Friday, July 13, 2018

Agricultural history of the US

This is a really cool series of multimedia lessons on the history of US agriculture, called Growing a Nation.  I thought I had linked to this a long time ago, but I wanted to make sure to share it with my readers.  It's aimed at a high school audience, but I sure learned a lot.

Monday, July 9, 2018

The American Soul on July 4th

I spent my Independence Day on a plane headed to Washington, DC.  It was delayed a number of times, but I was pleasantly surprised to see everyone, passengers and flight staff, in a pretty good mood during all of our mechanical and weather delays, and even an emergency landing for refueling in Pittsburgh.  It counterbalanced much of my recent impressions of a general attitude of ugliness taking hold among my countrymen.

I've been reading a book called The American Soul, by Jacob Needleman.  Basically he is a philosopher seeking to "re-mythologize" our American history and sense of national identity.  This means reclaiming our great philosophical, moral, and spiritual figures like Washington, Lincoln, Douglass, and Dr King, as well as teachings from our Native American traditions.  Reclaiming them in a way that both recognizes their human flaws (without going to the postmodern extreme of deconstructing and disregarding the ideas and positions they stood for) and admires their transcendent achievements (without resorting to the infantilizing hagiography presented to schoolchildren).

Needleman maintains an informal, subjective tone throughout, light on citations and heavy on the idiosyncratic specifics of his childhood.  He often makes pronouncements about recent changes [for the worse] in our national character that, A) I don't think bear a basis in objective fact and I often don't agree with, and B) that have a distinctly conservative bent.  He describes things like "the generally prevailing view that we are, on the whole, victims--psychologically, economically, biologically, sociologically, historically--even cosmically," which sounds like a Right-wing bogeyman of the lazy urban masses waiting for their welfare check.  In general the author sees a Fallen humanity in lots of places when I'm not sure we are so bad after all, and certainly not much worse than we were when he was a kid.

Needleman is vague on what exactly our American values are, but they initially seem heavy on individual values like liberty and hard work and rule of law, which many on the Right emphasize at the expense of the general welfare or providing for community needs.  Later on though he is much more explicit that what made our great figures great was precisely their dedication to the good of the community, to providing for neighbors and sacrificing narrow self-interests, and he is clear that the excess or the perversion of these American qualities is at the root of many of today's problems.  He offers almost as a universally-accepted truism that government is punitive and "society" is beneficent.  Try telling that to folks that society tried to lynch or sic dogs on, while only government ensured them the right to vote.  You don't even need to go as far as Jim Crow to see how easily and how often Needleman's American ideals of strong willed pursuit of your "conscience" (plus a rejection of authority) have resulted in things like local school districts that institutionalize lies in textbooks, or anti-vaxxers who insist on the nobility of their cause despite all evidence to the contrary.  I'm also a bit wary of his appeal to add emotion and subjective feeling into the mix of scientific inquiry in order to give it a more profound human meaning.  Sounds a lot to me like medieval Aristotelians insisting on revealed authority as opposed to direct, objective observation.  In short, there are lots of little things the author lets slip (which sometimes even contradict one another) that seem to betray a more conservative bent.  However, this is "conservative" with a lower-case "C", not an upper-case partisan position.

Indeed, I checked Needleman out a bit online, and haven't found anything to indicate any real partisan leanings--his good points are good points, and some points may not be so solid, but in no case is he just trolling or fronting a smoke screen argument to bring you on board unknowingly with some larger hidden agenda.  What he says seems to be sincere and coherent; he really believes and means it.  And some of the subjectivity and my disagreement with his claims aren't entirely his fault.  He draws on a Hellenic, Platonic framework that insists that objective reality and human morality somehow mimic one another, that the natural world somehow conforms to human values and vice versa.  I just don't know if I believe that.  There is plenty in the natural world that isn't just or coherent or "good" per se, it just is.  Likewise, often doing the right thing in terms of human values isn't natural or normal.  It's often when we disobey the indifference or violence of nature that we are doing good.  In short, the laws of nature are internally coherent, but don't necessarily jibe with the workings of a decent human society.

