Monday, April 09, 2018

What Wendell Berry's Brush Teaches Us About Capitalism, Community, and "Inevitability"

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings, the latest collection of writings by Wendell Berry, isn't a perfect book, nor the perfect expression of his powerful vision of what constitutes a good life or a good community. In particular the final, essentially autobiographical stories in the book don't really work, I think, as persuasive pieces of writing. But a man of such enormous accomplishments, and of such influence on behalf of localist truths, doesn't need to hit it out of the park every time, especially not at age 83. And in any case, each of the three lengthy critical essays which form the first part of this collection are worth the price of the book alone, so you should pick it up, right now.

In particular, when you read the book, pay close attention to the first essay, "Thoughts of Limits in a Prodigal Age." There is a principle taught therein which may be, I think, crucial to anyone engaged in any kind of effort on behalf of localism today--as well as a lesson echoed in unexpected ways all around us. Consider two examples:

First, a response from the Republican majority in the Kansas state legislature to the recent arguments about gun violence and America's schools. Their proposal: encourage teachers to carry guns to defend themselves and their students from mass shooters (and make sure that the identity of armed teachers is kept secret). Problem: the last time the Kansas legislature attempted this, in 2013, the insurance companies which underwrite the security of Kansas's public schools said they would not be able to justify renewing policies at existing rates if such a bill became law. The proposed solution, in 2018: simply make it illegal for those companies which insure Kansas schools from adjusting their policies as a consequence of gun ownership.

Second, the demands of striking school teachers in West Virginia. In response to legitimate complaints about abysmally low pay and poor teaching conditions, and facing the prospect of a teacher walkout, the legislature offered to use state budget surpluses (when they existed) to better fund public education. The teachers, recognizing the unreliability of such funding promises, engaged in a wildcat strike--defying their own union leaders--that shut down all the public schools in the state for nearly two weeks. The state government caved, agreeing to all the teachers' demands. Initially, some in the legislature warned darkly that paying for teachers' raises would jeopardize other state programs like Medicaid; the governor, however, looking at the polls, said "there’s not a chance on this planet that’s going to be the case."

What do these two ostensibly very different cases--the usually conservative cause of gun rights in the first, the usually liberal cause of public education in the second--have in common? Both present, though probably not on first glance, a challenge to what Berry calls in this essay the reigning doctrine of "inevitability," which is "an economic and technological determinism, as heartless as it is ignorant" (p. 51). It is the assumption that, of course, in the insurance marketplace, in the budgeting process--in anything related to the presumably inevitable logic of the capitalist economy, really--there is always a (presumably) "natural" way that things are going to have to work, and no amount of political grandstanding can ever make a difference. Except, of course, for those times when, as a people's awarenesses expand and their preferences become refined, it does.

Do not think for a moment that Berry is advocating either an ignorance of nor an obliviousness to the laws of nature. On the contrary, tending to the fundamental limits and characteristics of one's land has been central to his work over the decades; he mentions it in his introduction to this collection (agrarianism, he writes, must be characterized by "an informed and conscientious submission to nature, or to Nature, and her laws of conservation, frugality, fullness or completeness, and diversity"--p. 8), and reiterates it in this essay (responsible thinking "has to confront everywhere the limits of both nature and human nature, limits imposed by the ecosphere and ecosystems, limits of human intelligence, human cultures, and the capacities of human persons," all of which must be positively contrasted to "fantasies of limitlessness"--p. 53). All of that may sound like a recognition of inevitability...and it is, in a sense. But Berry's main intention in this essay to show that in our "prodigal age" we have submitted, not to the limits of nature and place, but to artificial limits, constructed limits, limits of process and economic possibility, rather than authentic limits of place. It has been an act of collective (though admittedly, on an individual level, often empowering) ignorance. His name for this ignorance? "Industrialism," which is expressed in the form of a logical determinism which overrules "any need for actual knowledge and actual thought" (p. 51). More:

From its beginnings, industrialism has depended on a general willingness to ignore everything that does not serve the cheapest possible production of merchandise and , therefore, the highest possible profit....[Yet] we must acknowledge real needs that have continued through the years to be real, though unacknowledged: the need to see and respect and inescapable dependence even of our present economy, as of our lives, upon nature and the natural world, and upon the need, just as important, to see and respect our inescapable dependence upon the economies--of farming, ranching, forestry, fishing, and mining--by which the goods of nature are made serviceable to human good (p. 36).

Berry's decision to hang this act of grand intellectual substitution on industrialism is of a piece with the strongly reactionary tone which these essays occasionally take. (In the collection's second essay, "Leaving the Future Behind: A Letter to a Scientific Friends," a grouchy complaint about all those who would use invoke "science" superficially to support their preferred causes, he casually wonders if the possibility of achieving "a reasonably coherent, reasonably self-sufficient and self-determining local economy" for the long term wasn't gravely harmed by the advent of "oceanic navigation" by which humans "traveled the globe"--pp. 83-84). But such contrariness aside, he has a point. For Berry, the industrial process is essentially about turning the productivity of places and persons into economic units--"We have...been turning our country into an economy as fast as possible, and we have been doing so by an unaccounted squandering of its actual, its natural and cultural, wealth" (p. 23)--and is the complete opposite of the localist and agrarian sensibility, which he presents as understanding wealth in association with "the freedom and independence that come with dependence on a parcel of land, however small, that one owns and is owned by or has at least the use of" (p. 47).

That kind of wealth is not measured primarily by profit, but by "provision," a concept Berry turns to repeatedly in this essay. He writes of the "need to provide: to be living a responsible life, which is to say a responsible economic life" (p. 35). All of this comes together, when one looks at the essay as a whole: the work of farming, ranching, mining, lumbering, artisnal manufacturing, etc., are all 1) intimately dependent upon an appreciation of the natural environments within which they are conducted, as well as 2) directly related to the provisioning of human beings. Engaging in such work thus allows for a sense of fulfillment and wealth in the way an industrial economic mindset does not, since the latter turns upon price and productivity, and not upon the--in Berry's view--moral priority of responsibly providing for, or collectively participating in providing for, oneself and one's place (places being defined both naturally and in terms of human community), by patiently bringing needed goods out of the bounteous, demanding, natural world.

When the industrial world--and the expanded reach, access to resources, and opportunities for monetary wealth and excess consumption which it undeniably brought to far more human beings than had ever previously ever been the case in human history--caused many to subject agriculture (as well as many other of the fundamental tasks Berry associates with the agrarian mindset) to the model of economic profit rather than community provision, the moral achievement of the agrarian economic conception was put in jeopardy. The real heart of the essay, then, comes when Berry gives us an analysis of, and mourns the loss of, one form this conception took: namely, the Burley Tobacco Growers Co-operative Association, an arrangement among tobacco growers in Berry's home state which began in 1921, took new life--and, in Berry's view, best performed its careful balancing act--under the New Deal's Federal Tobacco Program beginning in 1941, and was strongly associated with the Berry family through its entire existence until the end of the Program--and thus the end, in Berry's view, of the Association's essential role--in 2004. For a time, Berry writes, the Association "did preserve a sort of balance between industrialism and agrarianism," one which "prevented their inherent difference and opposition from becoming absolute" (p. 47).

