Holiday in St. Louis

Going home for the holidays always provides fodder for a family essay, but this is not one of those opportunities. My visit was not stressful, there was no crazy uncle berating my liberal lifestyle in the “big city”, nobody pressured me to get married and have children. I caught up with family and visited dear friends.

Nevertheless, I cannot return to St. Louis without experiencing a sense of ennui, a stifling sensation that strikes the moment I leave the jetway and enter Lambert’s East Terminal. Progress is marked by the closing of the smoking lounge. What some might consider comfortable familiarity is more honestly described as profound stagnation.

With the advantage of reflection the entire visit can be characterized by the word static. It describes the landscape, it describes the urban development, and as we all witnessed with the #Ferguson affair, it describes the personal attitudes of those in power. St. Louis revels in maintaining the existing order of all things. Despite it being a Democratic bastion in Missouri politics, it is one of the most conservative cities I have experienced.

My hotel was in Clayton, the county seat. If you are not familiar with St. Louis, it is where the Grand Jury examined evidence against Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown. It represents both power and wealth. Clayton has some of the most prestigious homes, an impressive public school district, and the best business address (relative to St. Louis, of course.)

Downtown Clayton at Bonhomme and Bemiston avenues.

Downtown Clayton at Bonhomme and Bemiston avenues.

Nothing has changed much since my departure six years ago. There have been a couple of small projects, not the kind of growth you want to see in a healthy city. The view from my hotel window told a valid story, one of a bucolic neighborhood that is under no pressure to change. Showing up its neighbors, the brick and glass building in the right background of the photo is a new county jail (although by “new” I mean ten years old.) Most of this urban hub speaks to the glory days of the 1960s.

This is the pace one becomes used to when traveling St. Louis history; what exists serves the status quo and what could be threatens it.

A brief visit to the St. Louis Public Library in downtown served to remind me of the logistical difficulties navigating what is, by all appearances, a small town. The library is a truly beautiful building and I was excited to spend a couple of hours reviewing microfilm of the daily newspapers from the late 1970s. Unfortunately it took me almost 45 minutes to park, not because the neighborhood was busy, but because I had to drive back to midtown in order to find enough quarters to feed the parking meter.

Most serendipitous was an article I came across from 1977 about an urban planning conference held to address population decline in the city. An academic from Washington University in St. Louis asserted that population flight to the suburbs — already a concern at that time—was actually good because it would leave the cosmopolitan demographic in place. In St. Louis-speak that means the poor whites and people of color will move to the county and leave the élite alone in their grand houses. The political machine will remain intact. Life will improve by remaining static.

The old Schnuck’s market at the corner of Hanley and Clayton roads.

The old Schnuck’s market at the corner of Hanley and Clayton roads.

That didn’t work out so well. Worse is that the flight is continuing to erode the county as people flee to exurban communities. Public policies promote flight to the surrounding townships in controlled ways: infrastructure provides the means while eminent domain provides the bludgeon. The unfortunate consequence is an impotence within the core neighborhoods. Even the abandoned Schnuck’s grocery store at the corner of Hanley and Clayton roads—one of the most heavily trafficked intersections Clayton—has not been able to attract a viable development project for over six years. Growth is being exported in order to maintain the familiar.

The situation is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ opening to The Great Divorce. He describes a city that has continued to spread as its residents move farther from each other, until they are barely cognizant of their neighbors. Lewis was illustrating purgatory, and sometimes I wonder if that same sense of limbo exists in St. Louis.

Sameness. Order. Who would dare to rock the boat?

Different faces at the news desks told familiar stories during the morning broadcasts (I wonder if they realized it?) The old feud between Reverend Larry Rice and downtown power brokers took a step forward. Rice, the leader of the New Life Evangelical Center and brash champion of the homeless, is going to be shutdown by the city. The NLEC has provided a safety net and shelter for the homeless in downtown St. Louis for three decades; the city has relied on his private organization in lieu of funding their own program.

As if something psychoactive is in the water supply, the élite believe that closing Rice’s shelter will eliminate the homeless in downtown St. Louis. Instead of recognizing the need for Rice’s shelter and his ability to provide a private solution to a public problem, politicians and developers will scatter the consequences of capitalism to the doorways and park benches that lie below downtown’s renovated loft warehouses.