One last nitpicky point I have.  In one passage Needleman claims (again as a truism that he can't even conceive anyone disagreeing with) that you can't legislate the good, but rather that a more just society must come from a change of heart in each person.  This may be true in a metaphysical sense, but we know that having clear laws can reduce the ill that people do to one another, with or without a change of heart.  In the absence of ethics regulations, people can commit petty acts of corruption or nepotism without even realizing that it's wrong (see the self-dealing of many Third World, and now First Family, politicians that feel like they're just moving progress along with big projects that they know just the guy for).  Likewise, anti-discrimination laws in the US probably haven't changed lots of hearts and minds, but they do lead to a much more just and less harmful existence for protected classes of people (and there are even studies showing that, in fact, changing outward rules of what it is acceptable to do or say often do change people's perceptions of what is acceptable).

I harp on this point because often people use this argument of changing hearts as an excuse for inaction in the face of racism or other forms of systemic injustice.  People facilely claim that, since changing a law or prosecuting violators of existing laws won't lead to a systemic change of heart for the violator or the society writ large, we might as well go lax on that stuff.  But if I'm unfairly fired, or passed over for a promotion, or sentenced to a longer jail term than someone of a different race, I don't give a damn what's in the heart of the person who's hurting me.  I just want to limit their ability to do so, with or without changing their mind.

Much of Needleman's thesis speaks of God and the divine, though he is refreshingly flexible about what and who God is, somehow reconciling that God may be both a personalized deity and a more faceless force or principle.  I identify myself as a believer in what he characterizes (quoting Franklin) as the religion of the Founding Fathers:
  • That there is one God who made all things
  • That he governs the World by his Providence 
  • That he ought to be worshipped by Adoration, Prayer and Thanksgiving
  • But that the most acceptable Service of God is doing Good to Man
  • That the Soul is immortal
  • And that God will certainly reward Virtue and punish Vice either here or hereafter
So in the end my differences with Needleman tend to be more cosmetic than anything.  I think we are on the same page on a lot of things, and he is teaching me a lot.  In short I like his book.

I like his calling-out of how boring and stiff the common received representation is of figures like Washington or Jefferson.  In fact, until reading this book, I've never been able to get too excited about these wig-wearing old white men making noble pronouncements.  At the same time, Needleman relates how he (and many of us), even as cynical schoolchildren turned off by much of this "official" US history, still bear an almost religious reverence for the symbols of our country, the "idea" of a Lincoln or the flag or the Pledge of Allegiance.

I like Needleman's idea (taken from Frost's poem The Gift Outright) that [non-Native] Americans are different from other nations in that we, our culture and lifeways and economy and beliefs and our government, didn't arise organically from the land but rather we arrived and imposed our vision (for better or for worse) on a new land.  I like his description of Stoicism as a striving to combine compliance with our outward duties to family and society, with an inward duty to self-discovery.  I like how he turns American exceptionalism on its head, on the one hand acknowledging both the uniquely ugly parts of our legacy while also rescuing the noble parts of our character and makeup that have allowed us to face address our shortcomings like few other nations in history, but more importantly by claiming that what makes the US special in fact speaks to universal philosophical truths, such that the American ideals Needleman profiles are now ideals for everyone.  Needleman highlights America as an idea, which opens the relevance of our lessons and our values beyond just a geographic border.

I do wonder what Mr. Needleman must be thinking these days of the recent junctures in US politics.  First we had in President Obama someone who seemed to subscribe to Needleman's vision, who in almost every public speech made a point to draw a unifying line between the striving and ideals of our earliest forebears, right up to the present day citizenry.  And now we have a President who is callous and crass and doesn't seem to believe in, care about, or even be very familiar with the types of ideals and ideas that Needleman wants to reclaim.  Given my reading of Needleman as leaning conservative, I wonder what he would think of today's Conservative (with a capital "C") cast of characters.

Now that I'm in Washington, I'm enjoying these big ideas and big historical figures and the monuments on the Mall and everything.  But I have to give some advice for the would-be visitor:  don't visit DC just after spending a lot of time in Chicago and observing its architecture.  You will be appalled at DC's tacky building styles.  From the bland red-brick barracks of Arlington slapped together in short order for Pentagon workers in the 40s and 50s, to the modern high-rises with all-tacky finishes that will have to be replaced within 20 years due to poor quality, water infiltration, and mold infestation, none of it compares even to the pedestrian early 20th-century Chicago two-flats and bungalows of solid construction, interesting textures and colors, and even little ornate touches of stonecarving and copper flashing.  The big monumental buildings in DC tend to be utility- and rapid-built in the early- to mid-20th century (think the Pentagon and USDA), with few ornaments, just light grey limestone that looks like cinderblock.  Some (Hoover building, Clinton building) aspire to greater things with NeoClassical facades, statues, fluted columns, and engravings, but this style, while exhibiting more effort and care and craft, still seems pretty tacky to me.  Dare I say that even the Washington Monument, for all the solemn intent of its design, is still a drab, off-color pile of rubble infill?  As a symbol it's great, but the materials still seem tacky.

Even in this though, my architectural snobbery, Professor Needleman has a lot to teach me.  I can acknowledge the inelegance of the materials or the design of the Washington Monument, while still recognizing the nobility of what it stands for as a symbol, as a myth.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Cash transfers vs. comprehensive social protection programs

I recently read an interesting article looking at different approaches to social protection programs.  For the past decade or more, inspired largely by a successful program in Brazil, conditional cash transfers have been all the rage in the development world.  In a conditional cash transfer program, targeted poor families receive a cash or in-kind benefit, sort of a minimum guaranteed income, as long as they fulfill some socially-desireable behavior, usually sending school-age kids to school and vaccinating little kids.  I think many development actors appreciated that these programs were a big improvement on many project-type development interventions, from improving ag productivity to pushing sex education, because instead of trying to do things for the poor in one-off programs that ended when donor funding ran out, conditional cash transfers were often led by poor countries themselves, and looked more like the comprehensive social welfare programs that make life tolerable for the poor in wealthier countries.  But according to this article, conditional cash transfers became a development fad (as microfinance did before them), and something that made sense at the scale it was initially tried (and especially because it was funded by poor countries themselves) became a go-to darling solution for donors to fund.  Anyway, the article contrasts conditional cash transfers with larger, more "boring" social security programs (disability payments, payments to the elderly and poor families with children), which the author prefers.  Not knowing all the nuances myself, it seems that this may be a distinction of scale and degree.  To me, the means-testing and other eligibility requirements for social security programs look a lot like the conditions of a conditional cash transfer program, just done in a more universal and thorough way.  My understanding from the article is that the main difference is a reframing of the cash benefit as a right as opposed to a lucky gift from a donor, and more protagonism placed on the government offering the benefit to its citizens, as opposed to donors funding the program.  Anyway, it makes for good reading for us development-heads.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Black cops and blue lives

This is a fascinating interview with two black cops.  It explores their simultaneous recognition (as black men) of and concern about the systemic bias in American policing, and their defensiveness (as members of the fraternity of police) vis a vis Black Lives Matter or any other criticism of police as a group.  I learned a lot.  I especially liked an analogy that one of the black cops makes about knowing that police brutality is wrong, but still rooting for the cop to get off the hook.  He compares it to when you're watching a ballgame, and a player on your team clearly fouls someone.  You know it's a foul, but you somehow convince yourself that it wasn't, since you want your team to win.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Marching and migration

Yesterday I went to a big pro-immigrant rally in Daley Plaza in downtown Chicago.  It was a wonderful experience, a great way for me to greet Chicago and the summer.  98 degrees and humid, but people out there without complaint.  A real Chicago mix of stoicism and social commitment.  Actually, it didn't smell as bad as you might expect 15 thousand people sweating to be.  The crowd was a lot whiter and more Asian than I expected.  This may seem like a bad thing if you buy into the caricatures of white big-city Liberals coming out to be seen and to signal their virtue.  But after thinking about it, I was proud of the white folks there.  They had come from all over the metro area, many of them probably from areas with few Latinos, but their conviction that it is wrong to tear up or imprison families seeking asylum led them to make their voice heard.  If the crowd had been mainly Latino, that would have been understandable, but I would have worried that many of us in the US aren't concerned with bad things that target other groups.  A crowd as white or whiter than the overall population of the Chicago metro area says to me that people are concerned with child detention, regardless of whether or not it affects their racial group.