How does Berry think the Association managed this feat? You might say they did it by recognizing one inevitability, and democratically working out a way to incorporate it into a system of provision, rather than allowing it to be co-opted by another, more harmful inevitability.

The first inevitability is endemic to commercial agriculture: overproduction. Specifically, since "farmers individually and collectively do not know, and cannot learn ahead of time, the extent either of public need or market demand....[t]hey tend logically, and almost by nature, towards overproduction." Why? Because either "the market is good and they are encouraged," or "the market is bad and they are desperate" (p. 40). Continual surplus production is, of course, bankrupting to any commercial enterprise, farming--and other forms of work characteristic of the agrarian worldview as well--in particular. Before industrialism, with all its benefits and harms, things were different:

The traditional home economies of subsistence, while they lasted, gave farmers...hope of surviving hard times. This was true especially when the chief energy source was the sun, and the dependence on purchased supplies was minimal. As farming became less and less subsistent and more and more commercial, it was exposed ever more nakedly to the vagaries and predation of an economy fundamentally alien to it. When farming is large in scale, is highly specialized, and all needs and supplies are purchased, the farmer's exposure to "the economy" is total (pp. 40-41).

But industrial capitalism, for good and for ill, had by the early decades of the 20th century utterly transformed the responsible agrarian economies of America's past, making markets abstract and global. So how to deal with already constant, and now technologically-increased and market-intensified, push towards overproduction? Not through simply subsidizing farmers in their overproducing practices (according to Berry, his father referred to "direct subsidy payments" as an "abominable form of regimentation"--p. 45). On the contrary, rather than "allowing" farmers to lock themselves into a rat-race of subsidized overproductivity, the independence of the farmer would be achieved through carefully calculated, democratically ratified, and strictly imposed limits.

As Berry thoughtfully, and movingly, describes the Association's careful work, each year every participating farm was allotted, on the basis of their past history of production, a certain acreage they would be allowed to farm. On that limited acreage, tobacco would be produced that would be sold at agreed upon price--"fair prices, fairly determined...with minimal help from the government." The point was not to subsidize farmers without concern for the consequences of their work, but rather to make use of their work in a controlled way, so as to achieve real "parity," which Berry describes as the overall goal of the program. With all (or nearly all) tobacco farmers participating, the Association could obliged buyers to "bid a penny a pound above the support price"; when such buyers, or enough such buyers, could not be found, government assistance would take the form of a loan to the farmer, to cover their losses on that particular crop, which the Federal Tobacco Program would take, and which would be bought and stored by the Association, to be resold later and which, in the meantime, would affect the calculations for allotted acreage for the coming year. And so the program continued for decades--it made no one rich, but it maintained a way of life, even enabled that life to flourish. In 1940, over a third for the farmers in the Association were tenant farmers; by 1970, so many had become farm owners, thus solidifying their place in their communities, that tenant farming described less than 10 percent of participants (pp. 44-46).

So what happened? Well, many things, not the least of which was the growing social and medical consensus against tobacco use in the America (which Berry himself agrees with; while he defends the benefits which the controlled management of the crop brought to the world he grew up and developed his agrarian convictions within, he makes no defense of the crop itself). But perhaps more important was the individualizing temptation of industrialism. When "industrializing members" pushed the Association in 1971 to permit "the lease and transfer of production quotas away from the farms to which they had been assigned," this allowed for the "accumulation of allotments...into very large acreages dependent more upon extensive technology and migrant labor," and thus ultimately a "reduced agrariansim" (pp. 47-48). In other words, the siren song of growth--of profit!

And why shouldn't people be free to seek profits, to choose to maximize their holdings, minimize their costs, and grow their position, both economically and otherwise? Who is to say that some of these farmers might have tired, as the years went by, of the rewarding but limited and labor-intensive world of work that they'd been guaranteed a place in, and wanted to buy their way out? Or perhaps, more simply, they had a large family, or children with diverse interests, and they believed they needed greater incomes--rather than mere "parity" with their neighbors--to satisfy their needs and hopes? That's all part of the American dream of freedom, isn't it?

Berry, predictably, is unconvinced. "To limit production as a way of assuring an equitable return to producers is assuredly and abridgement of freedom. But freedom for what?" (p. 41).

The tobacco farmers of Kentucky and elsewhere, close to a century ago, realized (as did many thousands of other late 19th-century and early 20th-century populists, socialists, and radical reformers) that their agrarian way of life required resisting the supposed "inevitability" of the industrial economy, and developing a plan which stipulated different rules, different priorities, and different ends. Those ends may have been based on a deeper, more natural "inevitability"--but still, in so articulating them, and enforcing them, they presumed some real independence on the part of those farmers, sufficient to choose to support a way of life that they agreed among themselves to be valuable and virtuous. No, they couldn't guarantee themselves that they could maintain that way of life and at the same time enjoy the profitable "freedom" promised by the industrial economy (though such results would only come to those farmers which survived long enough to buy out all their fellows, of course). But they could choose to value their community, their culture, and accept the costs of doing so--and even, as human creativity demonstrates, distribute those costs fairly, and allow for some genuine flourishing along the way.

There is much in this essay I haven't touched upon. (The way Berry connects all of the above to a contempt for rural people, and the combined decision of American business and America's government to get rid of as many farmers as possible, in the name of efficiency, is worth pondering--and his anger at politicians both Republican and Democratic is pleasantly splenetic.) But it's warning about the false, paralyzing inevitability of industrialism and the global economy is, I think, vital. Because, you know, you can actually fully fund public education without cutting social programs, if the community democratically decides to so--it just has to accept that it will require that new taxes be levied. And you can find a way to allow guns in the public schools if the community really prefers that--it just has to accept that additional insurance costs, to avoid unfairness, be borne by the people as a whole (which, again, will probably mean more taxes). As Berry documents at length, it simply isn't true what President Bill Clinton claimed, that "the increasing productivity of agriculture" made inevitable "the shrinking of the farm sector" (pp. 49-50). The success--for several decades, anyway--of the Burley Tobacco Growers Co-operative Association proves that. No, that was a choice--one that followed the assumptions made by thousands of individuals, to be sure, but also assumptions which were enabled by powerful interests, interests which found the agrarian ideal useless and irrelevant in an industrial age.

In the end, Berry's mournful story teaches us that it is not utopian, not ridiculous, to insist upon a different economy than a profit-driven capitalism, a different community than one separated by an industrially determined notion of individual freedom from a sustainable and local engagement with the land. It will take time to do,  it will be complicated, it will probably not last forever, it will not satisfy everyone, and in the meantime it will have costs. But to take those caveats as proof that a thing cannot be done, that the economic and technological logic of growth is simply and always inevitable is to blind oneself a deeper set of possibilities: the possibility of taking collective responsibility for one's place, emphasizing provision over profit, prioritizing public goods and public safety over corporate balance-sheets, and working out, one bit at a time, in Berry's words, "a harmonious balance among a diversity of interests." When it is done right, he concludes, for however long it lasts, "it is a grand masterpiece to behold" (p. 56).

