Monday, February 27, 2017

Life on the Farm

Grandma Moses Country, 1978.
I must have been about nine or ten years old when this happened. I was standing with my grandfather, who was chatting with one of his farmer friends. Grandpa asked his friend about another friend, and the farmer replied something like, "I think he went on the county." Nobody said anything for a brief moment, and then the conversation resumed on another topic.

I believe that was my first exposure to the concept of welfare. I didn't know what it was, but children are sponges for subtext as well as text, and I knew that being "on the county" was shameful.

Another day my grandfather and I were standing by the dirt road that ran in front of our house. He was talking with a man who had stopped his truck for a chat. It turned out that our new arrival was selling homemade applejack out of the back of his truck. I couldn't figure out whether my grandfather knew this guy or not. At one point he just said, "I like it, but it doesn't like me." An old guy dodge, tossed in with back-and-forth on such things as the weather, how the crops were doing, the price of milk.

And, after a while, the truck and its driver moved on to their next stop down the road. I didn't realize it at the time but that was probably my first experience with the concept of tax evasion. A direct line back to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.

And again, one fine summer day - actually these were all probably fine summer days - my older brother and I went to a Grange meeting with my uncle and aunt and their children, our cousins. The meeting was in the Grange hall not terribly far from where my uncle and aunt and cousins lived. I recall a pleasant lunch at trestle tables, where we sat on benches. I'm afraid I wasn't following the subsequent business meeting very carefully - my cousins could be quite amusing - until my aunt told me that the meeting was going into a segment where people who did not belong to the Grange were not welcome. And so, she said, my brother and I should go outside and play in the parking lot.

Which is what we did. I don't recall being upset. I believe we may have played the radio in my uncle's car, and eventually we were readmitted to the meeting.

And that, I believe, was the first time I experienced a closed social group from the outside.

Some readers may not know about the Grange. The formal name (I looked this up) is The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry.  It is an organization of farmers dedicated to mutual self-help - an "agricultural fraternity," as the Grange puts it. The Grange was founded in 1867 by a group of people that included several Masons. If I had known this years ago, I wouldn't have been puzzled by the Grange's inclusion of secret proceedings.

Survival of an Old Culture
So, self-reliance, mutual assistance, evasion of authority, and secrecy. These are all salient features of a small community organized specifically for survival in a dangerous world.

What we're looking at here are remnants of a very old culture. This is the village culture of Europe, which dates back at least to the year 1000 and was shaped by the needs of poor farmers - the vast majority of the population - dealing with everything from the uncertainties of the weather to the exactions of the local lord of the manor.

"Daily face-to-face encounters among neighbors in these small rural communities were the principal social environment for most Europeans from the early Middle Ages to the nineteenth century." (Richard C. Hoffman, "Villages: Community," in Joseph R. Strayer, ed., Dictionary of the Middle Ages, v. 12, c. 1989, pp. 437-441, at 437. See also Fredric L. Cheyette, "Villages: Settlement," op. cit., pp. 442-447.)

The internal dynamic of the village was to seek unilateral control over its own affairs and to dictate the terms of its relations with the outside world. Countering this dynamic were church and state - the parish priest and the local lord, who had an interest in law and order and also in taxes.

With the arrival of the industrial revolution, many of the villagers moved to the city. And guess what? They may have left the physical village behind, but they brought the mental village with them - a millennium of experience in how to deal with the world. This deeply engrained structure of custom and, yes, prejudice is alive and well today.

In the United States, because our history of slavery and racism is essential to understanding the American experiment, I think we may at times overlook or minimize the role of village parochialism.

So what does an urban village look like? In The Other Paris (2015), Luc Sante describes the typical quartiers, or neighborhoods, of Paris in the nineteenth or early twentieth century:

"The neighborhoods were self-contained and independent, each with its church, graveyard, main street, central square, range of shops and ateliers, as well as its own culture and ambiance, its folkways and politics. They were like the country villages of their time not just in their particular mix of atmosphere and occupation but also in that most people remained within their borders from birth until death, and many seldom ventured outside for any reason less momentous than a fair or an execution." (Pp. 35-36.)

Urban villages persist to this day and go a long way toward explaining the balkanization of politics in places like Philadelphia.

I would also argue that Donald Trump intuitively understands the villager worldview and panders to it shamelessly, and that this meeting of the minds goes a long way toward explaining why he is in the White House. Let's take just a few examples.

