Review: Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek by Manu Saadia

More than one iconic science fiction author has observed that the genre’s stories are not about the future, but instead reflect the present day. While cloaked in the trappings of interstellar travel and alien species interrelationships, science fiction themes address important issues facing the reader outside of her fantastic voyage. So it should come as no surprise that Manu Saadia’s Trekonomics — an examination of the underlying economics of Star Trek in the 24th century — is securely grounded in 21st century America and Europe. Using economic principles to explain the franchise’s post-scarcity society, the book makes a strong argument that we only lack the political will, not the wealth, to provide for everyone’s needs. In doing so, Saadia succeeds in translating Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future into a contemporary plan.

Each chapter focuses on a particular aspect of 24th-century economy. Chapters 1 and 2 discuss the absence of money and the meaning of work when economic security is a basic human right. Chapters 3 and 4 examine the role and limits of technology in achieving Roddenberry’s vision. Interestingly, it is not the technology but the public policy that enables Star Trek to approach its utopian ideal. For the historians of science fiction (like me), there is a fascinating chapter on trekonomics in classic science fiction, illustrating possible sources of influence for Gene Roddenberry. Chapter 8 addresses the role of the Ferengi (the galaxy’s capitalists) in the franchise and the tensions created by the interactions of the two civilizations. The final chapter brings us back to the present day and discusses how close we are to reshaping our economy and realizing trekonomics.

A key point made throughout the book is that the critical ingredient responsible for our advance is not technology but public policy. As our civilization solves each seemingly intractable obstacle to continued growth — food supply, energy consumption, information processing — real costs of commodities plunge toward zero. This creates post-scarcity in parts of the economy, as certain goods require smaller and smaller shares of GDP to produce. It is only capitalism’s choice of distribution that perpetuates shortages and profit. Trekonomics asserts, quite successfully, that we are no farther than a couple of generations away from providing basic sustenance to every human on the planet. From that point, the consequent shifts in behavior could lead to a society that looks very much like Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s.

The book strikes an appropriate balance between the themes of economics, science fiction, and history. There is something for everyone, whether or not you have in-depth knowledge of the subjects prior to reading. I even found my skeptical self persuaded by Saadia’s arguments that limits to growth are not insurmountable, and that we have faced them for centuries and used them to become a wealthier civilization.

Saadia’s passion for progress towards a post-scarcity economy is palpable throughout the book. While some readers may consider this political, I found it genuine and refreshing. It is an optimism that admonishes us to do better, to strive for justice that is within our reach, to cooperate and transcend our primitive individualism. Importantly, it grounds Roddenberry’s vision of the future in our present. Trekonomics illustrates that there are concrete policies that will improve our lives.

Given the late-20th century’s penchant for dystopian futures, Star Trek has stood out against other science fiction franchises. Not only has humanity survived, it has conquered its demons and thrives in a galactic community. Through a communitarian structure and deep sense of civic responsibility, individual freedom is enhanced, not oppressed. All of this is made possible through the fair distribution of essential goods, the removal of want and material status, and the expectation that everyone will achieve their potential (even the mendicant!) Of course there is killer tech, but the core of Roddenberry’s vision is not warp drive, it is social equity. That is the most optimistic theme of Trekonomics, knowing that we already possess the power to turn our civilization toward the ideal.

The Trials of Humanism

I have been a Star Trek fan for most of my life. Although too young to enjoy the original run on network television, I experienced the first syndication in the early 1970s. I plugged my portable reel-to-reel tape recorder into the Aux jack of my black-and-white TV and made audio recordings of each episode. I read the books. I fretted when the series was rotated for other programming.

It should come as no surprise that my current project on the development of American identity in the 20th century has entered orbit around the Star Trek world. Although my writing is limited to the Federation’s Prime Directive, I am indulging myself by watching all of the episodes again, one per day. Yesterday I queued “Elaan of Troyius” and started taking notes.

One caveat for now and ever: I understand that Gene Roddenberry was a committed humanist who championed gender equality, peace, and scientism, but what makes Star Trek an interesting learning experience is the fact that there is so much prejudice, hostility, and ideology in the scriptwriting. We are all products of our time and environment. It is simply not possible to project into the future in more than small increments. Roddenberry’s anchor in the world he sought to leave behind allows us to see the mid-20th century through the eyes of the man trying to transcend it.