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Songs from '78: "Roxanne"

"Roxanne," The Police's "signature tune according to their bassist, Andy Summers--and he's right; the only song of theirs which might challenge that judgment is, of course, "Every Breath You Take"--as released as a single in the UK today, 40 years ago. It was the second record they'd ever released, and the first with the line-up and look that made them famous (Summers on lead guitar, and Sting with spiky blonde hair), but it didn't fair any better than their first release did. In fact it got no airplay at all until they released their first album Outlandos d'Amour in the United States and toured in support of it the following year; "Roxanne" got some airplay on American radio, made a slight climb up the American charts, which prompted a re-release in the UK, and it became a top ten hit there. Better songs and much greater success lay in their future, but it was this song that really got them on their way.

Like "Because the Night," this song was too punk (although honestly, it's a jangly, guitar-heavy, reggae love song; the punkishness was all in the performers' attitudes, not in the music they made) for it to have made it onto the rock stations which formed my foundational music sensibility. I suppose I must have tracked it down sometime in very early 80s, as the hits from their later, pre-Synchronicity albums--and, in particular, as Sting's nascent fan club, which I freely admit I was a fully committed member of--increasingly turned The Police into The Band That Punks and Intellectuals Could Both Rock Too. In any case, though, once I heard it, it retroactively became part of my 1978 romance. Few songs could deserve it more.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Songs from '78: "With a Little Luck"

Did I know who The Beatles were in 1978? I'm not sure. I have a vague recollection of having seen Yellow Submarine on television at some point as a child (I remember being frightened by it, but oddly it provided what later became one of my favorite Beatles songs), but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be until I was into my teen-age years and more familiar with the pop music world I started imbibing early on that I could actually place who "Paul McCartney" was. And by then, of course, his band Wings was history.

But they weren't on this day, 40 years ago. After a couple of massively successful albums and tours, Wings was down to a core of three musicians: Paul, his wife Linda, and lead guitarist Denny Laine, which were the only three to last through all the personnel changes in the band's 10-year run anyway. In the spring of 1978 they came out with London Town, which turned out to be their final successful album. It is moody (but never heavy), and full of deft synthesizer work. The album's first single, which went on to be a #1 Billboard chart hit in the U.S., was released today: "With a Little Luck." The original single released was the 5-minute long album version, and I can remember being captivated by its meandering, reflective, quietly insistent melody. Unfortunately, when they cut a video, they went with the truncated version:

So really, listen to the whole thing, and think about McCartney's often unjustly maligned or forgotten triumphs of the 70s. This is a great, groovy, mellow love song, and who ever really gets tired of those?

Friday, March 16, 2018

Learning from The Left Behind

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Robert Wuthnow's new book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, is the best book I've read on the rural-urban divide in the United States in years. It may, in fact, be the best book I've ever read on the topic, and I've read a lot of them. That's not to say that Wuthnow's analysis of the socio-economic or demographic or cultural situation which faces that 20% (or less) of the American population which lives, broadly speaking, in "the country" as opposed to "the city" (or its suburbs, or its exurbs) is groundbreaking; on the contrary, most of his conclusions are simply careful elaborations of sociological data that he and others have addressed before. But in this short book, Wuthnow, a much-published sociologist who has long taught at Princeton University, demonstrates his strength as a listener and as a synthesizer of those things he and his many researchers have heard and learned over the years. It is 164 quick pages that every would-be pundit, or really everyone at all interested in the social divides which the election of Donald Trump made clear, ought to read.

Of course, reading it doesn't guarantee comprehension. This was clearly demonstrated in a recent Vox interview with Wuthnow by Sean Illing, who again and again showed his inability to comprehend the possibility that the views of the people he'd just finished reading about, the people Wuthnow and others had interviewed at length, deserve to be taken seriously or at least on their own terms. (Wuthnow's best response to Illing, one no doubt quietly expressed, came in reply to Illing's incredulity that he should be expected to treat with respect some farm woman complaining--without, it must be said, any supportive evidence or context--that "the government" is going to prevent her from spanking her children when they misbehave. "It’s an interesting question," Wuthnow is recorded as saying. "What does it mean for us to take that seriously? I guess my point is that she takes it seriously, even if we don’t or shouldn’t" [italics added].)

Illing's reaction is similar to that which has all-too-frequently emerge from the overwhelmingly urban scholars and activists which have found the urban-rural divide a cause for concern in America over the decades. It was on display in Thomas Frank's celebrated but blinkered What's the Matter with Kansas?--a book that Wuthnow gives qualified praise to, but also criticizes as having been guided by a thesis more relevant to blue-collar urban workers in conservative states rather than actual country people, a criticism that he extends to Arlie Hochschild's Strangers in Their Own Land  as well (pp. 2-5, 137), and other displays of that same attitude can be found all the way back through the 20th century, to H.L. Mencken and others. The fact is, being able to speak sympathetically (but not defensively!) about those whose lives have been mostly excluded from the global urbanization which industrialization and finance capitalism has increasingly made the social baseline of the whole human race--in the American case, the 30 millions people who live in towns with a population of 25,000 or less--is just plain difficult. I think Wuthnow pulls it off, though, and that alone, completely aside from what can be learned from those whose voices he captures and interprets, makes The Left Behind a book worth reading with an open mind.

Why is Wuthnow's ear so open to and respectful of what the hundreds of people that he and his graduate assistants have interviewed over the past ten years (an ongoing project that has resulted in a series of sometimes dense but always rewarding sociological and historical studies, including Remaking the Heartland, Red State Religion, and Small-Town America)? The easy answer, and probably the most accurate, is that he, unlike so many other of these commenters, has both personal memories of and an abiding, rueful fondness for the rural small-town world, particularly that version of it which emerged on the Great Plains, where he is originally from. A native Kansan, born in the 1940s, he has no illusions about the poverty and struggles which characterize those who inherited, like Laura Ingalls Wilder (whom he credits in Remaking the Heartland with having played a central role in updating the Jeffersonian vision of finding authenticity through "living in a region of farms and small towns"--Remaking, p. 69), the usually hopeless dream of achieving some kind of republican independence and self-sufficient agrarian virtue in such an unforgiving rural environment. Scattered through his books, you will find references to farmers he has known who have committed suicide, to young men who were desperate tried to hide the fact that they lived in dugouts without electricity or running water, to families who have fallen into division and anger--or fallen apart entirely--in the face of the pressures of working on a farm. Wuthnow does not sugar-coat the often circumscribed lives of those he has listened to so closely, nor has he listened to them uncritically. But neither has he dismissed out of hand the paradoxical complement to all of the above: that much, perhaps most, of America's rural population feels pride and even a degree of confidence in their choice of a farming vocation, in their embrace of small-town life, their connection to the land. And that paradox, that ambivalence, is one he is both fascinated by and, obviously, attracted to.