Taxes. Perhaps the most basic tension in the medieval village was over taxes. The villagers didn't want to pay them, possibly because they didn't see them having any positive effect in the life of the village. On the other hand, the local lord and the parish priest thought taxes were a lovely idea. The hatred of taxes is visceral, and appeals to rationality will not work.

America First. Isolationism is just the villager's insularity writ large enough to fit a nation. People intuitively know that the right solution is to shut out the outsiders. Again, appeals to rationality will not work. They're sure they're right.

You can't trump Trump by fighting him on issues like these. But I do think there are some things we can do to be more effective. Democratic leaders clearly find the villagers - whether rural or urban - to be puzzling. Just look at Candidate Obama's comment about clinging "to guns or religion" or Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables."  We do need to get past our lack of comprehension.

And as a first step, stop patronizing them. They think you think you're better than they are. And maybe you do. And maybe you are. But you need to stop acting like you think you're better than they are. It's good politics, and a little humility never hurt anyone.

Stop expecting them to change. These people are not going to wake up one morning and discover that they have become liberal cosmopolitans. So stop trying to win them over with arguments that appeal to liberal cosmopolitans.

Get them some money. The middle class in this country has been hollowed out. We need to refill the shell, or at least show them how we would do it if they voted for us. Our ace in the hole is that Trump is never going to help these people in their pocketbooks. He'll put on a very entertaining show persecuting Mexicans and Muslims. But he's never going to deliver the bacon. That's something to work with.

One Last Story
In this last story I'm not a child anymore, and it's winter. One day my brother and I stopped by to visit someone we had known since childhood. He had grown up on a neighboring dairy farm, worked on that farm and, for a variety of reasons, decided to go out on his own. He had a small place not far away, and was exploring various niches, like serving as a nursery for baby cows until they were ready to go into the milking business. It wasn't going very well. If you know about dairy farming, you know that things in general are not going very well unless you have an extremely large factory operation in a place like the central valley of California.

With a characteristic smile and twist of humor, my farmer friend said the banker who gave him his start-up loan had told him that making a go of it would be hard, "but he didn't tell me it would be impossible."

See also Rugged Individualism: From Daniel Boone to Barack Obama and There: Now You've Got Something You Can Eat!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Who Are the Undeserving Poor? Who Are the Deserving Rich?

The struggle we are presently engaged in will, I think, go on for some time; personally, I look at it as simply the latest acute phase of a very old struggle. Fatigue will set in, as it does in the later stages of a marathon. Indeed speakers have been calling it a marathon, but the marathon is, despite the crowds, a solitary struggle, and a little while ago a speaker at Tuesdays with Toomey happily pointed out that our present struggle is also a relay. A relay marathon, if you will. We carry the burden together. No one person can attend every rally; yet each of us needs to do whatever he or she can. 

With that in mind, here is a story that appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News on January 15, 2014. I am no longer able to locate it online, so I post it here.

Philadelphia, January 2014.  It's 13 degrees.  It's 6:12 a.m.  It's very dark.  I'm sitting at the breakfast table with my wife.

"This is insane,"  I say.  She doesn't say anything.

I say, "The only thing more insane is that Congress left last year and didn't renew the extended unemployment."

Lois sips her coffee.

"So I'm going," I say.  To D.C., I don't say.  On a bus; she knows.

She says, "Isn't it your fifth anniversary this month?'

Five years ago my life changed.  My employer of 16 years decided I was excess baggage in a business downturn, and streeted me at the age of 61.  Thanks for that.

No, seriously, thanks for that.  Then I got to do what I really wanted to do, which was fight for healthcare reform.  A whole alphabet soup:  PUP (Philadelphia Unemployment Project), HCAN (Health Care for America Now), PHAN (Pennsylvania Health Access Network).  Not something I could have done while working for a health insurer.

I think I helped.  That's the downside to casting off people like me.

I also collected unemployment.  And I looked for work.  And I religiously attended the classes at the outplacement agency.

Here's a simple fact of life.  When you've been working for 16 years for a company with a reputation for mindless bureaucracy, and you get streeted at 61, your career is over.

The outplacement agency pretended that wasn't true, and for a while I believed them.  But in the end I came to accept the facts, even as others continued to deny them.