What lies beneath the 1977 urban planning conference, the Larry Rice feud, and yes, even Ferguson? Social stasis. St. Louis is stuck in a mid-19th century framework while the world grows around and through it. Instead of adapting to powerful social forces, those in power reinforce the defensive walls. The pressure builds.

People like me move away and grow. When we return we see the anachronisms that surround us. Hence the ennui that permeates. Like a dysfunctional love affair, there is deep knowledge that things won’t get better. Attitudes haven’t changed for two centuries, optimism would be folly. Declaring “irreconcilable differences” and asking for a divorce is the only choice. Oh, you might remain sociable at family functions, but the trust and intimacy are gone. The investment has petered out.

#Ferguson Observations from an Erstwhile Local

Less than two weeks ago an altercation between teenager “Big Mike” Brown and Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson ended with bloody finality and ignited sub-surface social tensions in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. There has been no dearth of coverage throughout the media. Much of it has been excellent, but with few exceptions I — a native St. Louisan who only left at age 47 — have not found good descriptions of the overall dynamic present in the region. Unable to experience the situation firsthand, I keep waiting for the narrative of St. Louis’ evolution to emerge. As people are beginning to realize, Ferguson is emblematic of much larger problems; a symbol in a language of oppression. This is not to diminish the importance of individual stories, but to add another layer of nuance and demonstrate that the events of Ferguson are not materializing from thin air, and they will not disappear when the current tension abates. The St. Louis metropolitan area is a product of social, civic, and economic segregation practices that date back to the late nineteenth century.

For a topic so volatile, opinions have varied widely and clustered within a couple of broad narratives: oppression of a minority people and the maintenance of law and order. In one of the best essays I have read, Jeanette Cooperman — a St. Louis writer — reaches back to the eighteenth century to illustrate how those in power used social and civic levers to segregate and control black communities. Recently, a 1937 map of redlined neighborhoods in the St. Louis region has been making the rounds on Twitter. Although it is dangerous to attribute today’s tension in Ferguson to redlining six decades ago (when the town’s demographic composition was quite different,) the idea that minority neighborhoods have traditionally been deprived of wealth and capital is relevant. However, that is not a phenomenon unique to St. Louis, and therefore leaves me unsatisfied when looking for causes. Anthropologist Sarah Kendzior wrote a positive and compelling piece about St. Louis that reminds me of its vitality and opportunity. Christian Davenport — a professor of political science at University of Michigan — wrote this post on the different outcomes of policing when the race of protestors and law enforcement varies. Finally, on the law and order side of the debate, there are posts demonstrating support for Darren Wilson and asserting that compliance to authority is the answer to avoiding trouble.

If we use Mike Brown’s tragedy to find abiding Truths — and I think that is an excellent, noble purpose — then we discover St. Louis fixated on its past. The structures and processes that led to Ferguson, social oppression, and economic inequality are rooted in the nostalgia of a great city at the nexus of commerce.

Early image of the Veiled Prophet.

Early image of the Veiled Prophet.

One manifestation of power in St. Louis is the venerable Veiled Prophet Ball. Although rebranded recently to discard some of its controversial past, the ball has been a symbol of wealth and power for 140 years. Even at its inception in 1878, its purpose was to advance St. Louis as an industrial and agricultural powerhouse to compete with Chicago, despite the fact that the competition was over. The secret society that hosts the event has been comprised of St. Louis’ most powerful men — white, Christian men — who asserted that the ball was designed to boost civic identity and celebrate the success of the region’s élite. Not surprisingly, many working class and non-whites have not shared this interpretation. Apparent in the early symbolism of the pageant (see photo) are racist and authoritarian themes that concerned those outside of the society. The ball was the target of civil rights protests in the late 1960s, which further polarized the population. Blacks were not allowed to join the society until the 1980s, enforcing the dividing line between those who rose through the alleged meritocracy and those who truly held power. The ball is no longer televised, nor does it receive much media attention, but its legacy of asserting social power remains.

