern after you. These systems seek to diffuse power, to protect a people from themselves. But in doing so, they may create the very citizenry the designer’s fear – people who are incapable of governing.

If you have a fundamental faith that some people do have the capacity to govern – whether you put this trust in all human beings or only in certain strata of society – then you may find yourself pulled towards the radical revolutions of Unger or the egalitarian optimism of Dewey. These approaches favor systems which are open to change and reformation; governments which truly empower people to shape the world around them. In doing this, though, you build a system that is vulnerable to corruption or poor judgement, in which serious damage can be done at any point in time by empowering the wrong person or persons.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedintumblrmail

Democracy of Manners

Listening to an interview with historian Nancy Isenberg, author of the new book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, I was struck by Isenberg’s reference to the United States as a “democracy of manners” – an idea, she says, which came from an Australian writer.

“We accept huge disparities in wealth while expecting our leaders to cultivate the appearance of not being different,” Isenberg argues. Our democracy is all about manners; success is all in the performance. I highly doubt this is a unique American phenomenon, but in building off Isenberg I will keep this post in the American context.

From Andrew Jackson to the current presumptive Republican nominee, populist candidates have been successful by showing themselves able to play the part of a poor, white American – to eat the right foods, to say the right things with the right mannerisms. These are the candidates you want to have a beer with.

Importantly, the actual background of these candidates is not particularly relevant. Jackson did grow up in rural Appalachia, but more recent populists have come from among the upper tiers of society. But that doesn’t matter; what matters is the act.

Embracing a democracy of manners is a failure of genuine democracy. It encourages citizens divest their civic responsibilities to actors who can merely play the part of representing them.

I haven’t yet had a chance to read Isenberg’s book, but I get the impression this democracy of manners is a core challenge which creates a self-perpetuating cycle along several dimensions. In dismissing the fundamental human value of the white poor, white elites create a class they can scapegoat for all of society’s ills. Obvert racism among white poor allows upper classes to pretend as though racism only exists among the uneducated poor. It creates a class who will protect themselves by tearing down any other groups poised to breach elite power.

And, through the democracy of manners, it creates a class that will continually vote against their own self-interest, supporting candidates who look like them and talk like them, but who ultimately serve elite interests.

 

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedintumblrmail

Hope and Utopia

There is a common sentiment that hope is required for social action. We must hold on to hope. We must not give in to despair.

Perhaps it is simply the contrarian in me, but I cannot help but sigh when hearing these exhortations. We must hold on to hope? Why?

On the surface, I suppose it seem like a perfectly reasonably thing to say. So reasonable, in fact, that people often don’t take the time to justify the claim. We must hold on to hope as surely as we must see that the sky is blue – it is just the way things are.

This only makes me question harder.

In The Task of Utopia, Erin McKenna defends the value of utopian visions, repeating several times throughout the book, “utopian visions are visions of hope.” By which she means that they “challenge us to explore a range of possible human conditions.”

Hope is required, then, because only hope can inspire us to imagine that things might be different and only hope can motivate us to work towards those visions.

Importantly, McKenna advocates against static, end-state models of utopia, in which “hope” essentially becomes shorthand for “hope that a (near) perfect future is possible and achievable.”

Instead, McKenna articulates her hopeful vision as a process:

If one can get beyond trying to achieve final perfect end-states and accept that there are instead multiple possible futures-in-process, one has taken the first step in understanding the responsibility each of us has to the future in deciding how to live our lives now.

In this way, “hope” is a sort of future-awareness. It is not a feeling or an emotion per se, but minimally hope is a sense that there will be a future self which our present self has some power over shaping.

I generally take the term “hope” to be somewhat more optimistically inclined, but even under this broad definition, I still find myself skeptical of hope as a necessity.

Consider the character of Jean Tarrou from Albert Camus’ The Plague. After the city of Oran is quarantined following a deadly outbreak of plague, Tarrou organizes volunteers to help the sick and try to fight off the plague.

One could argue that he had hope in the manner described above – perhaps he imagined a future in which the city was no longer wracked by disease; perhaps he imagined his actions could play a role in creating that future. Such a future-vision combined with a sense of agency could be described as hope.

But it is exactly this story which motivates me to be skeptical of hope as a required element of social change.