I collected unemployment for a year and a half, and it was important for me -- not just the money, but the validation that I was still a person.  Eventually, with help from PUP, I got a part-time job.  It doesn't pay much, but the people are nice, I enjoy the work, and again it's a validation.

And I've spent a lot time over the last five years sitting on buses, sitting in waiting rooms and cafeterias in D.C. and Harrisburg, spending time with people who are actually poor.  And I'm here to tell you, you can learn things in your 60's.

Our Puritan forefathers bequeathed us this dichotomy between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor.  It's false.  There are just the poor.  They do what they need to do to survive.  And it's not middle class, and it's not pretty.  But I find myself loving every one of them, not just the lovable ones, not just the deserving.

The rich, on the other hand, have been getting away with murder in this country.  We can get distracted by their demonization of the poor, but what would happen if we carried the Puritan battle to them?

How many of the rich deserve to be rich?  There's a whole school of theologians who say that wealth is a signal that God likes you, but what would Jesus say to that? Or St. Francis?  Or the pope?

Dear me, I'm turning into an aging radical.  I got on the bus and got to sit in a room in Washington with a bunch of senators and representatives and poor people and lots and lots of cameras.  And maybe it made a difference.

See also For Athena.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Here's What to Watch Out For

Terezin, 2013.
I cut this copy from a previous article on the Steve Bannon gang, but after Stephen Miller's performance on Sunday I no longer think it is premature. Bannon and Co. made a huge mistake arresting and deporting upper-middle class immigrants in places like JFK airport, a short ride from the media capital of the world. My real concern is what they do in out-of-the way places, where the authorities may be friendly, and where the media can be held at arm's length. 

I had actually expected Bannon and Co. to do roundups of Mexicans in Arizona or Texas - someplace where the local officials and the cops would be friendly and the network TV cameras would be far away. It's true that even poor, undocumented Mexican immigrants have smart phones and can post video online, but they don't have the connections of a Cleveland Clinic doctor and her lawyer. We're talking about a largely powerless, vulnerable group of people.

So pick a small town somewhere down by the Rio Grande. At dusk you close the roads in and out; then you encircle the town. By now you've disabled the cellphone towers, the landlines, the electricity. I suppose you could turn off the water if you really wanted to, assuming the town was rich enough to have a centralized water distribution system.

Then you go through the town, house by house, with warrants issued by a friendly judge, and you ask people for their papers. Those without papers get on the bus. If you're feeling energetic, those with papers miraculously lose them and get on the bus too. Best, really, if everybody goes.

By dawn you're gone, leaving behind a ghost town.

You'll have ways of letting your supporters know about this exploit. They'll be thrilled. But the general population won't hear much, and that will allow most of us to pretend that it didn't happen, or it wasn't as bad as people say. If history is any guide, many people will be happy to turn a blind eye.

In writing this, I was thinking constantly about certain events during World War II - the Rafle du Vel' d'Hiv in Paris and the obliteration of the Czech village of Lidice. Make no mistake. The people in the White House may be illiterate and incompetent, but they are very dangerous. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Senator Toomey Called My Son a Burnt-Down House

Zipperhead, South Street, Philadelphia, 1985.

A few days ago, U.S. Senator Patrick Toomey (R, Pa.) compared my son to a burnt-down house. Mr. Toomey doesn't know my son and didn't refer to him by name. He was talking - in that abstract way characteristic of aspiring political philosophers - about people with pre-existing medical conditions. My son has a pre-existing condition. Forgive me if I am so bold as to connect the dots.

Comparing a human being to a burnt-down house is of course offensive, but it is also, I would argue, a misleading analogy that takes us places we don't want to go.

Lesson number one, Senator. People are not inanimate objects. They are not blocks of wood. They are not many blocks of wood - 2x4s, floorboards, siding, shingles - all nailed together with those snazzy new nail guns. People are people. They breathe, they bleed.

Really, if you want to float an analogy of writing fire insurance on a burnt-down house, you should probably tie it to selling life insurance to a dead man. Personally I wouldn't go there, but it does make more sense than comparing a dead house to a living person.

As for writing health insurance for people with pre-existing conditions, a better analogy would probably be flood insurance. Again, not perfect, but at its base flood insurance is about restoring and maintaining communities. It is about life.

