The Sprout vs. The Car

13 May

Michael Lind, from the centrist New America Foundation has a new piece up on  In it, he presents an interesting hypothesis about the roots of our current global economic crisis and a guess as to why the political alignments have subsequently shifted as they have.  Halfway through this argument, he makes an observation:

If finance should be deregulated, and trade deregulated, why not deregulate the flow of labor across borders as well?

I once heard a well known Presbyterian mention the same thing, noting the contrast between the relatively easy flow of capital and products across borders, and the relatively difficult flow of labor across borders.   The point was about equality of opportunity.   Because essentially what’s good for the goose, as they say, is also good for the gander.   But I think the difference highlighted by Lind between people and products is at the heart of larger issues involving immigration and diversity that we are currently grappling with as a society.  For as Lind goes on to say:

If people are mere factors of production, not members of a cultural nation or citizens of a republic, then patriotism is pointless.

Why does moving people across, whatever the purpose, prove so difficult?  Well, no one asks how well a banana grown in Ecuador holds up when its shipped to a supermarket in Chicago.  It’s just going to be consumed and eaten in short order.  Few people ask whether their computer will function properly because the parts or support come from the other side of the globe.  These are what we call simple transactions and exchanges.  Yet, when a child from Chihuahua makes her home in a Chicago elementary classroom it is by no means simple.  There is a cultural shift and adjustment that has to be made both on her part and on the part of the community which takes her in.  Values will need to be reexamined and identities will have to be broadened.  But let’s not limit this cultural change to immigration.  Whether were discussing where Wall Street bankers care to put their money, or whether a Washington Bureaucrat cares about anything beyond careerism or petty grievances, changing the culture of institutions and whole swaths of a nation is a complex task.

Cultural change is not simply the fait accompli of heroes elected or landmark laws being passed.  But for too long those of us who have favored change or transformation have grown restless, relying on these instruments to do the work of change for us.  Real, effective change can sometimes get jumpstarted by laws, politicians and funding, but they can’t make it last or endure.   When challenge, crisis or, unintended consequences come the suddenly we find ourselves struggling to understand the forces we have unleashed.  So the nation which would support cultural and ethnic diversity must put its resources into the long term cultivation of an authentic and stable society for it to dwell in.  And that process cannot be bankrolled on quick fixes or unstable economic plans insisting that the rising tide of prosperity will silence all these silly issues of cultural tension.  As this economic crisis has taught us, we better not take social harmony for granted.  We cannot ignore what is going on beneath the hood of our culture.  Is the engine of change and adjustment running on empty?

If you look within Christian canon of stories, you’ll find many references to the agricultural process.  Partly this is because the biblical stories come to us from a time of simpler technology, than that found underneath the hood of a car.  But I think it also profoundly recognizes the difficulty of sustained change.  So you get from the mouth of Jesus, parables about seeds falling on all sorts of rough or challenged soil.  You get stories about how pesky weeds grow even amongst fields of prized wheat.  And those images speak to the complexity and slowness of cultural change.  They encourage patience, but also a curiosity.  Ultimately, the quick fixes we prefer drain our inquisitive spirit and discourage looking under the hood, or rubbing our fingers in the soil, to know how and why things work.  Now more than ever, those who value a vibrant, culturally rich society must recapture what we have nearly lost.

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