The episode opens with the U.S.S. Enterprise in orbit around the planet Elas, waiting to pick up the Dohlman Elaan for transport to nearby Troyius, where she will enter a political marriage to end hostilities between the planets. As Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty enter the turbolift their dialog details the importance and secrecy of the mission. Kirk mentions the strategic location of the system — near the Klingon Empire — while McCoy touches on the mystical qualities of Elasian women. It is impossible to listen to McCoy (often the source of irrational, prejudicial statements) and not be reminded of orientalist writings by British mercantilists describing their travels through India, or descriptions of present Islamic cultures.

Elaan is an entitled, savagely aggressive, petulant leader who holds nothing but disdain for all those around her, including the “Troyian dogs” with whom she must make peace. In short, she is a most unlikable character. While being “acclimated” to Troyian customs, Elaan stabs the Troyian ambassador. Thus the job of “civilizing” the Dohlman falls to Captain Kirk, and we get much fodder for juicy analysis.

There is a lot to unpack in this episode. First, note that the Federation considers this a critical mission: it has assigned its flagship to transport the delegations of two insignificant planets, and we are later informed that a High Commissioner will attend the wedding. Both civilizations are clearly inferior in technology — to the point where the Prime Directive of non-interference might apply — so we must assume that it is the strategic placement of the system that the Federation values. Maintaining stability on the frontier dictates the actions of expanding powers, even if they are benevolent. The Federation is prepared to insert itself into system politics to prevent a vacuum that would be filled by the Klingon Empire.

Next, Elasian society is viewed by all parties to be primitive. Kirk makes this clear to the irascible Elaan in the following exchange:

Kirk: “Enjoy the privileges and prerogatives of being a Dohlman, and be worthy of it. If you don’t want the obligations that go along with the title, then give it up.”
Elaan: “Nobody speaks to me that way.”
Kirk: “That’s another one of your problems: nobody has told you that you’re an uncivilized savage, a vicious child in a woman’s body, an arrogant monster.”

Here we see a logical relationship between the hierarchy of Elas and the hierarchy of the galaxy. In both situations, entitlement and exclusivity are cornerstones to maintaining order. Just as ruling a people carries obligations and requires recognizing protocol, so does belonging to the exclusive club of civilized planets. The rules are clear: if you want to eat in the dining room, then you need to comport yourself.

Today we find this behavior condescending, but is not surprising that it appears in a script from the 1960s. Throughout the first half of the 20th century an expanding United States considered the non-European world to be barbaric and intellectually childlike. Theodore Roosevelt believed both the Cubans and Filipinos to be unable to self-govern after the Spanish-American War without a period of mentoring.[1] “Period” was an indeterminate amount of time that was defined by an élite with economic interests in the territories. Our history is replete with examples of conditional promises unfulfilled while we furthered our economic and geopolitical interests. It is a familiar theme that happens to make good television drama.

Such stories always bring me back to familiar concerns. Foremost is the consideration that cultural imperialism, including the imposition of “civilizing protocols”, is often a violent act that yields social and political upheaval within its target. The United States meddling in Cuba led to decades of instability and corruption ultimately resulting in the ascendancy of Fidel Castro. A similar path of progress can be traced in Iran, following the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh. Today we need only look at Yemen to wonder why the United States exposes itself to so much political risk for the purpose of determining the direction of a strategically unimportant government.

By the end of the episode we discover the value of Elas and the need to solve the “regional” dispute: the planet is brimming with dilithium crystals, a scarce resource of abundant power.[2] Kirk’s epiphany explains why the Klingons want control of the system, but Federation control of the planet is not mentioned. Control of a precious resource justifies colonialism even in the twenty-third century, despite the Prime Directive. That the alternative is domination by the Klingon (re: Soviet) Empire only strengthens the argument for bringing Elasians to the dining table.

“Elaan of Troyius” presents a world — or galaxy — as close to the turmoil of mid-twentieth century Earth as the humanist vision of Roddenberry’s United Federation of Planets. Hierarchy, scarcity, and Orientalism combine to describe a geopolitical dance and clash of civilizations in a remote sector of the quadrant. That is simply good drama.