On a more mundane level, hierarchy is negotiated in the common starting point of conversation amongst St. Louis natives, “where did you go to high school?” Regardless of age or distance from your home, meet a St. Louisan and they will ask the question, although some do so apologetically. Although I have moved to Chicago and New York, I still must answer it, and it is an embarrassing one. The response immediately conveys your geographic, social, and economic status. North, south, or central; working class or old money; someone with a desirable network or not. These answers provide a potentially big ego boost to the questioner, or alienate all parties and stifle further discussion. It is a bit like asking someone how much money their parents make, or whether they have had many lovers. And lest we question the concreteness of the hierarchy, realize that the successful graduate from Normandy High (the school from which Mike Brown graduated) will never merit the same consideration as the washed-out drug addict from a school like John Burroughs or MICDS (the Country Day franchise.) This is but one way that social mobility is stifled. Like the Veiled Prophet, this structure projects and enforces differences throughout society, beyond the élite all the way to the poorest strata. It may be cloaked in pride, but the only purpose it serves is to perpetuate difference.

The fears of the past and the desire to maintain political dominance manifest in the evolution of civic entities. Other writers have addressed the fragmentation of the region; there is little controversy in asserting that this is by design. St. Louis is one of two American cities that is apart from a county (the other is Baltimore) because it seceded from St. Louis county in 1877. At the time the city was prosperous and metropolitan and it resented the “double taxation” imposed upon it by the rural county. The result can almost be described as a civic schism, ironic in the present day because of the change of fortunes between the two. Additionally, the surrounding county (which includes Ferguson) contains ninety separate municipalities, creating a bizarre mosaic of enclaves witnessing impoverished neighborhoods next to wealthy ones. This plurality of townships often prevents economies of scale and creates risk of capital flight from small neighborhoods. The loss of one employer can mean impoverishment for a city government. One result of this — discussed this week by Jeff Smith on Real Money with Ali Velshi — is the reliance on misdemeanor fees collected through citations. Residents are harassed through fines in order to maintain vital services. A second consequence is the use of county police in lieu of a local force. This separates officers from the community and prevents the relationships necessary for the peaceful maintenance of order.

In response to decades of neighborhood deterioration and population loss, the city implemented a plan in the mid-1990s to redevelop the central corridor between downtown and the Central West End (uptown.) The capital improvements to anchor organizations like St. Louis University and Barnes Hospital created tremendous development opportunities but effectively severed any connection between historically black north and historically white south city neighborhoods. As a result, gentrification is occurring through downtown, midtown, and uptown, while the rest of the city continues to deteriorate. Certainly there are neighborhoods thriving (mostly on the south side) but the ability to connect these into a cohesive network is missing. Instead, city fortunes vary on a block-by-block basis. The shocking distinction is wonderfully captured in this BBC report examining the profound differences found along Delmar Boulevard, a street that divides north and south St. Louis.

The county is also no stranger to bizarre planning. One of the most visible projects was the Page Avenue extension, subsidized by St. Louis county to provide easier access to St. Charles county, west of the Missouri river. Once a rural county peppered with small townships, St. Charles is now an unbroken exurb filled with subdivisions and big box-anchored shopping plazas. New schools, cheap property taxes, and subsidized roads make it attractive to former inner ring suburb residents who want to flee the higher social costs of living in St. Louis county. Not surprisingly, employers are beginning to follow the demographic shift and relocate west of the Missouri river as well. Although signs of growth pains are already evident, the momentum remains strong and will certainly carry more of the population away from St. Louis county (similar forces are acting on the Illinois side of the Mississippi river, where an exurban explosion is also taking place.) In affluent areas, such as Kirkwood, Missouri, the city invoked eminent domain to condemn the entire neighboring village of Meacham Park, which was almost all black. The land now contains a Lowe’s and Sam’s Club. Although the region’s population is stagnant, geographical realignment is a method employed to retain power and maintain the “integrity” of communities.

When I look at the situation unfolding in Ferguson, I [sadly] see the result of an evolutionary process. I see people outraged at the actions of a disengaged law enforcement apparatus, disenfranchised by generations of segregation, and dehumanized by a culture of paternalism. But also important is the flip side: agreement with the actions taken, belief that the presence of a militarized police force demonstrates a problem with crime, and confirmation of long-held beliefs that minorities are not ready to be a part of civil society. These are late-nineteenth century attitudes of race perpetuated through twenty-first century systems and institutions.

St. Louis has many great characteristics. There are great people there. I know many of them, and often miss not being in their company. But this is not about the good. This is about facing our failings and becoming stronger. This is about penance.

We certainly need justice for Mike Brown. We need justice for Ferguson, too. But what is not being communicated by the national media is that we also need justice for the people of Kinloch, Black Jack, St. Ann, Jennings, and many others. Until the region stops gazing nostalgically at its past and recognizes the shape (and color) of its future, there will be more Fergusons.