That the present moment is internalized and responded to in paradoxical ways is one of the most important lessons one can learn from those whose lives are presented in The Left Behind. While Wuthnow uses the popular language of "rage" to talk about the Tea Party and rural America's support for the manifestly unqualified Donald Trump, the truth, he frequently insists, is more nuanced, inconsistent, and complex--it is something which, according to Wuthnow, "even the people we talked to found it hard to understand" (p. 56). It is "a mixture of fear and anger," a frustration at what they feel to be a fracturing of "the social expectations, relationships, and obligations that constitute the moral communities they take for granted" (p. 6). It is a "sense of loss, a feeling of grief," one made more perplexing by the fact that for the most part the residents of rural America, far from existing in a media bubble of denial, recognize that they are " many of these changes" (p. 56). After discussing declining and aging populations, the departure of job-providing businesses, demographic change, the global economy, environmental limitations, making due with declining standards of living, opioid addiction and meth labs and more, Wuthnow observes:

These are the difficulties that add to the sense of small towns being beleaguered. The problems are too big to handle alone, even though communities would like to be self-sufficient. Citizens want more and often contribute less in terms of volunteer time. Getting things done is less a function of local control. Rural communities have never been fully in charge of their own destinies, but the people who live them now have reason to feel they are even less in control than in the past....A farmer in Gulfdale offered an apt summary of the situation. "It just want to have more freedom," he said, "but I don't know how to get that." (pp. 91, 105)

What kind of freedom do these rural people mean? This is Wuthnow at his most insightful: rural America, he asserts, has constructed over the decades a communitarian attitude through which "a sense of boundedness," of actual spatial as well as conceptual identitarian and moral limits, affects how they view and find value in everything else (p. 43). This is not to say, in his view, that rural people are necessarily mired in racist nostalgia (though over 90% of rural Americans identify themselves as white Caucasians) or are psychological throwbacks to some independent, agrarian world (one of the most common laments which Wuthnow documents in The Left Behind is the absence in most small towns of the expertise needed to write successful federal grant applications, and in Remaking the Heartland, he shows in great detail how the people of western Kansas, far from being yeomen farmers on whom industrial agriculture was imposed against their will, had instead aggressively sought government contracts from the beginning, and had built corporations and co-ops to import Mexican workers to maximize profits from the sugar beet harvest long before IBP and its environmentally destructive meatpacking plants arrived). On the contrary, Wuthnow, on my reading at least, thinks there is no obvious reason to see the farmers and small-townspeople of the American countryside as any less subject to the individualizing impulses of modern life than anyone else. If we are to trust in his interviewing and research, it would seem that most rural schoolteachers want their students to pursue personal excellence and transcend their local environments (p. 61), and most rural residents seem to like big cities, appreciating their existence as the places their children and grandchild find work and where they can travel to enjoy amenities which they don't have in their financially strapped and culturally isolated small towns (p. 100). So it is probably not the case that the American countryside--obvious exceptions like Amish and Mennonite communities aside--harbors some non-liberal, non-individualistic, frugal and communal and pious perspective on freedom which the rest of America has lost. For the most part, it doesn't.

But what it does have, instead, is actual, tangible, limits. In a small town (and for Wuthnow, and the people he interviewed, everything comes back to the small town; genuinely isolated country living, conducted without any regular contact with or participation in the some town or county seat or some other central place, is rare to the point of non-existent), there a boundedness to where one shops, where one works, where one sends one's children to school, and who one sees in all of those places. While the history of rural places, particularly on the Great Plains, is actually filled with upheavals and frequent relocations, the small size of these places, and their distance from other, larger places, has inculcated a strong emphasis on the familiar among those who live there. (Elsewhere, Wuthnow had observed that since "a small town seldom covers more than a few square miles....residents not only live in close proximity to one another but also share a common visual horizon....It is a circumscribed space with a name and an identity"--Small-Town America, pp. 52-53.) Again and again, in these interviews, the attachment rural and small-town people have to their places is expressed in terms of their attachment to this church, this festival, this cohort of friends (and enemies), this stretch of road, this celebrated event, this historical grievance, this smell, this pastoral scene. Their fear, Wuthnow thinks, is primarily one of losing connection to that particularity, that almost literally spatial positioning within a universe bounded by fields and forests and roads that lead into the distance and the people who farm and lumber and drive upon them.

This collective emphasis upon routines, repetitiveness, and "co-presence" (Wuthnow quotes sociologist Randall Collins on this point--p. 39), is, of course, a famous source of angst and rebellion, one which has provided a narrative for artistic escape for hundreds of years. Generally speaking, those people who want to leave, and can leave, do. After all, being in one's own place, owning one's own particularity and one's own network of relationships and stable references, is exactly what those who long to breathe city air (remember: "die Stadtluft macht frei"!) often want to get away from, and the tension which that repetitiveness, that familial weight, brings into the lives of otherwise mostly modernized, mostly connected American individuals is a perfect recipe for an inferiority complex (one that, please note, Wuthnow observes rural people regularly acknowledging). But for all those cross-feelings, there are those who remain. And it is they who find instead themselves, willingly or otherwise--and many small-town residents, Wuthnow emphasizes, initially were definitely otherwise--taking solace in, and in turn contributing to, a moral conception of community that, above all, prizes the "the shared notion that what the community represents is right" (p. 78). Freedom to act is treasured--but the actions which are worth treasuring are those which arise from the bounded context one inherited and knows.

Such communitarian convictions can and do arise in any lived environment, of course--urban neighborhoods and suburbs as well as farming villages. The difference, though, is that the former two are seem by many rural dwellers as inextricably connected to the speed, bigness, and changeableness which characterizes modern urban life. And all those things--bigness, and the variety and unpredictability and factionalism which it accommodates--undermine the conceit widely shared in small farming towns: the idea that their town is a particular kind of moral community, within the bounds of which one can safely assume that everyone, whether rich or poor or (most commonly) just cobbling together a lower middle-class life, was connected together, that "everyone was the same" (p. 100).

Do rural people know this conceit, like any social conceit, when one looks at it closely, isn't actually true? Of course they do; Wuthnow shows repeatedly that unavoidable deviations from the white Christian heterosexual conservative norm are recognized, and often--not always, perhaps not even usually, but often--tolerated. (Many interviews suggest that actual farmers, as opposed to those who are part of the service economy around them, are "far more informed than the average town-person in this regard"--p. 102.) But it is a conceit that makes possible a particular conception of freedom, authenticity, and community, all of which have both deep historical roots and real theoretical and moral value. And so it is in their collective self-interest to hold to it--with the result that often even the most self-critical small-town people feel a deep resistance to anything which threatens their bounded, routinized environment. Which then becomes self-reinforcing...and, as Wuthnow concludes, "you do not question what you do not see." The fact that many rural people either literally do not see (because of their circumscribed environment) or otherwise are inclined to deny the local challenge of (because of their moral attachment to the rewards and virtues that their place has provided them with) that which is foreign to their bounded world--and in most small rural towns in America, that usually means non-whites, sexual minorities, intellectuals, liberals, religious dissidents, and non-Christians--has a predictable result: when small-town people learn (accurately or otherwise) that the federal government is favoring the interests of "people who live in cities and don't look like you," it is easy to believe (p. 161). The result is an unreflective anti-urban and anti-diversity bigotry which is hard to name as such, because it begins not with a personal animosity towards different person, but with challenge to the supposedly self-sufficient and always longed-for boundaries and expectations of the rural world. That's not an excuse for such; Wuthnow is pretty explicit in pointing our how paranoid and pointless (and, unfortunately, predictable) most of the confused frustration he documented was. But it is an explanation, and that's a crucial first step.