Notes:

[1] If you want extensive analysis of Roosevelt’s complex racial attitudes, then I highly recommend Gary Gerstle’s American Crucible.
[2] The idea of economic scarcity is also a concept that mid-20th century writers find difficult to discard. Although Roddenberry would later assert, through Picard, that society was no longer driven by scarce resources, dramatic conflicts still relied on this idea.

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.

Review: How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise

[Note: This review appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books in December 2014. I am reproducing it here with some minor formatting changes.]

Seminal moments in our popular culture arrive less often than we claim, and their impact on our lives often requires time to manifest. Chris Taylor, deputy editor of Mashable and an undeniably rabid “Star Wars” fan, presents a compelling argument that the premiere of “Star Wars” was just such a moment, touching the entire human population. His new book, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise, is a social history of the franchise. More than a chronicle of movie production or an inventory of licensing agreements, it is a far-reaching examination of how the six-movie (and counting) film series changed the world and how the world shaped the franchise.

Taylor weaves his story through many short chapters, and he is not afraid to wander afield when necessary. He starts at the beginning with the founders of the science-fiction genre – H.G. Wells and Jules Verne – to illustrate the distinction between fantasy and science fiction. Later, this legacy explains the divergence of George Lucas’ space opera and Gene Roddenberry’s (the creator of “Star Trek”) futurist vision. Taylor discusses the influence of serial science fiction from the 1940s and 50s, including Lucas’ favorite, “Flash Gordon.”

As any good history demands, this is not simply a story about the movies or George Lucas. We are not only given a cohesive picture of Lucas’ formative years and social influences at home and in school, but also an adequate look at the cultural influences that preceded “Star Wars.” Film school social networks suggest how the Creator – Lucas’ self-proclaimed title – moved toward the realization of his childhood dream of creating a space fantasy/opera. Even Alejandro Jodorowsky’s stillborn “Dune” project demonstrates how failures liberated ideas and talent to change the direction of science-fiction filmmaking by cross-pollinating writers and special effects people. George Lucas may have occupied the watershed position for science-fiction cinema, but he was the product of hundreds of incremental forces.

The cornerstone of any franchise is the fan base, and multiple stories throughout the book emphasize its passion and influence. Albin Johnson’s tragic injury in an automobile accident created a circuitous route to the “Fightin’ 501st” Stormtrooper legion and their adoption as an official standard bearer at Star Wars events. This more than cosplay, it traces both the depth of cultural assimilation across the globe and the embrace of such movements by Lucas. What became known as the Expanded Universe of books, animated series, and other media not only allowed for creativity outside of the franchise, but also provided an environment for ideas to germinate. The success of the movie franchise – despite its uneven critical acceptance by fans – is intimately linked to the familial communities that flourish around the world. Taylor does an excellent job documenting these stories.

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe excels when finding anecdotes to reveal its message. In this regard, there is no stronger writing than the Introduction, which recounts Taylor’s visit to the Navajo Nation for the first screening of “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” dubbed in the native language of Diné. This visit – 35 years after the film’s premiere – hoped to discover the few people left on the planet still unaware of the franchise’s cultural impact. We are introduced to George James Sr., who is not only significant for his isolation from “Star Wars,” but also because he is one of the last Code Talkers, a group of World War II veterans who crafted unbreakable code from the Navajo language. Their code was impenetrable because of the cultural barriers between the Navajo and the rest of the world. Now these folks are the latest adopters. James represents the difficulty of transporting myth across cultures, but by the end of the tale (and the screening of the movie), we realize that “Star Wars” has achieved that very goal.

A disappointing omission from the book is an explanation for the movies’ limited distribution channels. After finishing the chapter on the filming of “Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back,” I took a break from reading in order to rent the movie. It took no time to realize that it was unavailable in digital format (although you can still buy a LaserDisc version). A bit of research on the Web uncovered myriad conspiracies and explanations, but none could be verified or seemed credible. In a world in which even this 50-something no longer keeps a Blu-ray or DVD player, this strikes me as a huge revenue opportunity being ignored. With all of Taylor’s access to executives from Lucasfilm and its owner, Disney, finding the answer to that question would have been valuable and insightful.