Visiting the 9/11 Memorial Museum

Beyond the characteristic of self-awareness, which is shared by other species, humans have an obsession with commemoration. Our focus on legacy extends well beyond the desire of our genes to procreate, afflicting us in a way that drives our linear existence during the relatively short time we enjoy what is called life.

9/11 Reflecting PoolA product of this obsession is the memorial, which manifest itself in myriad forms across the landscape. From wall graffiti to wilting flowers on a roadside, or something more ephemeral like a candlelight vigil, memorials are designed to evoke remembrance by connecting our personal experiences to the object we are commemorating. Whether or not we actually remember the subject of the memorial, we leave the experience feeling something that is personal and satisfying.

With that in mind I visited the 9/11 Memorial Museum recently with the concern that the experience would leave me emotionally drained and intellectually wanting. The exhibit’s mission, “to bear solemn witness to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993,” suggests a role that is more memorial than museum. Mixing memorial and museum creates a number of thorny issues. While many have complained about the gift shop — profiting from commerce in a place of solemnity — that is a minor matter compared to the systemic design issues. The memorial is clearly, if not singularly, designed to evoke a strong emotional response and encourage visitors to personalize the experience. “Where was I on that morning?” “What did I feel?” This is great for generating empathy but interferes with the process of understanding that the museum should foster. A museum owes its visitors a public history experience, one which includes the perspective, knowledge, and narration of the curators. If visitors personalize the attacks, then their ability to incorporate the narrative and learn is degraded.

WTC TridentThe mood is set immediately upon entering, as you walk down a corridor full of projected images and audio testimonies taken from around the globe. People describe how they felt upon hearing the news and watching the event unfold. Everyone is encouraged to place themselves within the exhibit, and it is difficult not to participate. I was immediately transported back to my work commute, listening to Bob Edwards on Morning Edition come to the realization that the first plane crash was not an accident. In the space of a few footfalls images from throughout the day flashed through my mind, and associations long since dispersed became tactile once again: the smell of a closed office building, the harsh glow of fluorescent lighting, the co-workers that I never really liked yet commiserated with on that day, and finally the image of smoke rising above Manhattan as my plane descended into Newark airport three weeks later.

Certainly the most evocative space is a small remembrance chapel set in the center of the memorial. Bench seating is provided for those who wish to reflect upon the stories of each person lost on that day. Names and vital statistics are projected on the walls while surviving friends and relatives recount anecdotes about victims (or perhaps the survivors are the victims?) As I sat and listened, I asked myself from where did the feelings come? I did not know anyone who perished in the attacks. What was it about the exhibit that would provoke the kind of intense response I experienced? The purpose of the memorial — to draw upon my own experiences to create something unique — weaves shared threads throughout the culture that allows us to connect at a social level without possessing commonalities.

Exhibit curators encourage personalization through their focus on mundane artifacts. Computer diskettes and the display of a Home Depot receipt are intended to remind us that we could have easily been victims. “But for the grace of God go I.” This emphasis on the mundane is problematic, since it cannot be relied upon to provide context for the rest of the exhibit. It is, essentially, empty calories. While a little bit is satisfying, too much leaves one malnourished.

Interestingly, the Smithsonian caused a tremendous uproar in the 1990s when they included mundane items from Hiroshima in their Enola Gay exhibit design. These items — which included a burnt doll — were considered inflammatory and political. Veterans groups and members of Congress were in an uproar, and despite the museum’s effort to radically redesign the exhibit, the NASM director Martin Harwit resigned his job in the face of Congressional hearings. The public’s response to the 9/11 Memorial Museum indicates that the political message is more palatable when we are the victim and not the aggressor.

How does one not politicize a political act? The museum is hobbled by the memorial’s mission of solemnity. By the time one reaches the museum — a separate area beyond the memorial — the experience is so personalized that the hope of gaining understanding of events is dashed. Unvarnished introspection cannot occur, nor can we consider a framework in which al Qaeda is a rational actor (despite their terrorist tactics.) But if we are to gain a greater understanding of the world and America’s role as a geopolitical leader, that is exactly what we must do. The greatest opportunity this exhibit misses is allowing visitors to transcend provincialism and become cosmopolitan, if for only a few hours. Instead, we are only offered the chance to question why anyone would want to hurt us, a people who have never harmed others.