Unlike many, Wuthnow grants the legitimacy--if not the accuracy--of those explanations. He recognizes the appeal of that sense of stability and boundedness, that social entrenchment in the land--after all, for a great many rural residents, it is a moral order that works. As such someone who left that ordered environment world but still recognizes its relevance, he has hope that that the gap between those who leave and those who are left behind can be bridged. (Don't forget that there is plenty which those whose life was shaped by urban or suburban realities either don't see or tend to deny about the land whose bounty they survive off of as well.) True, he suspects the political polarization which has been mapped onto the rural-urban divide has taken such deep roots that is it ridiculous to hope for a cultural breakdown which could change things overnight (he baldly comments that "the chances of Democrats winning local elections in counties that have been Republican for generations are nil," which, actually, is more than I would say--p. 164). Equally ridiculous, one must conclude after reading Wuthnow's many writings on America's rural world, is to have any hope for some radical re-examination of how we have socially and economically thought about the landed resources at the heart of so many of America's small towns. Wuthnow is a good, conventional, Hillary Clinton-supporting Eastern academic; he doesn't appear to think much of the Populists (not any more than most of the farmers he interviewed did), accepts the arrival of agribusiness and school consolidation as necessary to the survival into the 21st century of those few rural, small-town environments which still endure, and the idea of him even asking farmers about agrarian, socialist, or distributist alternatives to their work, much less pushing them to hope for such, is plain silly. I think that's unfortunate, myself (Wuthnow's analysis of his interviewees' comments, in my view, would have been much improved by the selective use of some Marxist categories). But that does not mean we can't learn what he clearly regards as the most important lesson of his research: that the people who long for the small-town life, who are willing to remain behind on the farm or nearby it, really want that life to endure.

Throughout the history of rural America, Wuthnow makes clear, you have seen old patterns give way, and local elites accept a change necessary for their town's survival (even if they never truly own up to the political backtracking and revising of self-conceits which accepting such changes always entails). The constant snort from actual (or, often, just self-styling) rural folk about how the political class in Washington D.C. lacks "common sense" is, I suspect, wearying to all the metropolitans and philosophical liberals who read this (which is, I suspect, just about everyone, whether we came from rural environments or not). But whether the federal government has such common sense or not, the evidence is that rural America does. When faced with their own local imperatives, "adapting to new conditions" (p. 164) is what they have always done. In actual fact, America's small towns and farms no longer--if they ever did--pose that strong of an alternative to an individualized, capitalized, metropolitan nation. But so long as there is some way for those who love those places to hold onto their bounded horizons--even if it means learning to write that next federal grant, or hoping to catch some of that next wave of immigrants, or continuing to push for the expansion of Medicare--the historical evidence is that they'll do so, or at least eventually come around to supporting those who will do so.

That doesn't answer any questions about the long-term future of agriculture, health care, immigration, or the Constitution itself, of course, much less how any one political party can effectively build connections across the rural-urban divide so as to address any of the above. The basic social, economic, and political conditions of our mostly urbanized polity--of which rural America nonetheless remains an enduring part--need serious, perhaps radical, critique and change. But in the meantime, Wuthnow reminds us, that however slow the small towns of rural America may appear to act, or however stubbornly they tend to vote, they really are, and should be accepted as, a legitimate part of the national conversation, one that can make a case for itself on its own terms. They may not be the terms that more than 80% of us would choose given the chance--but they are terms which reflect a worthy perspective nonetheless.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Songs from '78: "Because the Night"

Forty years and one week ago, the Patti Smith Group's groundbreaking rock-punk-folk album Easter began its march into the pop charts, led by its best song "Because the Night." I didn't hear it on the radio--at least, not then. The songs of 1978 which got stuck in my head in my tenth year were rock songs, to be sure, and as I've noted already, the influence of punk is clear in how it was undermining the progressive rock sensibility of the day and cross-pollinating with all sorts of rock and roll spin-offs, including disco and hard rock. But my gateway drug, an old Spokane, WA, AM radio station named KJRB which at the time was all pop and rock, didn't play Smith (or The Ramones for that matter). Still, I heard it eventually, I'm not sure when--and when I did, I suspect I knew exactly the moment it was a part of.

It's a strangely, angrily beautiful song, actually; a Bruce Springsteen composition (don't worry, he's going to show up later--as will The Ramones, for that matter) that he knew he couldn't sing right. His producer gave it to Smith--whose group was recording in the studio next door--and she reworked it and stuck it on her new album. The rest is history. Thanks Bruce!

Sunday, March 04, 2018

On Supporting Bike Paths Which I Hardly Ever Use (a Reprise)

[In May of 2016, when the Woodchuck Bicycle Boulevard was officially opened here in Wichita--that's where the photo was from--I wrote a reflection about my involvement in promoting the construction of bicycle-friendly streets, through the construction of bike lanes, the redesigning of roads to accommodate designated bike paths, and so forth. Alex Pemberton of the Yellowbrick Street Team, a local tactical urbanist group, recently saw that old post and asked if he could print it on their blog. After I updated and edited it some, he did so here. I'm including the updated version below.]

The past few years have been good ones for bicycling in Wichita. Thanks to the efforts of many good people over a long period of time, several long-developed and much-improved bike paths, trails, lanes, and shared boulevards have been introduced: beginning with downtown lanes along 1st and 2nd Street, there is the Redbud TrailPrairie SunsetChisholm Creek Park, and over on the west side of the city where I live, the Woodchuck Bicycle Boulevard, have all followed. (That's me at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Woodchuck, in the green shorts second from the left; being a member of Wichita's Bicycle-Pedestrian Advisory Board has its privileges, I guess.) More bikeway and path projects are on the way.

It's great to see so much of this slow-yet-steady development coming to fruition, and it's even better knowing the multiple other bicycling projects--re-purposing an old railroad bridge to get through the I-235/US-54 interchange, which otherwise blocks almost all north-south bicycle and pedestrian traffic on the west side of the city, is the big one, but there are many others--are slowly moving forward as well.

We're not fooling ourselves, of course; Wichita--like so many other Midwestern, Southern, and Great Plains cities--is profoundly automobile-centric. While there are a multitude of ways to measure such relatively underreported matters as bicycle commuting and other alternative transportation choices, a recent study by the U.S. Census, the American Community Survey which was completed five years ago, showed Wichita as having increased its number of bicycle commuters over the previous decade…from .2% of the workforce, to a whopping .3%. While bike and pedestrian counts, as well as anecdotal observations, point to continued recent increases in bicycle commuting in Wichita (the League of American Bicyclists pegged us at .5% in 2016), still, the facts are pretty stark. Attempting to find political support and funding and public spaces which can provide actual, practical logistical possibilities for  bicycle-friendly developments in light of those realities is a humbling prospect.

Still, we do our best. The turnout for ribbon-cutting events and other announcements of improvements and openings have been impressive, and it's always great to see large numbers of colorfully decked-out, serious cyclists heading out on these paths, calling attention to every step the city takes forward. I always have a pretty good view of those packs of cyclists as they head down these paths--because I'm hardly ever part of them, or ever on any of these paths, myself.

Cycling on the Street
Why not? Part of the reason--the main part, really--is, again, simply logistical. The bare-bones network of bike trails, lanes, and boulevards that Wichita has been able to slowly knit together over the years doesn't provide me with anything like a direct route to where I usually need to go--whether to work or running errands around the part of the city where we live.

But another part of the reason is simply a function of how I understand myself as a cyclist. While I still idly dream of someday getting my physical act together--as so many of my friends have--and actually doing some real riding (a century ride, perhaps, or even Bike Across Kansas), the fact is I own no bicycling gear (save my helmet, which itself is an old one that I've duct-taped together), and have never toured. I'm an urban commuter cyclist, and always have been--which means I always ride on the road.

Is that dangerous? Well, sure, but so is driving. That's a facetious answer, I know, but I don't know any better one to give. Yes, I've had a few close calls with an unthinking or angry or aggressive motorist over the years (more than a few, to tell the truth), and there are plenty of times and situations where I choose to get off the main road and onto a side street or sidewalk. But by and large, I simply expect everyone to recognize that bicycles can legally share the road with cars, and by and large they do. (Though my Idaho stop still regularly pisses some drivers off.)

True, by taking to the public streets rather than adjusting my route to take advantage of the bike paths I and so many others have pushed for over the years, I suppose I'm making it one person easier for cynics and cranks to complain that they never see anyone making use of these paths, so how can the city council possibly justify putting a single additional financial drop in the city's (otherwise resoundingly empty) bicycle bucket? But by being out on the streets, I see my presence as contributing to a different kind of impression.

The Cyclist One Lane Over
If you live in a place which, for any number of mutually reinforcing socio-economic or political reasons, has a culture shaped at least in part by broad concerns with health, the environment, and sustainability, then the presence of MAMILs ("Middle-Aged Men In Lycra") all over parks and bikeways, getting their exercise and traveling wherever they need to go, is to be expected. But absent that culture, when you're building whatever sort of bike-friendly resources you can a little at a time, such individuals greatly stand out--and to the extent that they pour themselves into maximizing the use of distinct bike paths and trails, they still stand out, but perhaps also stand out as something distant and separate.

But the cyclist who is dressed pretty much just like you, whose bike is right beside your car at the intersection, just one lane over: that's a difference which is not separate, but is readily and immediately present. The public nature of such cycling arguably invites a sort of democratic reflection and richness which may not be available in other ways.

That's not to say that there isn't good reason to harness the democratic support of a dedicated cycling elite to push forward changes in public spaces that add to the overall ambiance of life in the city. (A city without any bike paths whatsoever is far less likely to recognize the benefits which encouraging cycling can bring than one with bike paths whose use is greatly limited--which is basically true of pretty much every public amenity imaginable.) It's just that, as I make practical decisions about my regular biking routines, I've had more than enough experiences to convince me that, in a small way, getting out on Central or Maple Avenue is shaping Wichita's democratic culture a little as well.

Of course, the most recent experience I had with that shaping was someone shouting curses from their car window at me. But surely, that at least means someone was paying attention to their lived environment rather than their phone, right? It seems to me that, when it comes to matters of city structure, you have to think about short-term goals and long-term change simultaneously.

In the long run, someone who gets annoyed that he has to deal with some guy on a bicycle cutting him off as we negotiate road construction together could well turn into a someone who will carry that annoyance into opposing any kind of alternative transportation development, and into voting down any such funding options he can. But then again, he could also become someone who at least is conscious of the fact that bicycle commuting is a choice some people make.

In a city like Wichita, honestly, that may be half the battle right there.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Just a Quick Note About "Local Solutions" and Guns

Of course there's a "national conversation" taking place over guns; is there ever not in America, no matter what the most recent mass shooting atrocity, no matter how many were killed, no matter how those numbers compare with any other atrocities in American life? I've partaken in that conversation before, and I'm reluctant to do so again; the last time I wrote at length about my relationship with guns was nearly 10 years ago, and my thoughts have changed quite a bit since then. Maybe sometime I'll sit down and think through where I stand now on the appeal and the idolatry of guns in America today; for now, though, just a quick, local note.

Yesterday, Kansas's new governor, Jeff "Brownback" Colyer, spoke with an NPR reporter about the meeting of governors which President Trump called together for the purpose of talking about gun violence. You can read the transcript here. What really stands out is how frequently in this brief, 4-minute interview, Colyer refers to the need for "local" solutions. Not only does he explicitly refer to trusting in localism a half-dozen times, he very pointedly talks about how what's appropriate in "western Kansas," or in Garden City or Topeka or Kansas City, might not be appropriate elsewhere. And, as if people hadn't gotten the message, he baldly states that, in regards to guns, "I don't see a specific, statewide thing to do." In a follow-up to that interview, he went even further--insofar as Trump's idea that maybe teachers ought to be paid extra to arm themselves in preparation of the next school shooting, Colyer said he was intrigued, but that "local school districts should make that call."

Now, you might consider all this wise and responsible, or you might consider it foolish and dangerous. What you can't call it, though, is consistent--because it was Colyer's administration, while he was lieutenant governor, that forbade Kansas municipal governments and other local bodies, including our state universities, from interpreting state laws regarding the concealed carry and open carry of firearms in accordance with their own local needs and preferences. So, yes, the governor supports local decisions...but apparently, unless he's suddenly changing his tune (and he's not; when the NPR reporter asked explicitly about revisiting "statewide laws saying that cities and counties cannot pass gun restrictions that go beyond state law," Colyer gave an unambiguous "no"), then it appears the only local decisions that really count are those which the National Rifle Association supports.

This isn't surprising, of course. Kansas is a pretty conservative state, and Republican politicians around here likely see only positives coming their way when they curry the favor of the NRA. (Though it's worth noting that Carl Brewer, former mayor of Wichita, Kansas's largest city, and a Democratic candidate for governor, is specifically targeting in his campaign this unfunded mandate, in the form of millions of dollars in increased insurance costs, which Brownback and Colyer forced upon Kansas's cities by robbing them of their "local" judgments about guns.) More importantly, as with so many things, when many self-identified conservative Americans speak of "local solutions," what they frequently mean is "states' rights," and specifically the rights of states that tend to support conservative causes and elect Republicans. Of course, employing constitutional language in an incoherent and essentially partisan way is hardly unique to the Republican party--but when it comes to guns, at least here in Kansas, such confusion has a long history, and probably will long continue.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Prairie Fires and Prairie Romances

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Caroline Fraser's wonderful Prairie Fires is many things. Primarily it's a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the justly famous Little House books, and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. But it's also an impressionistic study of several key moments in the history of the United States, from the 1870s through the 1940s. And it includes multiple extended observations regarding agricultural economics, environmental science, women's issues in pre-WWII America, free-lance writing and publishing during and after the "yellow journalism" era, and most of all, thoughtful considerations of the intellectual milieus that gave rise to political perspectives ranging from the populism of the People's Party to the proto-libertarianism of critics of the New Deal. It does all of those things, and more, very, very well. The result is a terrific book, one that any thoughtful reader can learn from.

The primary cause of the book's success, it must be said, isn't Fraser's writing, research, and analysis, good as they are. (I think she sometimes leans too heavily on or reaches too far for psychological explanations, but only sometimes; usually her reasoning about the motives and mental states of the two complicated women she writes about is both careful and well-supported.) No, the real source of the brilliance of this book is the fact that Wilder and her daughter were compulsive diary-keepers, notebook recorders, and letter-writers (and letter-keepers!). The fact that Wilder's fictionalized recreation of her pioneer childhood resulted in not only one of the great classics of children's literature, but was a major contributor to late 20th-century America's romanticizing of its late 19th-century history is, of course, the cause of the enormous amount of research, recovery, and preservation that has attended the life of these long-departed people. But if they were not the sort of people who wrote almost everything down in the first place, all that work--including Fraser's fine biography--wouldn't have had so much raw material to work with. They were, no doubt about it, two rather amazing individuals; of that there can be no doubt.

Truth be told, I also strongly doubt that, going off the detailed and fascinating portraits of them that Fraser provides, they were the sort of individuals I would have enjoyed spending time time with, or that would have enjoyed spending time with me. Wilder was a defensive and temperamental person, frequently suspicious, judgmental, and narrow-minded; as for her admittedly brilliant daughter, the kindest thing that can probably be said about Lane, what with her flirtations with fascism, her trail of betrayed friendships, and her self-aggrandizing paranoia, was that she was mentally troubled soul. (By contrast, Laura's husband of 64 years, Almanzo, seems to have had a quiet equanimity and good humor which allowed him to get along with and see the best side of just about anyone.) But you don't have to like an artist, or imagine being liked by them, to be captivated by the art they create. And over a long period of time, Wilder and Lane worked in tandem--sometimes willingly, sometimes not, sometimes with the mother taking the lead, and sometimes the daughter--to create out of Laura's memories a beautiful work of art, a myth of the pioneering and the settling of the recently conquered Great Plains, which has delighted and influenced millions of people. I was one of them; I read all of the Little House books as a child (and no, I don't remember being put off by having to follow the story of a female protagonist), and I read many of them, multiple times, to our four daughters.

So what, then, does this book add to what we take from the Little House myth? Fraser suggests that seeing clearly the cycle of deprivation, courage, failure, and resourcefulness that lay behind Wilder's stories, and appreciating the emotionally taxing labor which characterized Wilder's re-telling of those stories, as well as Lane's editorial engagement with them, presents us with a deeply American tale: a will to re-invent oneself, but at the same time to create in and through that re-invention a meaningful continuity with the past. In the same way that Laura's stories--by preserving her father's struggles and songs, his love for his children and his abiding optimism--in essence "saved" her father from the desperate and difficult legacy he left his posterity, so do we all seek to create out of the memory of each individual life a means to preserve that which we wish to be, and maybe really do feel to be, true about those lives. But perhaps that's not so much American as simply human.

More specifically American, I think, is the way Wilder's whole story conveys the confusion and ambivalence which America's transformation from a decentralized agrarian society to a centralized industrial one brought into the lives of the poor, white settlers who followed false promises of plenty during the late 19th century to Minnesota, Iowa, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas, and attempted, almost always without success, to homestead the Great Plains into productive single-family farms. No serious study of my own state of Kansas should elide that environmental and economic reality; Fraser's work reveals, through Wilder's and Lane's personal reflections and travels, how that reality transformed those on the Plains, engendering both a romance of hard-won triumph and, much more frequently, a barely sublimated sense of shame, anger, and denial. This is where the Populist movement took root, with its railing against banks and railroads (Charles Ingalls joined the party in 1892, and a relative of Laura's and Almanzo's old friend Cap Garland spoke at the party's Omaha convention--p. 165), but a "profoundly, painfully, and ineradicably personal" mix of "guilt and resentment" took root as well, which continued from the devastating Panic of 1893 all the way through the to Great Depression and beyond, and probably still gives life to much reflexive, rural anti-government feeling to this day (pp. 392, 454).

In retrospect it seems clear that this country made a terrible mistake in collectively grafting--whether intentionally or otherwise--the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal of the citizen-farmer to a natural and social context where "virtually all the land best suited to small-scale agriculture in the United States had already been taken." Moreover, the marginal farming land which remained was essentially given away for free (thanks to federal military action taken against the indigenous inhabitants of the land, and thanks to an infrastructure mostly built by railroad monopolies benefiting from British money), usually to disconnected, often impractical individuals--"Pa was no businessman," Wilder once admitted; "he was a hunter and trapper, a musician and poet"--who were themselves usually without the sort of cooperative and familial connections that were essential to the few actually successful farming homesteads of the late 19th century Great Plains. The result...well, as Fraser concludes, the result for over a million white immigrants and settlers during the first 30 years of the 1862 Homestead Act who failed and fled--as Laura and Almanzo eventually had to, relocating to Missouri after a new catastrophic years as newlyweds in the Dakota Territory--was that "they were bound to fail" (pp. 163-164, 186, 391). All of this has had, I think, an almost entirely negative contributing effect on the ability of many of us Americans to understand and thus govern ourselves.

"Almost entirely negative"--but not absolutely so. Because it was, for all its costs, the luring of unprepared people out into what was, through much of the 19th century, widely derided as The Great American Desert, which gave many Americans, as part of our received memories, a stark vision of this spare, flowing, expansive part of North America as both strange and beautiful, alienating and entrancing at the same time. It is that vision--and, perhaps most importantly, the realization of the vision's passing, its conceptual (if not literal) closing with the arrival of the white settler--which does connect at least some of us together, as well as connect us with an occasionally usable past. Willa Cather is one of these connectors, as is the aforementioned Hamlin Garland--and, of course, Wilder herself. Fraser underscores repeatedly that Laura's memories of the Great Plains inspired and haunted her until the day she died. Fraser discusses my favorite Little House volume, By the Shores of Silver Lake, which re-imagines the Ingalls's move to the new settlement of De Smet, North Dakota, as "Wilder's adolescent book":

She had been trying to recapture that evanescent time in Dakota Territory her whole adult life. An account of her family's isolated first winter on Silver Lake figures among the earliest surviving fragments of her writing, perhaps dating back to 1903. She had never forgotten the sight and sound of wild birds migrating across its marshes or the image of wolves on its shores. She had felt in her core the last of the wilderness passing into oblivion and mourned its disappearance, making the loss a leitmotif of her books as it had been in her father's life. She labored over her drafts of the "Wings Over Silver Lake" chapter, her farewell to the soul of a place that would be erased by railroads, towns, and agricultural development (p. 408).

Well said--and yet, my favorite passage from By the Shores of Silver Lake, the one I can remember recognizing decades ago as the work of an author trying to recreate the dawning of a deep realization, the grasping of an insight, by a child, has a subject matter pretty much antithetical to that rapture of wilderness. Having read Fraser's biography, I wonder where Lane's (by then rather dogmatic) individualism ends and Wilder's actual memories begin in this passage which stuck with me. Still, whoever ultimately put the words together, the power they contain, their narrative of a 15-year-old girl seeing, for the first time, her species as capable of changing the world, still rings out strongly. It's from the earlier chapter "The Wonderful Afternoon," in which the young Laura is taken by her father, against her mother's wishes (which apparently was primarily due to the fact that "the workmen relieved themselves in the open air"--p. 406), to watch the railroad built:

The whole afternoon had gone while Pa and Laura watched those circles moving, making the railroad grade. It was time to go back to the store and the shanty. Laura took one last, long look....