Still, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe engaged me in much the same way as the movies: It was informative and entertaining, even though I had to overlook its flaws from time to time. Taylor’s narrative occasionally strays, but there are great benefits to his storytelling. The book has iconic moments (like the Navajo Nation discussion) and there are sections that fade quickly. But as many fans of the “Star Wars” franchise will tell you, we watch the cable-TV marathons, are instantly transported back to that Memorial Day Weekend in 1977, and talk online with giddy excitement about the next release. Our parents are familiar with the Force and our children play with light sabers. For all of us in this global community, this is definitely a book you will want to read.

#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.”

Identity as a Zero-Sum Game

I visited the Guggenheim Museum last weekend and viewed the Carrie Mae Weems retrospective. Weems is a photographer and videographer who deftly manipulates her instrument with what is deservedly called a powerful voice. If you live in the area, go see it now: it closes in mid-May.

My thoughts this week continue to coalesce around the idea that forming and achieving American identity is a zero-sum game, that those who hold an image of #BeingAmerican must struggle to maintain their identity real estate, and that becoming more inclusive means diluting what people have. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, which is the point. We have all been raised with the cultural myth of the melting pot: disparate populations coming together to form that savory, balanced stew that nourishes the most exceptional nation in history. I suspect that, in our moments of sobriety, all of us recognize that the myth and the reality are quite divergent.

Of all the moving imagery I saw, there are two in particular that I wish to consider here. They might not be the most memorable or popular images, but they carried the message of zero-sum identity politics.

The first image — a still-life of a living room end table — appears in an early portfolio, Family Pictures and Stories. The print itself is stunning, a dark image with a brilliant range of tone and balanced composition, lustrous wood contrasted by the stark light of the side lamp. On the table, next to the lamp, is a pair of “Chinaman” figurines. My initial reaction was very mixed. I am almost as old as Weems and therefore grew up in the same era, familiar with similar items in either my home or those of my extended family. But orientalism has always made me uncomfortable: it suppresses a true understanding of other cultures and allows one to avoid confronting prejudice by transferring that behavior to what is not real. So why were these types of icons so prevalent? Establishing a hierarchy of identities through stereotyping allows us to claim and hold that identity real estate we need to be American, to prove we are integrated into the whole. Instead of the melting pot being inclusive, we seek to join and remain American by excluding others.

I am not making this observation to excuse it, but merely to identify a weakness that we all share.

The second image — or images — were so powerful they brought me to tears. Weems overlaid a quadtych of four antebellum slave portraits with the words House, Kitchen, Yard, Field. Yes, we are to feel shame. Yes, Weems is making a point about dehumanization. But I also think there is a contrary force in motion here: the base labels take away a basic value for all of us, thus we must confront the consequences of an exclusive identification process throughout our history. To take something away imparts value to it. Denying people identity recognizes its importance. Even [especially] today, the exclusive politics of #BeingAmerican creates a hurtful, counterproductive, and unnecessary process of cultural assimilation.

If you want to know how important a cohesive American identity is to people, look at how white Protestants are responding to the demographic shifts in the United States (don’t forget one of my “favorites”, David Barton.) By seeking to deny American identity to people who are not white, male, and Protestant –okay, maybe I’ll give you Christian — we force the perpetuation of the zero-sum identity game. A game at which Carrie Mae Weems has proven a formidable opponent.

On #BeingAmerican

My current project examines the relationships between national, social, and individual identities, and how we view ourselves as American. Identity is like the Evil Queen’s Magic Mirror: it has defined boundaries and function, but everyone approaches it with different expectations and leaves with a personalized experience. It is not surprising then to find tremendous differences in personal beliefs while observing a shared definition and purpose. This has been the theme threaded through several recent readings.

At the end of my graduate coursework I wrote a state of the field paper that included Gretchen Murphy’s Hemispheric Imaginings: The Monroe Doctrine and Narratives of U.S. Empire. The book examines how the Monroe Doctrine evolved throughout the nineteenth century; specifically, Murphy uses discourse analysis to show that popular culture contained many of the concepts that politicians and thought leaders adopted in their policies. Monroe’s nascent framework was nearly stillborn: it grew slowly, branching into different interpretations, each waxing and waning as our nation’s agenda and influence changed. The relationship between American social identity and political forces is direct and powerful. Even contemporary assertions that the Monroe Doctrine is dead ignore its incorporation into American identity.

Of interest today is a problem that Murphy identified in the opening of her Introduction:

Even the name “America” bespeaks the crisis; conventionally used to designate the cultural identity of the United States, its implicit erasure of Latin America and Canada is now painfully apparent…

For Murphy, the solution is to coin the term “USAmericans.” A bit clunky at first, I quickly realized it was effective for distinguishing between the various Americas of the present day. Recognizing the contemporary hubris of USAmericans to co-opt the identity of an entire hemisphere is a first step to respecting other cultures between Ellesmere and Patagonia.

Later, historian Jonathan Wilson posted the following to Twitter. “USians” indicated a trend and, upon chatting with him, he also offered his awareness of the term “Statism.”

However, our view of the hemisphere is much different today than in the nineteenth century, and one could accuse Murphy of performing Whiggish history (although in fairness she is a professor of English.) Did we view ourselves as rightful claimants to the title in the early days of the republic? Was there competition for the title at that time? Or are we simply projecting present-day concerns into the past?

I grabbed my copy of The Federalist and examined the thirty-four uses of the string “American.” Like those of us in the present day, the term is used to identify not only the new nation but also those members who comprise the cultural and civic body. That may be less surprising when one considers the neighborhood at that time: Great Britain, Spain, and France controlled most of the remaining western hemisphere and maritime routes, providing imperial perspectives for the non-indigenous peoples.

What is interesting about The Federalist is how Madison and Hamilton employ the word. While the latter favors its use in describing a regime, dominion, and state, Madison is quite comfortable using it as a container for the members of the new nation. Neither have a problem with excluding other western hemisphere societies.

Consider Hamilton’s remark in Federalist no. 11:

They foresee the dangers that may threaten their American dominions from the neighborhood of States, which have all the dispositions, and would possess all the means, requisite to the creation of a powerful marine.

He not only uses the term to describe various dominions within a geographic region, but he elevates the new nation to the status of a significant player. This statement asserts the role of the United States as a legitimate force in the Atlantic world, and foretells the development of attitudes and policies in the nineteenth century.

Madison, however, clearly favors the term to describe individuals as members of a society. Already in 1789, he views his cohort as one body, an organism evolved to conquer the vast geography of the continent and repel external dangers, as witnessed in Federalist no. 14:

…the kindred blood which flows in the veins of American citizens, the mingled blood which they have shed in defense of their sacred rights, consecrate their Union, and excite horror at the idea of their becoming aliens, rivals, enemies.

The metaphor of the body is powerful, capturing the profound diversity of the nation’s citizenry, their interdependency on one another, and the transcendence beyond the sum of their parts. Although the brain and the liver are profoundly different and may work at cross-purposes from time to time — at least my brain regularly enjoys the alcohol that my liver must work to remove — they cannot exist without each other, and both clearly belong to something greater than themselves (at times, anyway.) By addressing this interdependency, Madison presages notions of being American. Whether deliberate or not, he is creating space for popular and civic culture to begin defining the boundaries of a national identity, a space that will be molded and kneaded by myriad factions throughout the history of the United States. This process not only shapes identity but also circumscribes the behavior of future actors.

Nearly 125 years later, the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan would focus its rebranding on notions of American identity. Dr. Kelly Baker deftly examines this process in her book, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930. Although Baker — a historian of religion — warns us to maintain a boundary between the KKK and white, Protestant America, it is not irresponsible to place the KKK at a different point on the same continuum of American social identity. In essence, the Klan is looking into the same Magic Mirror as the rest of us.

Indeed, Baker draws the connection early:

The Klan gained a following because of its twin messages of nation and faith, and the fraternity progressed because of members’ commitment to its religious vision of America and her foundations.

Americans — USAmericans, USians, etcetera — have always expressed discomfort when facing down groups like the Klan. We tend to look at them as boils or abscesses on the body, and our social narrative regularly “others” such groups to preserve its pristine nature. Although identity is necessarily fictional by nature, such preservation is counterproductive to understanding the true capacity of it, where it originates, and how it might evolve in response to certain social pressures. It may be full of pus, but it’s our pus, and more importantly it is representative of processes within our civic body.

The space carved out by Madison et al. to debate the notion of American identity is still in use today, and still contains the momentum of that early legacy. Each iteration of cultural debate and policy depends upon the previous. Both Murphy and Baker successfully trace their subject matter through to the present, and both have their foundations in the late eighteenth century. In fact, I would argue that losing sight of Madison’s body metaphor constitutes the greatest internal threat. While it may be time to encompass other cultures in what we consider to be American, we must also strive to encompass the many factions within the body of the United States. Only through an honest assessment of what we are can we shape who we will become.