I left the exhibit with many questions. Foremost is how younger people who have no direct experience of the day will view the exhibit. This can only become the proverbial statue in the park, a plaque with names of those who perished a century ago, and the projection of our own experiences onto historical events that bear no resemblance to days past. Perhaps striking “museum” from the name would help. This would certainly solve the problem of relying upon mundane artifacts to manipulate visitors while leaving them without a cohesive perspective. Unfortunately, it doesn’t meet the higher expectations of solid public history. The 9/11 Memorial Museum suffers from an identity crisis: triangulating the needs and desires of survivors, mythologizing the role of the Twin Towers, and claiming to present a scholarly history of related events. Predictably it fails to rise above the banal.

The conversation continues on Twitter at #BeingAmerican. For other perspectives about the Enola Gay controversy visit the AHA’s “Historians Protest New Enola Gay Exhibit.”

Is Redemption Only for the Powerful?

Three news stories collided in today’s expression of serendipity. As they rolled across my desk over the course of several hours, I had to ponder the nature of redemption in the United States.

Jonathan Turley reported about the case of Kaitlyn Hunt, a high school senior in Florida who was dating a younger girl. Unfortunately, Kaitlyn is eighteen, and when the girlfriend’s parents found out about the relationship they filed charges. Kaitlyn is now facing felony charges and the almost certainty of a lifetime on a sex offender registry. The prosecuting attorney is refusing to consider any lesser charges.

In Senate debate today David Vitter introduced an amendment to the Farm Bill that bar certain felons from receiving SNAP (Food Stamp benefits) for life. Someone who gets in trouble as a youth and does his time would be excluded from basic sustenance if they fall on legitimate hard times in the future. Consequently, their children and grandchildren might also suffer. Democrats did not contest the amendment.

And last, and least, Anthony Weiner launched his campaign for mayor of New York City in the dead of night, apparently hoping to miss the morning tabloid cycle. ‘Nuff said.

We are really bad in the United States about accepting the idea of redemption. We used to punish people for their crime, accepting that crime was a part of life. The idea of rehabilitation is fairly new, younger than the age of our country. Today incarceration has mutated into some grotesque beast: nothing is too harsh and the sentence itself cannot provide deterrence for possible future malicious behavior. At least, in certain cases…

Kaitlyn is a good student who has been active in her school. Because she had consensual sex with someone else in her school, the State of Florida is seeking to deprive her of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I use those phrases because, no matter how you might define the pursuit of happiness, being placed on a sex offender registry for the rest of her life will prevent her from collecting property and wealth. It will damage her ability to earn income. It will create six decades of hardship, because as a high school girl she had consensual sex with another high school girl.

The Farm Bill is also a rich example because the amendment to deny SNAP was submitted by David Vitter, the Senator who cheated on his wife with a prostitute while wearing a baby diaper. What David Vitter asked for and received from his constituents (and possibly his wife) is something he wishes to deny people who don’t have power. People who might have made a mistake, but have paid their debt. People who might have been treated harshly because of their economic status or race.

Anthony Weiner wants another chance. It is unknown if the voters of New York City will oblige him, but he has already been forgiven enough to use his past position to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars consulting for large corporations doing business in Washington, D.C. So in nearly every sense, Weiner received his redemption.

I sit at my desk tonight and wonder if this is the kind of society we are all comfortable with. Because it really disturbs me.

The Legacy of Vincent de Paul

On June 16th I will graduate with an M.A. in History from DePaul University. It has been a good experience, but it was with consternation that I read an email from Rev. Holtschneider, the President of the university, pitching a plan for a new basketball stadium at McCormick Place in Chicago. The plan is an irresponsible allocation of public resources, and enables city leaders to “Christmas shop” while ignoring serious fiscal issues in the city.

The numbers seem to vary depending upon who you read, but the total cost is being estimated between $210 million and $300 million. It would include the 12,000 seat stadium, hotels, and street-level improvements for restaurants and shopping. DePaul would contribute $70 million in order to build a “first-rate college [basketball] program.”

DePaul makes this investment for several reasons. College basketball presents high-impact opportunities to promote our reputation. Alumni find the broadened name recognition a help when competing for jobs nationally. This first-class facility and its more central location will help us build on the momentum our basketball program has enjoyed in recent years from hiring first-rate coaches and staff.

Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M.

This is extraordinarily confusing for a number of reasons. First, DePaul’s basketball program has languished since its glory days of Ray Meyer in the 1980s. Last year, the team was 11-21, and they are barely better over the past five years. Departmental budgets have been cut to the point where professors have limited ability to print and photocopy classroom materials. Academic conference budgets are non-existent.

The city of Chicago is a clusterfuck. Police, fire, public health clinics, and sanitation are all under strain. Schools are closing and Mayor Emanuel is pressing for school privatization. Property and sales taxes are very high and corporations are cutting deals to stay in the city in exchange for huge tax breaks. The neoliberal experiment is embraced with abandon but failing miserably.

The only people who think this is a good idea are those pushing it. Rev. Holtschneider “expects this project to produce 3,000 to 5,000 permanent jobs, along with 5,000 construction jobs during the building phase.” I cannot begin to imagine how that might happen, and neither can other urban planning consultants interview by the Chicago Sun-Times (the story is behind a paywall.) City leaders are faced with the law of diminishing returns: Chicago is already a vibrant tourist and convention destination, and DePaul is already selling tickets at its current arena in Rosemont. Adding more capacity in the city is nothing more than a shell game that will add little to the overall economy (the mayor of Rosemont is already in Springfield lobbying for concessions.)

While I appreciate the many conflicts that exist in the administration of a large organization like a university, I am disappointed that DePaul University is contributing to a development plan that will draw financial resources away from other necessities and make taxpayers responsible for more municipal debt. Ideally, Rev. Holtschneider should oppose the plan entirely and speak to the crisis of our public school system. At the very least, he should not contribute $70 million to a project that — like so many others in cities around the country — promises to be an under-utilized public asset for decades.

Although I am not Catholic (or even religious, for that matter) I have enjoyed learning about the life of Vincent de Paul, a seventeenth-century priest who founded a charitable order, counseled kings and queens, and seemingly lived the life of Jesus Christ through humility and good works. As a practical man, Vincent might have stood by while such a project was constructed, but he also would have counseled against depriving the population in order to achieve it.

Identity Through Fundraising

I was stopped on the sidewalk the other day by a young person soliciting memberships for Save the Children. This is really common in Chicago, and the solicitors are trained to employ techniques of humor and flirtation that is creepy. Needless to say, getting accosted raises my hackles.

This day I had a question to ask: if Save the Children wanted my money, could someone tell me what concrete goals were being achieved? The young woman was bright and friendly, but concrete was not an adjective that described her answer. I bid her good day and moved on.

Later another solicitor stated, “Good afternoon, sir. We’re shutting down violent hate groups.” Wow. How do you say no to that?

The day ended with a message from Senator Sherrod Brown in my inbox. He is not my senator, but I get solicitations from him all the time. This one asked for money not for his campaign, but so he could give it to other Senate candidates around the country. They wouldn’t be my senator, either.

All of these examples raise questions about the purpose of giving. What is it that people seek when they donate to a cause? Surely people want to improve the world, but more prominent in this activity is the formation of civic identity. The formation of identity through giving provides fundraisers with a powerful marketing force: in a society that is targeted based on Facebook Likes, loyalty card activity, and web browsing activity, group association can easily displace a process that once required commitment and involvement.

This got me thinking about how our political parties have embraced bifurcated ideologies in order to create indelible identities in their constituents, and insure loyalty and support.

Political parties have always sought to provide identities for their members, but we are returning to the Manichaean worldview found in the antebellum era. This offers a sub-optimal choice. We can no longer even vote for the “lesser evil”, because the adversary of our candidate promises an existential threat. If you identify with one party, then the only way to preserve your lifestyle is to oppose everything the other party represents.

Mark Sanford encapsulated this attitude recently, when he published this tweet on his Twitter timeline:

He is telling his audience to send money, because the liberals identified with ActBlue are threatening the independence and representation of South Carolinians (you can get more context by following the link to Sanford’s blog.) I absolutely agree with him, although his argument is surely disingenuous, himself being the recipient of PAC money.

Recently, political activists Lawrence Lessig (from Rootstrikers) and Mark Meckler (founder of Tea Party Patriots) spoke at a forum in Seattle. I encourage you to watch the video. Both men have come together to avoid the binary ideology of national politics and find common objectives. Meckler actually makes the point that the parties want us to remain separated.

We were warned about this nearly two hundred and twenty-five years ago, when James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10:

So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.

George Washington refined the point further in his Farewell Address by noting, “One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts.” Parties thrive by instilling fear that other factions are fundamentally different. The assertion that there is no common ground between groups, and those who identify with them, is vital for the perpetuation of the faction.

I don’t want to get too far afield, but instead come back to why we want to identify with factions. In a complex and hectic world, group identity is being made easy by those who promote it. You can donate $10 via SMS, sign an online petition, or Like a Facebook page. It is important to understand that these activities are controlled by people guiding your behavior and controlling the civic narrative. The first step in avoiding this trap is finding more individualized methods of projecting identity.

The term “slacktivism” is used to describe someone who supports causes in ways that are ineffective but promote a good feeling. Not everyone will carry signs in the street, but there is more to civic engagement than group identity. Until we all understand how our attitudes are being shaped and why, we will fail to find common values with our neighbors.

Some Things Never Change

I came across this the other day while reading Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. It is probably a fair bet that most people do not consider the marriage of evangelical Protestantism with the Enlightenment principles on which our country was founded, or the profound tensions in their coexistence. In many ways, they remain irreconcilable to this day.

On the one side, it bestowed great self-confidence as Americans explained the moral urgency of social attitudes and then of national policy. On the other, it transformed the conclusions reached by opponents into willful perversions of sacred truth and natural reason. The combination of biblical faith and Enlightenment certainty imparted great energy to the builders of American civilization. It also imparted a nearly fanatical force to the prosecution of war.

Education and Nation-Building

The structure of primary and secondary education is a hot topic in my home town of Chicago. The teachers’ strike last fall polarized the entire population and gave both sides an opportunity to disseminate a favorable narrative. Rahm Emanuel — the mayor of Chicago and former Obama administration Chief of Staff — has begun to move on his plan to license dozens of new charter schools while the Chicago Public School (CPS) system faces budget shortfalls and consolidation.

Recent news helps define the shape of that plan. WBEZ recently reported that the Walton Family Foundation just donated $3.8 million to fund the startup of thirteen new charter schools. That amount represents a record level of foundation funding for a city.

The charter school debate in Illinois is particularly thorny, and I can serve little purpose by wading into it here. However, there is a perspective that is sorely lacking in our discussion of public education that I can emphasize, and believe it is important to do so. When discussing “fixes” and “solutions” to public education problems, we never consider one critical purpose of state schooling: the inculcation of national identity in our youth.

triptych

As citizens of a well-established nation, we sometimes take our identity for granted. Many of us don’t realize that for the first quarter-century of our republic, U.S. Americans didn’t always identify with their nation before their region, ethnicity, or religious denomination. And our nation is not unique; many historians assert that nationalism is facilitated through public education. Nationalism developed in Europe and North America during the late-18th and 19th century as public education became more common. The question then becomes, does this have bearing on our modern debate? I believe it does.

Public schools are the platform on which social inculcation of civic values operates. Therefore, the state has a significant interest in encouraging a large percentage of the population to attend them. Providing a singular vision of the nation and a citizen’s role within it advances not only democracy but also stability (this is true regardless of your ideology or political perspective.) There is nothing profound about this. In fact, leaders and groups from across the social spectrum demonstrate their awareness of this process every day, as this proposed legislation in Arizona illustrates.

The rise in popularity of home schooling and, subsequently, charter schools needs to be examined in light of the desire to expose young children to an alternate view of not only knowledge but also civic identity and responsibility. Although I am certainly concerned about subjects like evolution getting the short shrift, I am more troubled by an elevation of individuality to the point where the social compact of individualism is no longer sustainable. What does it mean to be a citizen in a pluralist republic? As citizens, do we have a responsibility to negotiate a common national identity in order to stabilize the state (which includes all of us?) If we choose to segregate ourselves into homogenized interests groups, do we fulfill the nightmare of factionalism that Madison foresaw, and warned against?

My concern is that we avoid a hyperbolic, existential crisis. As a society, we have many more similarities than differences, and public education is a way to disseminate those. A strong national identity will mitigate the tensions that we face in our civic debate.

Rahm Emanuel is wrong to push for charter schools as an alternative to the public system. In doing so, he abdicates his responsibility to provide a unified, civic identity to the youngest generation. He places that identity in the hands of a private group with intimate ties to a trans-national corporation that serves no interest but its own. In fact, he undermines the social fabric that makes all of us the United States of America.

The Price of Empire

Last week’s tragic massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School has prompted a passionate discussion about how to respond to gun violence in the United States. The horrific imagery of twenty six- and seven-year olds being gunned down alongside their teachers and school administrators is enough to make even the coldest heart skip a beat. However, the United States’ history of small arms and American exceptionalism complicate any attempt at straightforward policy discussion. Blaming the gun — an American symbol of liberty and virtue — is so disconcerting to the average American that genuine introspection is impossible. Instead, this past week has seen the finger pointed at “evil” people, mental disorders, video games, and an absence of God in the classroom. If we are going to achieve the provision of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, our society will have to get sober and make the commitment to address a problem not found elsewhere in the industrialized world.

In the wake of much criticism leveled at the National Rifle Association, Executive Vice-President Wayne LaPierre made a televised statement outlining his organization’s vision for the future. Much like previous statements following other massacres, LaPierre avoided introspection. To hear him tell it, everyone from the entertainment industry to the media is responsible for creating monsters that threaten our safety at every turn. By the end of the session (I can’t call it a press conference because he refused to take questions from those in attendance) it was apparent that one of the most well-financed and vocal lobbying organizations in the country would not participate in meaningful reform.

To be fair, prohibition will probably not solve the problem, but our Constitution protects us from that response, so dire warnings from gun advocates are little more than a straw man. Equally as unproductive are calls for a great proliferation of unregulated firearms throughout society. I have even listened as seemingly rational people advocate that we arm students in schools. But if prohibition and proliferation are not the answer, then how do we address a gun death rate several orders of magnitude higher than other industrialized nations?

It is my assertion that gun technology plays a lesser role in the death rate than gun culture. Although many people are pointing to violent movies and video games as a cause, I am referring to the social more that using a gun can solve a problem. This tenet is deeply ingrained in all levels of our society, from the household to the federal government. From minor property disputes to arguments over shipping lanes and contested archipelagos, we favor armed conflict as the principle solution. Long before we consider the technology — indeed, in almost all cases the response will be asymmetrical to the provocation — the social acceptance of force as an arbiter escalates the conflict.

If we accept that gun culture distinguishes the United States from the rest of the industrialized world, then we need to identify institutions that contribute to that culture. Certainly the NRA qualifies, as does the entertainment industry (although other industrialized cultures ingest similar entertainment without engaging in comparable behavior.) Closer to the heart of the problem is the United States military, who are responsible for maintaining our American Empire and recruiting young men and women to project power across the globe.

The military has created a number of programs to validate the projection of power and glamorize service in the empire. One of the most controversial was The Army Experience Center, a “next-generation” recruiting center in a Philadelphia shopping mall. For two years in 2008-2010, it provided free game consoles and computer simulators for youth thirteen years and older. Recruiters were present and actively engaged those seventeen years and older. Less conspicuous is military consulting with game producers like Entertainment Arts (EA.) Although their game Medal of Honor: Warfighter recently caused problems for some members of Seal Team 6, consulting provides a way for the Pentagon to control its message and inculcate youth into the gun culture.

The PBS show Frontline produced this video clip in 2009. There are a couple of supportive statements in the interview. A young boy remarks, “it really shows you what war’s about” at 2:29. The Army makes its intentions clear at the end of the clip (3:52), when a recruiter claims “I think they’re terrified that it will work.”

The American Empire provides a variety of wealth to the United States’ denizens. Because of United States hegemony, we are the safest haven for foreign investment, allowing the country to borrow at extraordinarily low interest rates. Petroleum is cheap and plentiful. Trade agreements with developing countries insure a steady stream of inexpensive commodities. As members of the empire, we enjoy a profligate lifestyle well beyond that of our contemporaries around the world.

But this profligacy has always come with costs. One of the costs we never speak of is stoking the hubris of our exceptionalism, until we believe that mutual respect is unnecessary. On our streets and across the globe, U.S. Americans expect to triumph. This expectation has led to a very unhealthy reliance on the gun. What begins with the myth of individualism and protection of private property actually ends with an intolerance of others and acceptance of violence as a practical solution.

The next time someone suggests arming teachers with weapons, consider the history that fosters such a prescription. Are we really responding to an evil world that seeks to destroy us from all directions, or have we merely lost the respect, humility, and patience necessary to abhor the use of violence.