First, someone thought of a railroad. Then the surveyors had come out to that empty country, and they had marked and measured a railroad that was not there at all; it was only a railroad that someone had thought of. Then the plowmen came to tear up the prairie grass, and the scraper-men to dig up the dirt, and the teamsters with their wagons to haul it. And all of them said they were working on the railroad, but the railroad wasn't there. Nothing was there yet but cuts through the prairie swells, pieces of the railroad grade that were really only narrow, short ridges of earth, all pointing westward across the enormous grassy land....

There was no railroad there now, but someday the long steel tracks would lie level on the fills and through the cuts, and trains would come roaring, steaming and smoking with speed. The tracks and the trains were not there now, but Laura could see them almost as if they were there.

Suddenly she asked, "Pa, was that what made the very first railroad?"

"What are you talking about?" Pa asked.

"Are there railroads because people think of them first when they aren't there?"

Pa thought for a minute. "That's right," he said. "Yes, that's what makes things happen, people think of them first. If enough people think of a thin and work hard enough at it, I guess it's pretty nearly bound to happen, wind and weather permitting."
(Wilder, By the Shores of Silver Lake [HarperTrophy, 1971], pp. 104-106)

Fraser's tremendous documentation and synthesis of Wilder's journey, both internal and external, makes it pretty clear that "wind and weather," and much else besides, are far less "permitting" than we who are moved by the Little House myth usually allow ourselves to admit. These were men and women and children, whole families, that too often arrived without any local "knowledge of the place," as Wendell Berry would put it. The results were usually sad, and frequently appalling in their costs. Yet somehow, sometimes, a few of them really did actually manage to change the face of the land in a way which endured, creating through their efforts a place, a home...though usually only for those who followed them, not for themselves.

For example, the centerpiece of my university, and the building in which I teach and work, is the Davis Administration Building. It was built to hold the entirety of a proposed Garfield University from 1886-1888; at the time of its completion, it was the largest educational edifice in the United States west of the Mississippi River. Garfield University was bankrupt by 1890 though, and through the following decade this monument to something a group of dedicated Kansas settlers had "thought could happen" stood abandoned on the flat scrub plain west of Wichita. But then came a wealthy philanthropist from St. Louis, who purchased the whole lot and gave it to the Kansas Society of Friends, which opened Friends University in 1898. So all is well that ends well, right?

Well, my judgment differs depending on if you ask me as a political theorist, a Kansan, an educator, a husband and father, or more--we all, like Walt Whitman, contain multitudes after all. So in conclusion, let me say that I can't recommend Prairie Fires, whatever its small limitations, strongly enough; it presents the life and perspectives of an exceptionally multitudinous woman, and her perhaps even more varying daughter, in a way that helps one see through all their losses, reversals, and denials, to grasp the dreams and aspirations which animated them through all of the above. Not all dreams and aspirations are equally defensible, to be sure, and taking seriously what community and place and economic and environmental (to say nothing of psychological!) limits really mean ought to give all of us pause as we contemplate our attraction to the Little House myth. But the attraction remains, if only because the world Laura Ingalls Wilder saw and remembered is a world continuous with our own present moment. Wilder herself, with her daughter's essential help, made sure of that continuity. She made a myth, and that myth--of pioneers and privation, of "the grasses waving and blowing in the wind, the violets blooming in the buffalo wallows, the setting sun sending streamers through the sky" (p. 515)--belongs to us all. Or at least, every time I take my bike out on a long, straight summertime ride towards that abiding, waving, prairie horizon which reaches all around me, it belongs to me.

Songs from '78: "Follow You Follow Me"

For the second time--and not for the last--my memories of the pop music world of 1978 are shaped in part by the detritus of progressive rock, as it was reconfigured and reconstituted in the wake of punk and disco by talented musicians who realized that the audience simply wasn't there any longer--and, frankly, they themselves simply didn't have the patience any longer--for intricate, artistic, and often admittedly indulgent musical statements. The English band Genesis is a perfect example--there's not a shred of punk or disco to be found in any of their recordings, and yet, by the late 1970s, they were internalizing the solid rock and roll reminders which those very different movements communicated quite well: figure out what you want to say, say it succinctly, say it with passion and fun, and then move on to something else.

"Follow You Follow Me" is a wonderful love song, a Mike Rutherford composition, and a great example of this lesson: it has synthesized hints of Genesis's by-then patented expansive artistry, but was nicely packaged into less than 4 minutes nonetheless. It was the first single from And Then There Were Three, the band's first real step in an overtly pop direction. It wouldn't be until their subsequent albums--Duke, Abacab, and Genesis--that their departure from the progressive rock world became complete; for this recording, released 40 years ago today, what we're hearing is some skilled artists learning how to first put their talents to work in a different, tighter, more accessible direction. And you know what? Sure, I like "Firth of Fifth": it's a deliriously cool 10 minutes of music. But am I bothered by the change Genesis began, 40 years ago today? To slightly misquote Phil Collins: no, I don't mind at all.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Joyful, and Mournful, Journey of Lent

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

This year my employer, Friends University, a non-denomination Christian liberal arts college in Wichita, KS, decided to develop, in conjunction with our regular chapel observances, a calendar of Lenten devotionals, and they asked for students, faculty, staff, and others to contribute. Some of those who contributed were Roman Catholic or from other high church Protestant traditions, and thus the language and rituals of Lent were familiar to them. For Mormons like me, obviously, that isn't the case. Still, this is my contribution; hopefully it fits the spirit of the occasion well.

Sometimes, when I read one of the Psalms, I can’t get out of my head the image of an ancient gathering of people, speaking (or singing) in a language I do not know, in a time and place I can barely imagine, conveying sentiments that are pretty much exactly my own. Jews of twenty-five hundred or three thousand years ago, writing down the pleadings, the hopes, the fears, the longings, the demands, and the celebrations of their hearts, and the spiritual language they used sometimes manages to express something that strikes my modern, Christian self to the very core.

One such Psalm is 105. It is a psalm that surveys the history of the Jewish people, as they understood it at the time--and it also, from our Christian perspective, helps us see that history as pointing towards something else, something greater. “Give thanks to the Lord,” it begins (v. 1). “Invoke him by name, make known his deeds among the peoples.” And what great deeds they were! In 45 verses, the psalm reminds us of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Aaron. The Abrahamic covenant, which began with a single family—“A small company it was, few in number, strangers in that land” (v. 12)—is unfolded all the way through the Exodus and the arrival of the children of Israel in the land which was promised to them. “He opened a rock and water gushed out, flowing in a stream through a parched land; for he was mindful of his solemn promise to his servant Abraham” (v. 41-42).

Lent can be productively understood, I think, as time of wandering. Through fasting, prayer, and selective attempts at change (this year, once again, I'm attempting a Facebook break), I put myself, as much as possible, outside my daily routine, and attempt to see in myself not someone perfectly at home in this fallen world, but a pilgrim, an exile, a stranger, one who is wandering through the desert of preparation, waiting on God’s promise of Living Water. Turning to these ancient words--these songs, these poems, these heartfelt pleadings and hopes--is thus appropriate, I think. Abraham and the world of those who honored him in psalms is unimaginably distant from us today--yet we are part of that story nonetheless. It is a story which weighs us down with its length--but also lifts us up, with its promises of what awaits us at the end. Perhaps being reminded of this great distance, this immense journey, all encompassed by God’s reach, and all of it encompassing us as well, is exactly why we are invited, as Christians, to wait and wander through Lent every year.