The situation in Oran is desperate. There is every reason to think that all the city’s inhabitants will eventually succumb to the plague. Perhaps Tarrou’s efforts may stave off some deaths for a time, but in the middle of the novel it is reasonable to believe that Tarrou’s efforts will make no real difference. Either way, the outcome will be the same.

Many of Oran’s inhabitants seem to feel this way. In the face of almost certain death, people celebrate wildly at night, finally free of the taboos and inhibitions which had previously kept them more orderly. They had lost a vision of the future in which their actions played a part. They had lost hope.

Yet there is no reason to think that Tarrou felt any differently. Faced with almost certain death, accepting of the knowledge that his actions would make no difference, Tarrou still works to fight the plague.

He has no hope, it is simply what you do.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, another piece by Camus, he snarkily comments of Sisyphus’ labor that “the gods had thought that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”

But life is futile and hopeless labor. This is, in fact, the essence of being alive. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” Camus writes.

Hope is not required.

I am heavily persuaded by McKenna’s process-model of utopia, but find hope to be a somewhat superfluous element. Her vision requires the imagination to conceive of possible futures, and it takes the agency to act in seeking those possible futures, but it does not require hope that those futures are achievable nor hope that one’s efforts will have impact.

In fact, I imagine the process-model as thriving better without hope. This vision finds that the future is and always will be imperfect. Perfection is neither desirable nor achievable. Abandoning hope means accepting the future as flawed, accepting ourselves as flawed. Most of us will probably have no impact, and most of us will never witness the futures we dream of. But that lack of hope is not a reason not to act – indeed, in abandoning such hope, our actions and our choices are all that we have left.

 

 

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedintumblrmail

Elites and The People

Following the Brexit vote, the rise of Donald Trump, and numerous other political trends around the world, I’ve heard two equally plausible narratives for the increase of populist sentiment.

In one version, “the people” populist movements purportedly support are easily misled. While some versions of this narrative are generally dismissive of so-called average people as lazy, stupid, or uninformed, it’s important to note that disparaging “the people” is not required for this narrative to work.

In the UK, for example, Brexit leaders actively misled voters and rescinded key promises shortly after the election. Whether you attribute people’s belief in those promises to mere stupidity or to reasonably placing their faith in political leaders who only later turned out to be corrupt, the net result is roughly the same: there was a failure of popular opinion.

Walter Lippmann, who famously decried populist rule, eloquently summed up the many issues which may lead public opinion astray:

Thus the environment with which our public opinions deal is refracted in many ways, by censorship and privacy at the source, by physical and social barriers at the other end, by scanty attention, by the poverty of language, by distraction, by unconscious constellations of feeling, by wear and tear, violence, monotony. These limitations upon our access to that environment combine with the obscurity and complexity of the facts themselves to thwart clearness and justice of perception, to substitute misleading fictions for workable ideas, and to deprive us of adequate checks upon those who consciously strive to mislead.

Even if you had ideal citizens, Lippmann argues, public opinion should not be trusted: it is simply not possible for even an intelligent, well-informed person to truly understand the nuances of every issue. Add to that the facts that even well-intentioned citizens are too busy to devote significant time to becoming fully educated and that there will always be corrupt leaders seeking to mislead, and it quickly becomes clear that popular opinion ultimately means nothing.

Any derision of the intelligence or ability of average people simply cements this view.

In my charitable reading of Lippmann, he is not a strict technocrat, rather encouraging a system where people engage on this issues that they are informed on and stay silent on issues they know nothing about.

Either way, though, it seems fair to say that Lippmann’s core argument is that “the people” – as a mass entity – should not rule. Today’s proponents of this view point to the rise of populist movements as proof of this claim. There would be far less chaos and instability if educated elites instead orchestrated political matters.

A different narrative comes from the other side: today’s political uncertainty is not the fault of the people; rather the blame lies primarily with elites.

Populist movements may or may not be ultimately good for the people who support them, but just as the first narrative doesn’t require a distain for the people, this narrative doesn’t rely on the validity of certain political outcomes.