Nowadays, flood insurance largely comes from the federal government through something called the National Flood Insurance Program. Why is this? Well, here is a little fact that people tend to overlook: Insurance companies are in business to make money. And here is a corollary: If they can't make money in a particular market, they exit the market.

But that doesn't mean that the need goes away. People are still going to want to rebuild. It's easy enough to argue against rebuilding in a flood plain - I still do it occasionally - but a strong consensus has evolved over the years, and so the government has stepped into the void left by the insurance companies.

The same thing has also happened in a number of areas of health insurance. Just look at Medicare and Medicaid. The government stepped in to fill a void.

So let's look at those pesky pre-existing conditions again. Insurance companies really, really don't want to cover them. So what are we going to do, let these people die? This would be the burnt-down house path. There seems to be a consensus against it. Even Senator Toomey appears to be concerned about the optics of just letting people die.

The only way to resolve this tension is for the government to enter the void. This would be the flood insurance path.

There's an interesting lesson in rhetoric here. Compare health insurance to fire insurance, and the logic of your argument is that we should let certain people die. Compare it to flood insurance, and the logic is to support life.

Pick the wrong analogy, and you can easily go down the wrong road.

Philadelphia, 1989.
See also Senator Skedaddle.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Bannon and Co. Aren't Very Good at Being Evil

Philadelphia, Saturday, February 4, 2017
Last Thursday I attended a wonderful rally in Philadelphia. It was composed largely of Comcast employees. It formed up in the Comcast building plaza on John F. Kennedy Boulevard and marched, with a police escort, over to Dilworth Park, next to City Hall.

I believe there were between 1,000 and 2,000 participants, mainly young, from just about everywhere around the globe. One speaker said he was Irish-American and his family came here a long time ago; his grandfather spent a week living in a tree in Normandy, fighting to protect our freedoms; and he suggested we should now fight to protect those same freedoms.

I need to say that this was a happy, funny rally. Lots of jokes and lots of laughter. I left feeling good about the future. It'll be a tough fight, for sure, but we have the happy warriors.

In less than two weeks, Donald has unified and energized his opposition. How did he do that? Let me suggest sheer incompetence.

For your debut act of persecution, you decide to turn certain immigrants away from our borders. Well, let's just look at this for a minute as a military operation. Geography is very important to soldiers. The first thing you need to do when planning an operation is define the battlefield.

So our battlefield is every port of entry - airport, seaport, border crossing - in the country. Actually it's a whole series of disconnected battlefields in a war zone that, on a map, would look like a bad case of chicken pox.  How are you even going to keep track of all that, let alone exercise effective command?

The second thing you need to do is control the battlefield. Let's just look at John F. Kennedy International Airport in the New York City borough of Queens. How are Donald and Steve Bannon going to control that particular battlefield?

You might as well try to control the Mississippi River. You've got some immigration guys, that's true. But you don't have the local officials or the police, and you have a vast number of travelers who are about to become very annoyed by the obstructions that occur when protesters and immigration lawyers appear in large numbers - something you can't prevent.

You don't control the ground. And your enemy receives continuous reinforcements. To switch to Dulles and Philadelphia International for a minute, you may even have a U.S. Senator show up to oppose the ban.

Terrible optics.

Okay, you're essentially screwed. Basic doctrine calls for you to unify your own forces and divide the enemy. Instead, you do the opposite.

The theory of persecution also calls for you to select victims who can be demonized. Instead, according to the New York Times, you grab a young woman who is a doctor at the Cleveland Clinic. She has been home visiting family, and she is returning to her job, her fiance, her apartment, her car. Sounds like a pretty relatable person to me.

And you fail to objectify her. Instead, you hold her for six hours and then march her under guard to a plane headed back out of the country, all while her attorney is telling you that a judge is about to hand down an order. It appears the doctor may actually have been deported after the order was issued.

Another old military adage is Know your enemy. It appears that Bannon and Co. never bothered to look at who the people were that they were planning to persecute.

Yes, you're really screwed.

I suppose that, on one level, we're very lucky that Bannon and Co. are incompetent. But unfortunately their incompetence is unlikely to be limited to the persecution of minorities. They are, in fact, supposed to be running the country. They're in the driver's seat, but they don't know how to drive. And that means we're all going in the ditch. Brace for impact.

See also Lidice and the Power of Nothing, Fascism, Even Worse Than I Thought.