I would love to hear your thoughts. You can find me on Twitter using #BeingAmerican.

Orchid Show

I took a break yesterday and visited the New York Botanical Garden, where the annual orchid exhibition just opened. Instead of writing, I thought I would just post some images.

What a lovely facility.

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Finally, we wandered outside of the Haupt Conservatory and discovered this collection of sculpture, each representing the four seasons. Frankly, I think Spring looks a lot like the late Peter O’Toole.

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What the Trouble with healthcare.gov Really Tells Us

The recent implementation of the healthcare.gov website garnered considerable media coverage, as poor functionality and reliability provided fodder for politicians, partisans, and pundits. One of the more common causes cited for the disappointing launch was programming incompetence, but some discussion of a broken procurement system lent a bit of variety to the discussion. Right-wing ideologues took advantage of the situation to demonize the public sector and renew their call for further privatization (see the so-called “Yellow Pages” letter) although much of the development work was actually carried out by private contractors. I think much of this misses the heart of the matter: the implementation of healthcare.gov highlights weaknesses in the core IT competence of the United States government (public sector) at a time when technology should be a central component of our strategy for global competitiveness.

Office WorkersEssentially, I am making the argument that bureaucracy offers important benefits that Washington, D.C. should embrace. Despite its negative connotation, a certain level of bureaucracy is essential to any organization wishing to grow and codify its position, whether that organization is a powerful nation-state or a multinational corporation. As large organizations create rules and processes to operate efficiently and effectively, cultural knowledge develops. This cultural knowledge — vetted and evangelized throughout the organization — represents intelligence that provides competitive advantage, branding, and a language for customer interaction. It is organizational knowledge that is passed between generations, which promotes stability and, like many forms of knowledge, confers competitive advantage. Despite being described as anti-democratic and despotic, bureaucracy learns how to serve its customer (e.g., the current administration) more effectively than an entity from outside of the organization that does not have the same customer relationship.

One current political assertion rarely debated is that outsourcing enables effectiveness by lowering costs through competitiveness. The practice allows public sector departments to shrink their staff while selecting specialists to work on specific projects. Dogma states that the private sector must be more efficient as its workers are highly motivated to excel and attain valued skills. That is possibly supportable when limiting the analysis to balance sheet performance, but the argument certainly collapses when intangibles like strategic advantage are considered. Balance sheets are important, but many truly innovative organizations grant themselves adequate leeway to explore strategic directions that fall well beyond the definition of efficiency, and we laud their behavior. The public sector must innovate, learn, and consolidate just like the private sector, and this can only happen with a distinct and healthy bureaucratic organization. In my experience as a business process analyst, I observed that outsourced partners could not leverage customer knowledge as well as internal teams. When this leverage does not exist, Information Technology is not considered integral to the organization’s mission. Thus, it cannot be strategic, and its benefits are not optimized.

As the century progresses, the level of IT mastery found in our public sector and its incorporation into strategic planning will relate to the level of success experienced in areas such as finance, security, and logistics. Eschewing IT bureaucracy will insure a sub-optimal understanding of customer requirements and exclude this critical asset from strategic planning. Already we see how countries like Taiwan employ technology to drive their health care costs below 7% of GDP, about one-third of the U.S. level. Recent efforts to disrupt the education sector with technology demands that greater care be taken when considering our public education strategy vis-à-vis the industrialized world.

The debacle of healthcare.gov is not a failure of a single development team as much as it is an inadequate response by a depleted system. Cultural knowledge that could have informed the design, construction, and assimilation of new technology has been systematically dismantled over the past three decades. Most important is to remember that bureaucracy is not about political ideology, it is about understanding the framework in which policy is executed. That is cultural intelligence. Because this form of intelligence is not nurtured and passed from generation to generation, our expectations of success must be necessarily lower. The use of outsourced resources to fulfill work orders like healthcare.gov will sacrifice customer awareness and collaboration for characteristics like staffing flexibility. That appears attractive as a tactic, but is useless as a core competence. Policy makers need to consider whether the United States can maintain its hegemony in a technological environment without a robust IT bureaucracy.