Our global economy is in turmoil. People have lost their jobs with little hope of finding a new one or of successfully retraining for the new economy. Feeling trapped and hopeless in the grips of poverty, people are justifiably angry and looking to reclaim a sense of autonomy. Perhaps their electoral choices will relieve their trauma; perhaps they are desperate enough not to care. Perhaps upsetting the system – which has failed them so miserably – is enough. At least that way they know they can still affect something in their lives.

I’ll leave aside here issues of racism or xenophobic nationalism as motivators for these movements. While its no coincidence that hate groups are on the rise in the US and that far-right parties in Europe are flourishing on racist rhetoric, this is a topic which could well cover a whole post on its own.

Furthermore, the issue of racism can similarly be told through these two narratives. On the one side, “the people,” acting out of hate or a sense of dwindling power, are not to be trusted to lead. In the other narrative, the explicit hate professed by some in populist movements can be better interpreted as an expression of the broader, systemic racism we are all complicit in. That is, in the U.S. context, blatantly racist rhetoric may be distasteful, but let’s not pretend that Northern, liberal racism is not a thing. We’ve all got a lot of work to do.

This second narrative is not intrinsically populists, but rather urges an understanding and appreciation for the current actions of large portions of the population. Elites may have led us astray, but it remains uncertain whether “the people” will be able to guide us back.

If the core element of the first narrative is that the people cannot be trusted, the core element of the second is that elites cannot be trusted.

“The people” may have a great deal of flaws, but the greatest destructors of society are elites who assume they know what is best.

The danger of this line of thinking is well described in James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State. The worst disasters of the twenty century, he argues, were brought about by elites who were “uncritical, unskeptical, and thus unscientifically optimistic about the possibilities for the comprehensive planning of human settlement and production.”

Bolstered by power and a weak civil society, leaders around the world engaged in “utopian social-engineering,” audaciously believing that humans generally, and themselves in particular, had the capacity to plan and build a better world.

“The Great Leap Forward in China, collectivization in Russia, and compulsory villagization in Tanzania, Mozambique, and Ethiopia are among the great human tragedies of the twentieth century, in terms of both lives lost and lives irretrievably disrupted,” Scott argues.

What I find interesting about this perspective is that it is less concerned with arguing that elites led us into this mess to begin with, but is deeply concerned with how we get ourselves out of it.

In this narrative, diminishing the power of the broader population may seem like an appealing response to current affairs, but that impulse is incredibly dangerous – even more dangerous than the unfettered rule of the people.

I’m afraid I have no satisfying conclusion to this post, but perhaps that is for the best. If there is one thing Lippmann and Scott have in common it is a distrust of human rationality. Perhaps, in the end, none of us can be trusted.

 

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedintumblrmail

Learning to Be Human

In The Public and its Problems, John Dewey writes:

To learn to be human is to develop through the give-and-take of communication an effective sense of being an individually distinctive member of a community; one who understands and appreciates its beliefs, desires and methods, and who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers into human resources and values. 

I love this phrase. To learn to be human.

It emphasizes that education isn’t just a process of obtaining facts and knowledge. It is a process of learning who we are, of becoming, fundamentally, human. Furthermore, the phrase implies the converse – being human is something we must learn.

Everything which is distinctively human is learned, Dewey argues.

This is a profound stance.

If we see ourselves as individuals, that is a learned trait. If we see ourselves as disconnected from others in our society, that is a learned trait. If we see ourselves as different, if we find ourselves filled with hate; those too are learned traits.

But being human isn’t simply a process through which we adopt the norms of whatever society happens to be around us. Human is an ideal. Being human means being an individually distinctive member of a community, it means contributing to human resources and values. 

To Dewey, learning to be human means learning to appreciate ourselves as intrinsically interconnected beings; learning that we are deeply interdependent on every thing around us; that we are shaped by our world and that we have a role in shaping our world.

Learning to be human means learning to love and appreciate the contributions every person makes; it means recognizing the other as inseparable from the self.

Importantly, Dewey notes, this translation is never finished.

We must constantly learn to be human, and, through the give-and-take of communication we must continually learn from each other and educate each other. In learning to be human we learn how to be our best selves while supporting the improvement of everyone around us and while working together to shape our common future.

Collaborating mutually in the endeavor of being human allows us achieve great things.

It is in learning to be human that we can ultimately transform our great society of remarkable technology and innovation into a Great Community, capable of so much more.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedintumblrmail