Political Debates 6: (He Said)

Miranda – With the track changes in your last note, it was getting a little unwieldy, so starting a new thread. For much of our fundamental disagreement – both of individual v. collective, liberty v. government authority – I actually think George Will’s column from this week captures it precisely. In particular, the following two statements from his piece:

 The fundamental division in U.S. politics is between those who take their bearings from the individual’s right to a capacious, indeed indefinite, realm of freedom, and those whose fundamental value is the right of the majority to have its way in making rules about which specified liberties shall be respected.

 The argument is between conservatives who say U.S. politics is basically about a condition, liberty, and progressives who say it is about a process, democracy. Progressives, who consider democracy thesource of liberty, reverse the Founders’ premise, which was: Liberty preexists governments, which, the Declaration says, are legitimate when “instituted” to “secure” natural rights.

 It’s disheartening that you don’t believe fully in natural rights. That essentially says that individuals really have no meaning without the paternalistic hand of government/the majority to tell us what we can/cannot do. As Will argues in his piece, there are rights that existed before the creation of government. Government exists not to give rights; it exists to protect the ones that we are already provided (and please spare me the tangent on slavery, women not being able to vote, etc. etc. – the Founders weren’t the best at living out the ideals they set).

 With each of your emails, I’m constantly drawn back to my earliest point – that a smaller government confined to its original constitutional bounds actually best serves both the individual and the society. Your comment “How do you allow for all individuals to pursue the improvement of civil society (or their own situation) when it is patently clear that law benefits some and significantly harms others?” is a perfect illustration of this. If you have fewer regulations, fewer opportunities for the strong to leverage government power for their own benefit, then the individual/small business/local association/etc. has more space to flourish – which will benefit both those individuals and society. The problem for many on my side is that our government (at all levels) has gotten so large and so pervasive that the average individual cannot perceive a time where government does not intrude on their day-to-day lives as individuals. So for most, my arguments about individual liberty are an utter abstraction.

 I return to another argument – I’d be much more supportive of your thesis if it actually worked. It doesn’t though, while driving the nation to bankruptcy simultaneously. Inequality has not gone down despite an increased social safety net that spends more money every year. Life expectancy and health outcomes have essentially been flat (or even declining for the poor) despite healthcare expenditures rising double or triple the rate of inflation. Poverty has risen markedly in the past 10 years (chalk up some to the Great Recession, some to terrible government policy). Yet – today’s liberals pursue more of the same.

 As an aside – this is hogwash: I do think that political rights, in the absence of some social and economic rights are rendered somewhat meaningless as rights as exercise is impossible. Hence also my belief that our current primary goal must by deciding what we think that baseline must be, and the most efficient means to make sure the majority of people within society are at that minimum. Perhaps the most socialistic/communistic statement you’ve made so far. And it makes the fundamental error of combining negative rights and positive rights. Our Constitution protects the former, and doesn’t say a peep about the latter. Again, while an abstraction, if government were smaller and played less a role in our day to day lives, you’d find that the exercise of those negative rights will lead to improved social and economic outcomes.

 The last thing – the centralization that you refer to is utterly antithetical to our constitutional construction. Federalism, particularly the 10th amendment, was conceived as a ‘fourth branch’ if you will. Liberals (and many conservatives) forget that the constitution gave powers to the government that otherwise would have resided with individuals and states. Our regulatory and bureaucratic state fundamentally destroys one of the (many) protections of liberty in the constitution. The federal government was constructed as the least powerful governmental entity – not the most. If there was one clause in the Constitution I would change today, it would be rewrite of the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper clause. SCOTUS has misinterpreted those so badly.

 To the Hobby Lobby case specifically, I wanted to address this comment of yours: you would prefer that employees leave gainful employment and look elsewhere for jobs that meet the same criteria but also have specific clauses within insurance provisions that meet their personal ideological and medical needs? In short, yes. That’s the beauty of the free market and the free movement of labor. There are literally hundreds of businesses that sell arts and crafts supplies like Hobby Lobby. I’m sure many of those businesses provide birth control as part of their insurance plans. If I’m a potential employee looking for a job in that industry, perhaps that’s an important factor to me. Maybe it isn’t. If it is, I won’t interview with Hobby Lobby. And over time, if it’s an important enough factor for enough potential employees, Hobby Lobby will find that it may need to change the policy, or cut back on its growth plans. But here’s the point – all of that can be done without any government interference. There is zero need for government to be involved. Let the labor market work. And to your point about ‘religion against the economic health of the state’ – that’s cut-and-dry – the constitution protects the former and says nothing about the latter. Point for religion.

 Ultimately, your view on the size, scope, and sphere of government action simply doesn’t comport with the Constitution. If Democrats want to amend the Constitution, great – let’s have that debate. But let’s not try to skirt around it with more and more regulation that doesn’t fit at all with how our country was founded – on the individual, on natural rights, with government there to protect those rights – not to create new-fangled ones because we can’t imagine an individual doing something ‘the majority’ doesn’t like.

 Happy Easter (am I allowed to say that?)

Political Debates 5: (She said)

The point isn’t that the collective necessarily makes decisions, it is a short-hand for the will of the majority within society. When everyone in society agrees there is no issue and the point is irrelevant, when the individual wants to do something that impacts no one but themselves, or there is enough ‘space’ (be it physical or metaphysical) for them to take that action unhindered again the point is irrelevant. I can swing my arm wherever the hell I want until it meets your nose.

The point at hand though and where it matters is when the action that an individual, or a minority, wants to take is somehow counter to the will of the majority (or the detriment of the whole), in situations in which the majority perceive that action to somehow infringe on them it becomes relevant because the tension between those two wants must somehow be decided.

I’m not sure I totally believe in ‘natural rights’ (although I do support the UDHR so I know I’m a bit of a hypocrite/ incoherent there). A huge part of our current national conflict is that individuals who want to take specific action counter to the majority or ‘collective good’ often question the basis upon which ‘collective good’ is founded, or those individuals doing the deciding.

I would posit that this breakdown in the social fabric (by which I mean the social ties that bind groups outwith political systems) eat away at the trust that previously allowed us to find common ground and exchange privileges for responsibilities (read let others do things sometimes that we might not totally like for the good of the overall functioning of society/ promise of reciprocation in future).

This is the intractable problem we find ourselves currently negotiating and indicates to me that the basis upon which we predicate governance (and further politics) is currently threatened. Until we have some solid foundation on which to negotiate we will continue going around in circles.
To be clear, my friend was actually complaining about special interest groups who are trying to infringe on the free-market but I totally agree with the point 🙂

Now we are getting somewhere interesting! I think you hit the nail on the head as to our fundamental disagreement. I don’t know that I would go as far as you seem to think I do, but I think that when it comes down to it I pull towards collective as answer and you pull towards individual. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, but I do think they exist in relationship and the level of orientation towards each waxes and wanes throughout history. Does one hunt for a rabbit or a deer when one cannot hunt for both? I choose deer and hope that others do too.
I think my difficulty with trusting the individual as the best unit to allow society to flourish is because of the tendency within society for power to remain largely inert and those in privilege to ignore their own privilege. I agree that the individual is the agent with the highest potential to create innovation and drive society forward. Looking at the US over the past 300 years demonstrates that unleashed the power of the individual is awesome (in the truest sense of the word, not the way I mostly use it day to day :))
I worry however at the collateral damage that is left in the wake of that in both human and, more recently, environmental harms. I also think that the individual as an agent is at times not well placed enough to answer some of the collective difficulties we face. I also worry that allowing individuals to pursue their own happiness or ends unfettered is a somewhat dangerous proposition. At some point, usually sooner rather than later, that happiness or goal is at the cost to others or to the whole. If the individual is completely unaware of, and uncaring for their context, the cost of their ‘success’ is problematic. I’m not even sure if I have an issue of taking away from another, as long as that is acknowledged.
I think this is where I come back around again too: ” Law and order, common defense, and enforcement of contracts”
These seem like simple and agreeable premises. But when accounting for historical reality and exigent power dynamics they become more complicated. How do you allow for all individuals to pursue the improvement of civil society (or their own situation) when it is patently clear that law benefits some and significantly harms others? How can we really claim we have any kind of functioning (let alone just) system of law when we incarcerate more people per capita than any other highly developed state, and we execute numbers similar to totalitarian dictatorships? Either people in the US are somehow inherently different from those in other countries, or something is flawed in our system of law and order. We could talk about Realist v Constructivist approaches to common defense but I think that is a tangent. All I’ll say is that again, defining and pursuing that as an end is a complex thing.

Contracts should be simpler to define/ talk about, but again, when levels of inequality are as high as they are I think it is difficult to claim that contracts can be fairly constructed between individuals. Coercion on paper is as destructive and violent as using a gun. (not a big fan, again, if you compare our levels of violence and gun deaths to every other developed nation it becomes clear that either we are inherently different in very bad ways or our governance is problematic about some things). Also, isn’t the narrative for many 2nd Amendment fans that it is necessary in case the government oversteps by making them do something terrible like have access to preventative care and basic medical provision and they must rise up in violent revolution to protect themselves? ;P

This is why I was making the argument/ posing the question as to equality in society. I agree that when individuals can negotiate within civil society, without need to get ‘authority’ involved everything functions more smoothly and easily. The difficulty is that for that negotiation to be possible and functional there is some modicum or basis of equality that must be supported such that they are truly negotiations and not coercion that looks pretty.

I could care less about income equality except that disparate access to resources seems to be the basis of much of the rest of inequality within society. (studying the history of the construction of mechanisms of disenfranchisement would seem that most of the construction was for the express purpose of a narrative allowing disproportionate access to resources and taking them away from groups within society) Allowing all individuals access to some base level of provision/ safety net allows them to exercise all the other rights and improves civil society in precisely the way you advocate.

I do think that political rights, in the absence of some social and economic rights are rendered somewhat meaningless as rights as exercise is impossible. Hence also my belief that our current primary goal must by deciding what we think that baseline must be, and the most efficient means to make sure the majority of people within society are at that minimum.

Looking at the expansion of government in the last 60 years, and the way that narrative has been told, especially from the far Right is informative. The second half of the 20th century was a time of increasing centralization. Some of that was afforded by technology and travel, some through media, and a lot of it through the increasing power and scope of the federal government. At the same time there were a number of supreme court cases that overruled long-held systems in more provincial areas of the country (to be clear, I am not using that word in any way pejoratively, simply that many of the communities involved tended to be more isolationist/ unconnected from major urban centers that are more ‘progressive’/ willing to change traditional societal structures).

Those decisions forced communities to more centralized social points of view, and often enabled branches of government to expand to protect previously marginalized groups within those communities. But it is important to note that there had been disenfranchised groups before, they were just unseen or unheard and many of those decisions afforded them the individual rights you celebrate but that had been reserved for those privileged within those groups.

(Read this excellent article about racial atavistic violence for more about what I mean- sorry about the popups, below the fold is the point, the stuff above is less )

To enable the idealized version of individualism that supports civil society and allows for dynamism that moves all of us forward there must be a container within which it functions. That is the entire body of the critique against Habermas’ Public Sphere. I love the premise, but can’t help but see merit in the critique that it is founded within praxis of privilege on a number of levels (white, wealthy, male, individualistic). The work of Nancy Fraser and others demonstrate that there are inequalities that undermine a singular functioning public sphere and while counterpublics function as a merited alternative, when the singular body politic breaks into too numerous counterpublics, with little reference between them, we begin to lose the thread of meaningful dialogue and interaction and our overall civil society begins to face intractable problems. This is exacerbated by media outlets that are individually pursuing capitalist ends and further distancing groups for sensationalism and profit.

All of this is to say, that without some baseline/ common context/ understanding/ goal we (like the universe post big-bang) drift farther and farther apart making more and more likely violent ruptures without diplomatic or non-violent means to overcome difference. The problem for my side is that bureaucracy has quite obvious limits (both in terms of actual functioning and in terms of human potential) but for the other side that the narrative sounds suspiciously like ‘we were ok with the rights of the collective when it disproportionately benefitted us but now that it is beginning to benefit the previously disenfranchised against us we would like a return to the individual as that is where the extent privilege continues to be housed and how our counterpublic will continue to be in charge of all the others because we do not trust that in a truly free market we would succeed.’

Political Debates 4 (He said)

In a back-door fashion, I think we actually agree more than we’d like to admit. I still posit that the ‘collective’ has no rights and the ‘collective’ doesn’t make decisions. Groups of individuals come together to make decisions – at times via the state, at times via civil society and the free associations that individuals make amongst themselves. A small distinction but an important one to me.

Your whole paragraph on getting government to do your individual bidding proves my point exactly. Your political friend lobbying for personally-beneficial bills does so precisely because government is so large, that getting ahead is easier via government legislation (when you have the means/resources/connections) than fighting it out in the open market where you have to win or lose on your own. Government’s attempt to legislate each and every outcome leads directly to more and more people wanting government to do it’s bidding. (Aside – here I have to call out my Republican brethren and their support of big business. Too many Republicans are not pro-free market, they are pro-big business, and use the machinations of big government to support large incumbents to the detriment of small business job creators). Only when you shrink the size and scope of government will your political friend realize that there’s nothing to gain via lobbying and there’s higher return in competing in the free market.

Where we disagree fundamentally though is your third major paragraph. You view government and the ‘collective’ as the only thing preventing us as individuals from taking up pitchforks against our neighbors and running naked through the streets waiting for the next Robespierre to save us. I take the opposite view – government is the rate limiting factor in individual human potential. Don’t get me wrong – government has a role. Law and order, common defense, and enforcement of contracts. Those three things, when done well, provide the necessary infrastructure to curb the wild side of individualism, while allowing space for the individual to flourish. You see the individual succeeding if and only if the ‘collective’ is somehow diminished. I see releasing the individual to freedom and liberty as the only way over time to enhance the collective well-being of society. Civil society and free association are the ways in which we moderate individual relationships without government support, and the more government intrudes into that space, the more individuals will feel the need to hunker down and defend themselves. (I get the sense from this paragraph that you might not be a big 2nd Amendment fan).

I also came across the article linked here that is only tangentially related to the course our argument has taken, but one that sums up my viewpoint on this issue of government intrusion into the individual sphere.

Political Debates 3- In which it gets longer (She said):

I think you slightly concede the original point when you recognize the state as the balance to the individual. The state is the institution by which the collective makes decisions, but prior to ‘state’ there is still collective. The modern state is the specific institution we have chosen to expedite the decision-making and execution process, but the balance, at a philosophical/ ideological level remains individual and group.

In many ways, the tipping that you refer to, and the expansion of the government, is specifically because individuals feel it is acceptable to attempt to subvert the government (i.e. the agent/ institution of the collective) to benefit their individual wants. There is no personal motivation for an individual to contain themselves against others. I talked to a guy in politics who says he spends most of him time attempting to stop the government passing bills that individuals want sponsored to solve a specific personal problem. When an institution that needs to govern such a large body politic is being used (or is attempted to be used) regularly as a vehicle for personal advancement it seems somewhat self-evident that any kind of functionality will be necessarily reduced.

Although rights travel with individuals it is also incumbent on them to exercise those rights with responsibility and to consider the larger social order when making decisions about how they comport themselves when in the public sphere. I would actually argue that bureaucracy expands precisely because without a social fabric organizing the collective other means emerge to reduce anarchy and chaos and allow people to live in high levels of population density without going postal on a regular basis.

I think that actually is part of the explanatory principle behind your example- in order to ‘reduce conflict’ (put in that way because it doesn’t actually accomplish that in the slightest) governments have attempted to reduce the potential friction points by mandating every minute detail and then making those who govern argue about whether or not each individual act meets the statutes enshrined in law. I would completely agree that it doesn’t make sense, and that the increasing level of conflict is inevitable when predicated on that system. As well, the increasing numbers of details mean that those who govern are able to spend less and less time deciding principles and higher-order issues and more and more time spiraling down into municipal planting hell. (I could make some argument about the connection of the trees to the environmental impact and offsets, but I think that is tangential and time wasting so I’m going to refrain!)

Think about the most recent CEB work actually, the world is too variable to mandate specific process and actions, instead it is incumbent on leaders to set a vision and guardrails within which each individual attempts to reach that goal in the best way they see fit. The difficult in applying this to our current political situation is that we have lost any concept of a shared vision. My fear/ issue with resting too much power with the individual (through reduction of discourse to rights and more specifically individual rights ala Locke) is that when the balance tips too far that direction we lose any semblance or possibility of finding or establishing any kind of shared vision. If we had less people in the world, and lived in less highly dense areas that might work as a proposition, but we don’t. We must find a way to negotiate with those around us and that has to start from some kind of shared hope or expectation that can allow us a guiding principle. For almost 500 years we have been able to rely on systems of governance that reduce variability and contain the chaos around us, largely by pushing specific groups out, and building on their disenfranchisement and deprivation. Unfortunately for that paradigm we have hit several kinds of limits at once and that ideology is inadequate to address the individual and collective challenges with which we are faced. Instead of attempting to control external chaos so the individual can live largely in peace I think one of the new challenges of our time is to teach individuals to personally address the chaos that comes at them so they can deal more deliberately in their choices.

Totally agree with your entire paragraph about big government. Completely. (including the last sentence J)

I think the next time we are in the same place we should sit down and talk about the inequality bit. I’ll go find and read the book and you can elucidate that argument a little more clearly J

I see the possibility you point out about exposing fraud, but at the same time, non sequitur numbers, out of context, are easily misunderstood. Having been involved in academic research I am the first to admit that there is a lot of schlock that should never be paid for (again, because individuals want to be academics and want someone else to pay for it without thinking about the broader applications of the work they do) but I have also seen brilliance in unexpected places, spurred by connections and cross-over that to the uninformed would be easy to point to as ‘waste’ but has moved forward lines of inquiry/ analysis/ innovation that does have real value. Secondly, it is a little too easy for us to label as ‘useless’ funds paid for things we don’t agree with when, again, it may have universal value, or value to a group within society that is deserving of whatever benefit that patronage might provide but without specific context it becomes a waste or a joke instead.

I would be interested to hear your take on how we hope to get some kind of functionality as a state with huge numbers of individuals all competing against each other, with little shared  vision and even less goodwill to work together. How do we get to a point where it is possible to have some kind of public discourse around both principles and tactics and what the mechanism for execution looks like while attempting to reduce the apathy that bureaucracy instills both within those who are a part of it (read civil servants) and those who have to deal with it (all the rest of us poor schmucks)?

Still believing in some kind of greater good…

Political debates: 2- He said:

First, as soon as we start ‘balancing’ freedom of individuals with anything else, we’re already coming untethered. The only ‘balance’ there should be is the one the Constitution strikes between the individual and the state – a balance which has inexorably tilted toward the state since the founding, and accelerated with the expansion of the administrate state/bureaucracy. Second, the ‘collective’ has no rights. Rights travel with individuals. Individuals may choose to exercise those rights as part of a group (e.g. free speech by a protest march, owning private property with an investment team) but the rights are tied not to the collective but the individuals thereof (hence why I and many conservatives believe Citizens United was properly decided).

Anyway – I’ve been trying out the following argument on my socialist (truly) uncle to no avail, but let me see if it works on someone I consider much more rational. The reason we argue so divisively over politics, fight tooth and nail for every inch of our ideology, and most often fail to compromise is that the state impacts so much of our day-to-day lives. Government at all levels is so large and so expansive that we have to fight there, for fear of losing any semblance of the individual. For example – I sit on my county’s Board of Adjustment. We literally have ordinances that prescribe the size, number, and spacing of trees/brush/plantings that must encircle each type of commercial building. We spent an hour at our last meeting arguing if the current level of forestation on a piece of private property was sufficient to meet the statute for building a self-storage facility. And this is at the county level – let alone the state or federal level. When government starts to prescribe something as minute as the trees on my property, you’re damn sure I’m going to argue like hell when they try to mandate what gets included in my health insurance plan (something of infinitely greater importance to my overall wellbeing).

And when government gets so big – particularly at the federal level – you know who wins? Other big things – big business, big labor, big lobbying, etc. This to me is the overarching argument for smaller government at all levels. And you know why politicians of both parties don’t want that? As Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds is fond of saying – insufficient opportunities for graft. Smaller government – even with a decent safety net – would greatly increase the odds of compromise because no longer would we be talking about things that strike to the very core of our individuality. We’d be back to talking about whether there should be a tariff on Chinese goods, for lack of a better example. If you want politicians to get out of the pockets of ‘big’ things, you need to reshape the incentive structure – and so long as ‘big’ always wins (because they have the time/money/resources to actually figure out how government actually works), there will be no incentive to trim it down. And the thing that is mind-boggling to me about poorer Democrat voters is that they are getting royally f**ked by the upper class of their party who are the very elite who create the system that keeps them poor and dependent. [Yes, that last sentence was a bit of a gratuitous cheap shot, but you get my drift.]

+1 on getting rid of gerrymandering. I’d do away with it in a heartbeat. Draw horizontal and vertical lines across each state. We’d see partisanship go down in a New York minute.

On the inequality bit – I wish Democrats would admit they want equality of outcomes. Don’t be coy about it – out with it. Let’s have an honest debate. I’d love to know what a liberal’s ideal top tax rate is. What percentage of total taxes should the top 1% pay? Top 5%? Top 20%? When will we have enough? Here’s the thing that makes me die inside though – and what tells me that today’s liberals don’t actually care about raising people out of poverty – we know certain behaviors greatly increase the likelihood of being a middle class family and yet liberals outright REFUSE to facilitate policies that would incent those behaviors. Please read Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart – fantastic illustration of this. We KNOW that waiting until you’re married to have kids is a quote-unquote good thing. We KNOW that finishing high school is a similar good thing (but no, it must be in a public school taught by a unionized teacher, wah wah). And yet – nothing.

Lastly (for now) – pulling out random numbers is exactly how you expose the fraud of government spending. No one will fix the abomination that is Medicare fraud until you point out instead of giving quality healthcare to Grandma, government is busy researching whether rhesus monkeys respond to phallic symbols on the second Thursday of the month.

Yours in smaller government and a freer civil society,

Political debates: 1- She said:

Although I lean left, and I voted for Obama with lots of hope, I in no way blindly support his policies or rhetoric. There are a lot of flaws in him and his administration and I freely admit that, but I think most of that debate is a smokescreen. I think it is about both sides avoiding things we don’t want to talk about- because it makes us look bad, or because we are afraid there is no possibility of reconciliation. Who knows? Debating over whether he or his administration is at fault for a fatally flawed system ignores the greater point that most politically minded (young) people need to address which is

a)       How do we come to consensus on the things we can agree on (as an ideological basis for future policies) and

b)      How do we begin to tactically execute on those priorities in a way that balances freedom of individuals, some kind of safety net for those we deem to be unable to provide for themselves and deserving of some social support to enable them some dignity and the rights/ needs of the collective?

Politics has become so divisive- about how to beat the other guy, prove people wrong, take things away from one group so we can give it to another. But the reality is that we are all here together, and we do have issues that face us all and are better solved by finding common ground and then common solutions. There are collective action problems that must be solved together, and problems that when solved together are more likely to have positive and longer term solutions. At the same time it is unproductive (at best) to deny the individual as much power and responsibility for their own actions as feasible within a highly dense social population.

Both parties are now in bed with special interest groups in such a way that governance is almost impossible. It used to be that government was able to play mediator between factions within society who rightly or wrongly believed their interests to be mutually exclusive to other factions. At times government was able to help those groups find a common ground, and when they couldn’t both sides trusted them to arbitrate fairly for the best interests for society. Between campaign contributions and gerrymandering we have pretty well f*ed up the system we had working for us.

In terms of equality- I think is issue is less about the income equality, and more about the socio-economic level within which we think it is beneficial to have the majority of society exist. Once we have an idea about what that level is, there are a number of tactics that can be employed to attempt to bring more people to that point- but we haven’t agreed on that first piece. There are a lot of issues on the backend that make up the nuance- how much is any one individual or group responsible for their own poverty/ deprivation? Who has responsibility to change those circumstances- especially if we don’t all see ourselves on the same side? If I don’t agree with the moral choices they make how much do I get to dictate their behavior to balance the economic support I may be offering?

At the base level, any society attempts policies to contain chaos and anarchy: wealth redistribution, monopolies of violence and some form of bureaucracy are the main instruments by which that is accomplished but which nuanced articulation and instantiation of those policies we choose to use is undermined by the extent to which we are so busy yelling at and blaming the other guy for the things they are not doing…

Anyway… just a few opening thoughts 🙂

PS- I do think that pulling out random numbers from the budget about things we overspent on is both a red herring and unproductive but that might be the academic that still lives in my heart [response to a different thread]

So it begins

As many people know I like to debate, often more than is good for me. Over the last several months I have been having debates with people at work. (Yes, they were willing participants, I promise!)

One of the reasons I love my job, and my place of employment is the fact that I get to work with really intelligent, interested people. We happened to have a night out the same evening as the State of the Union. At first, I thought it would be a problem, exposing the significant political differences between myself and a few of my colleagues. Never deterred, I broached the subject with one I considered a friend and instead of assuming our friendship was over he agreed to have lunch and actually discuss the issues, like adults, and explore where we agreed and where we differed. He even offered homework to better understand where he was coming from!

Fast forward a month or two, and another person I work with heard about our ongoing debate. We began an email dialogue that has been highly thought-provoking (though slow as we are both very busy- although me less than him). A few weeks ago, as I was composing a response I realized that our dialogue might be of interest to other people. We disagree. A lot. But I think that we are managing to find the relevant points of clash and consider them in ways I don’t get a lot of exposure to elsewhere. I really value the ability to have hard conversations and I think we are lacking much of that in our current political discourse.  Although at times we veer towards jocularity (and have been accused of having a long-word contest) I think there is substance in the argument, and might help point out some of where our public conversations are missing.

Anyway, he graciously gave me permission to post the contents here for all to read. I hope you enjoy reading and that it might spur some intellectual reflection of your own. Always appreciate thoughts, responses or ideas in return, although I really can’t promise swiftness in my response.

They are rather long, so I will be posting as independent pieces, read in chronological order for it to make more sense.

My own in- and out- group ambivalence


To my friends, Willamette Heights neighbors, and loved ones,

I’m writing because I know no other way to express my sadness clearly and even if it’s only one voice, I would like to be heard.

I was dismayed about the potential loss to our neighborhood and community of a space that contains so many pieces of my childhood. I saw the threat to community, and to a rare and precious building block of what we cherish so dearly. I signed the petition, hoping that an intervention might change the direction of history, that the weight of our voices would be enough to help a young couple change their minds.
Immediately, I also wondered how directly we had been able to communicate with them. The more I researched the more I realized how similar they were to myself, and other children of our community. We inhabited the same space in time, even if not the same location. I’m sure I can relate to many of their experiences and memories, and I hoped that there was the possibility of reconciliation. That instead of being a threat, they could be welcomed into the community.

Our neighborhood has a history of accepting new people- waves of immigrants have come at different periods seeking similar things from the place they choose to live. I was the child of speculators, and remodelers, and yet I was welcome, as were my parents.

I understand that modifying the status quo is not the same as destroying and rebuilding, and I felt the same fear that the place of my memories would no longer be available. Many of you know how my childhood home no longer resembles the place I grew up, and the distress it has caused. But there is a new family there now, and they love the place as it is now as much as I loved it as it was before.

For me, Willamette Heights has always been about the people who live there. The architecture and the landscape are important, but what makes it a home is the community-the faces that grow and age but remain smiling and happy to see you. The houses have been the backdrop, but the real magic is in the events in those homes, and the continuity of connection year after year.

This is what I have found most distressing this week. For a place that claims community as a differentiator we have not been very community minded. Kevin and Darya are a young couple who had no way of knowing the expectations that came with the house they purchased, how could they? We don’t list neighborhood Easter Egg hunts on a spec sheet, and there is no written statute that says they must participate. I too would hope they would want that, but after their treatment this week I understand why that choice would be unthinkable.

People must choose to be a part of a community. A measured response from us might have engendered that choice. It might not. I freely admit that, but I also believe that either way it needed to be for them to decide.
Early on I hoped that they just didn’t realize how people felt, that a natural unawareness of this context led to choices that others were unhappy about. Optimistically I thought that perhaps they didn’t realize that community was on the table. That in return for modifying plans for their individual space they would be offered a precious alternative- a welcome to a community that I have been proud of. But watching as this story became increasingly sensational, as people tangentially related became involved and used our small drama as a soapbox for other issues I became both disheartened and ashamed.

I don’t think they came off in this story nearly as badly as we did. We had the opportunity to be transformative, to attempt some form of reconciliation or mediation. To truly practice the sense of community we espouse. We failed.

Many of you knew my mother. Many of you attended her memorial where we passed out cards of her most important philosophy ‘both/and’. I have seen many of the cards still in your homes years later. This was an opportunity for us to try to inhabit that and make choices allowing space for both perspectives. To keep thinking that we could find a solution that wouldn’t end with lawyers and media storms.

We vilified a young couple internationally, and for what? To save a house? To ‘protect’ our community? Did we really think they were so deaf, or so willful that they would choose to live in a space after knowing the neighbors felt so negatively? Did we think they would destroy the house for spite?

Many have been silent, many have said things that upon reflection they would take back or modify. We had the opportunity to have a truly civil discourse, and we missed. There are lots of reasons for that; emotions run high over community, history, in- and out- groups and, above all, money.

I don’t hope for any specific outcome from this- after all, it really has little to do with me and I trust that those people actually involved will come to some resolution, most likely with everyone walking away unhappy. I walk away sad, ashamed of how we treated people who could just as easily have become one of us, might have been if not for a number of accidents or coincidences that took us in different directions.

I needed to speak because it is important to have different voices in any functional community. Many have spoken for me this week, some I know and some I’ll never meet. I wanted to speak for myself and offer an alternative perspective.

Thank you for reading.

Established and Outsiders

ImageI was thinking today about acceptance. The process by which an outsider with overtones of belonging is able to become a part of the group. The process through which that outsider is able to make inroads, to help that group accept something a little different, without needing to erode that individuality. I was thinking about process.

What is the thing about an outsider that the group most fears and despises? Especially when that group believes that difference is a threat.

What is the shorthand that makes that manifestation of threat become innocuous?

What about that individual allows them to have the strength to maintain that otherness while opening to the group?

Why is this seemingly all so difficult?