In particular there was a huge turnout from Jewish groups and from Japanese-American groups.  In their banners and their discourse it was clear that dehumanization and detention are themes that touch a still-very-raw chord for these communities.  Though the overall crowd wasn't heavily black, there was great representation from a few organized groups like the Church and some unions.  Father Pfleger of St. Sabina's Church gave a brief but riveting speech.

So I felt good about the event, especially because the organizers reminded us that feeling good and marching isn't enough, that we need to keep following up with actions.  Specifically, they referred us to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), as well as urging us to call our Senators and Representatives to urge them not to make any deals for legislation that would in any way continue to violate human rights.  It was interesting that the ICIRR, given our location inland, doesn't deal as much with people detained at the border, but rather with immigrants, documented, asylum-seeking, or otherwise, in need of legal, economic, or social support.  In Chicago, separation of families doesn't usually happen through detention, but rather through deportation of one or multiple family members, leaving behind the others that have legal residence or citizenship.

On the train ride to the march, I happened to sit down near a woman with a banner (for the march) who was being lambasted by a stranger.  The banner woman was trying to be polite and engaging and actually have an intelligent conversation, but the other woman was just ranting on and on about how cynical and lazy and rotten Latino immigrants are.  Her diatribe ranged from anchor babies, to comparing people's children to the child bombers used by terrorist groups, to how black youth are unjustly profiled (so why care about a few crying Latino babies), to how Haitians were denied asylum in the 90s (so Latinos should be today).  She even somehow got onto respectability politics and how Bill Cosby was right about sagging pants being the undoing of the black community, and those women who accused him of rape were ugly, washed-up sluts anyway!  It was sort of an illustration of where the Hotep philosophy converges with the white far-right.  Most of her points were invalid, though she did touch on the disturbing lack of sympathy in the US public for the plight of black folks stuck in intolerable situations.  I didn't want to butt into the conversation, but I wish I could have just whispered to the lady with the banner, "Just ask her how any of these points relate to the rightness or wrongness of locking up children."  Ultimately that's what the march was about, and that's the only relevant thing to be debating at this particular juncture.  Just as the question of whether Trayvon or Michael Brown or Laquon or Philando might or might have been swell guys or assholes is totally irrelevant to whether or not it is acceptable for our cops to be shooting unarmed people, it doesn't matter whether the people seeking asylum at our border are nice or cynical or lazy or what.  The question is, "Is it acceptable for the US government to separate refugee families or to imprison them together?"

I think most people understand that there are many flaws in the current legal framework for immigration and asylum-seeking in the US.  Hell, in most countries of the world; various UN agreements and declarations to which the US is party declare that "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution", but, as this Atlantic article points out, the richer countries of the world have never freely accepted unlimited numbers of refugees, instead financing their stay in poorer countries adjacent to the source country.  It's always seemed odd to me that the world demands that lower-income countries like Uganda and Turkey and Bangladesh be more hospitable and accepting of refugees than the wealthier countries, and now it's come to a head because refugees are bypassing these intermediate "holding countries" and going directly to places like Europe or the US.

The bottom line is that there is certainly room for debate about how best to reform the US's migration laws (though that said, for those who are concerned about an uncontrolled inflow of migrants, they should know that the number of people coming over the southern US border has gone down pretty substantively over the past decade or two, so it's not accurate to act as if the system for keeping out migrants hasn't been effective).  Between the common-sense recognition that all people are equal, so it is incoherent to limit people's movement from one country to another as they desire, and the other common-sense consideration that, coherent or not, every country has a prerogative to manage how many people enter or leave it permanently, there are many nuanced discussions and compromises that can occur.

But spitting out flawed Fox News talking points, false dichotomies, and absurd assertions based on your own anecdotal experience, won't get at any of these nuances.  As with many things, I think it would do us all a lot of good if, whenever we are on a screed about stuff that pisses us off, we try to think of and focus in on, "What exactly am I proposing?  What should be done?  How can I and others contribute to this vision?"  This is just a first step, but it would at least avoid the silly spectacle of so much of our reality-TV-style political "debate", where a conversation about practical measures to separate legitimate asylum-seekers from economic migrants can somehow veer into discussions about Bill Cosby, Sandy Hook, or Hillary's email server.  None of these lead to practical solutions; they only feed an inchoate sense of grievance and resentment.

It's okay to reduce your focus to a very specific facet of a given problem; you don't need to choose between having the grand solution to everything or simply shutting up.  You have a right to decry something that's wrong, as long as you are proposing a course of action that you feel would right the wrong, even if that course of action is as simple as saying, "Just stop doing that thing that's wrong."  The "Yeah, but"s may follow, and that's fair, but not having an answer to every follow-on question doesn't take away your right to point out what's wrong and propose what would be better.

The second step, if you've gotten as far as thinking about a specific, real problem (no, we're not going to talk about the war on Christmas, or how Obama is trying to take away our guns, because those things don't exist) and a specific, real solution you are proposing, is to analyze whether your solution would actually address the problem, without violating any other principles we hold dear.  So that means that you can't propose more prayer as a way of fixing gun violence or racism, because that doesn't actually address the problem, which is the first condition for a solution to be viable.  As for the second condition, you can't propose preemptive incarceration for bad people or something like that, since (aside from the difficulty in distinguishing bad people from good), this would violate a number of principles of the US Constitution, international law, and common human decency and morality.

Let's see how this pans out by analyzing my own thinking around the current migration debate.  The problem I am identifying is that the US government, as of some two-plus months ago, declared out of the blue that it would be separating children from their asylum-seeking parents.  After public outcry, President Trump signed an executive order that would replace separation of families with joint, indefinite incarceration of families with their children.  This is a problem, because in both cases you are denying the right to seek asylum (which is guaranteed in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed by the US).  More viscerally as relates specifically to children, you are either denying them their families or denying them their freedom, neither of which is acceptable (and both of which, incidentally, also violate the Universal Declaration).  My proposed solution is that you do away with both of these policies.  This would mean either reverting to the pre-April 2018 status quo of leaving families in freedom as their asylum claims are processed, or eventually thinking of a better way to handle these claims.  But whatever the long-term solution to the larger, more holistic question, which is certainly a valid one, there is a simple, short answer to how to deal with any new policy that violates basic principles of human rights, especially for children.  Get rid of it.

"So you're saying that everything was fine before Trump and Sessions embarked on these new policies?"  No, but even the flawed status quo was much better than the new, post-April situation.

But what about people who try to game the system, for example by seeking asylum when they are really just economic migrants?  What about migrants who want to have their baby in the US so they can get social welfare benefits?  What about that Lebanese guy who runs a liquor store in my neighborhood that sells junk food and addictive substances?  What about my Latino coworkers who don't like to talk to me?

My short answer is that I don't know the answer to any of these questions, and I don't need to have an answer to the larger question of how best to reform a system in order for me to be able to say that something is wrong and needs to be undone.  None of the above questions have to do with the rightness (or wrongness, in this case), of locking up children or separating them from their families.  Some of the points in the prior paragraph are valid (actually, just the first question; the rest are either bogeymen or personal grudges not germane to a migration policy debate), and there are many other questions and issues that have arisen or will arise in any serious debate about how, if at all, we should reform the US migration system.  At the march on Saturday, I saw signs and heard many people proposing a wide array of larger solutions to the shortcomings of the system, everything from abolishing ICE (which seems radical until you consider that ICE is only a 21st-century reordering of immigration enforcement), to impeaching Mr. Trump, to stronger labor unions, to naming Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, to abolishing the bail-bond system, to improving living conditions in origin countries of asylum-seekers.  I may sympathize more or less with any given one of these or other proposed solutions, and there is a time for honest debate about them on their merits.  But everyone at the march, and I would hope a majority of the US population, would agree that it is illegal and inhumane to punish asylum seekers and abuse their children.