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Hope beats Optimism: Blogging Lasch’s True and Only Heaven

20 May

Christopher Lasch (1932-1994) is perhaps one of the most prescient and perhaps undervalued social critics of recent history.  The True and Only Heaven’s still provocative conclusions strike at the heart of America’s current political gridlock and cultural anemia.  It puts flesh on the problems people across the political and social spectrum seem to suspect, but can’t fully describe.  That problem is the nature of our society’s belief in progress, and how the way that term has been defined and acted upon, has created an untenable order in American society.

Lasch notes three developments in the modern history of progress.  The first is a search for a utopian end of history.  The second is a belief in the inevitable conquest of rationality and reason.  These two incarnations have been widely panned and objectively repudiated in the upheavals of the last 200 years (i.e. wars, health crises, natural disasters).  However a third version prevails:  the belief in the inevitable, unending improvement to our standard of living.  Fueled by technological innovation and economic efficiency, improvement has become the new progress.  Lasch traces the roots of this thinking to the thought of Adam Smith, the patriarch of modern commerce.  Smith, according to Lasch, popularized the connection between consumption and the economic engine of production, which afforded ever increasing security, comforts and material abundance.  Smith believed because of their sheer numbers and productive potential that it was not so much the wealthy elite, but the striving middle classes, whose consumption and investments brought higher standards of living.  By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, economists and social critics Lasch introduces us to like Brooks Adams and Simon Patten were likewise extolling the virtues of inconspicuous consumption, especially among the broad masses of the middle and working classes.

In the wake of the Great Depression, it would be influential figures like John Keynes who would make this a matter of governing policy for leaders across the political spectrum.     felt that savings and investment should take a back seat to spending, because it was the latter that drove increased production through increased wants.  To overly save was to lack confidence in the future and history’s inevitable, if slow march, toward greater freedom and prosperity.  Such a system as Keynes advanced and many states accepted also had additional benefits in assuaging class divisions, neutralizing the Marxist threat.  Cultural benefits were also accrued. Americans would experience a flourishing of the arts and entertainment like never before, heralding a golden age of individual freedom.   This perspective became so common and pervasive that even in the ascendancy of Reagan conservatism and later Clintonian centrism, it has prevailed in one form or another.

However, Lasch was skeptical of these models.  He saw inherent moral and social dangers in the democratization of consumption being the foundation of America’s political economy.  He notes how divorced the concept of citizenship has become from the role of consumer or producer.   Disappointed in the response of the ruling or political classes to this looming threat, Lasch felt that influential conservatives and liberals, cast under the spell of progress in one form or another, were no longer capable of critiquing it.  Instead they were perpetuators of a broken system, which thought it was no longer answerable to the inexorable forces of history and morality.

The ideology of progress found throughout periods of Western history is no less present today.   One might recognize it in the form of the facile optimism that characterizes hyper-globalists.  It even insidiously burrows itself in anti-poverty or human rights movements when they act as if liberty is an end in itself.   Even in the complex universe of entertainment and consumerist culture there exists a drive toward upward mobility that has millions of Americans joining one “rat race” or another.  Lasch would likely peg recent political ideologies like “national greatness”, whether in liberal or conservative guise, as flawed, futile attempts to rescue republican, heroic virtues from the banality of our consumeristic, postmodern society.  By contrast, Lasch believes that only popular movements which call upon our moral energies and understand the tragic, consequential nature of life itself that seem to offer the hope and improvement which believers in progress truly seek.  Ultimately, says Lasch, “hope does not demand a belief in progress.  It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things in not flouted with impunity.”  That is an outlook which surely takes the long view.  In the next post, I’ll dive into a few examples of where Lasch observes hope and justice on the move in social history.

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The Sprout vs. The Car

13 May

Michael Lind, from the centrist New America Foundation has a new piece up on Slate.com.  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.  Continue reading

Quotes that make you go “Hmm…”

10 May

Here’s a quote of the day from the rather non-religious Ta-Nehisi Coates that has got me thinking.  More on how I’m hearing it later.

I just wanted to say that there is something really beautiful about CDSs, CDOs, and financial instruments. I mean, you have to step back and really marvel at the beauty of it all for a moment. All of this is about a kind of War against God. God sends a flood to ruin the farmers crops, so he invents an instrument to defray the costs. God says that only a certain class can own homes. So man finds a way so that you can own your home, even if you’ve never owned anything in your life.

The Cheerful Giver

29 Nov

“God loves a cheerful giver.”  Anytime I’ve heard that phrase, I’ve pretty much known what was coming next.  Someone at some religiously affiliated gathering, or working on behalf of some religiously affiliated organization, was going to ask me to cough up a donation.   I don’t mind so much the giving part.  In fact, more often than not, I’m eager to give.  I just wish people of faith weren’t so cheesy and predictable about it.

Exhibit A would be the annual stewardship campaigns that have become familiar to me after worshipping in mainline Presbyterian congregations for years now.  When congregation members drop pledge cards in the basket for stewardship Sunday, the battle for precious dollars is considered mostly done, and if enough money is raised, just about won.  But if we are concerned about the wider implications of giving and charity, then the act of pledging is just the beginning.  And as I want to contend, it really shouldn’t even be the beginning.

I was pleasantly surprised by the way Edgewater Presbyterian ended their stewardship drive a couple weeks ago.  Continue reading

Alie Aded

17 Nov

I jump into cabs once in a while and when it’s in the wee hours of the morning (like this morning) I usually want to just sit there and not talk too much.  However when I got into the cab this morning I was greeting with a warm hello and then got into a conversation with Alie, mostly because Alie did not know how to get out of my neighborhood to head to the airport. So as I was helping him navigate we started talking about Chicago’s cold weather and how it’s foreign for both of us, having grown up in warmer climates.  Alie then began to tell me his story.

Alie is Somalian, who lived in Uganda as a refugee for 6 years. Alie was allowed to go to Kampala, the capital of Uganda with a refugee ID and work permit and he worked and lived there with his wife. One day he was told by some UN staff that he had to return to the refugee camp because they were taking him to the United States. Alie and his wife arrived in Syracuse, NY in dead middle of winter. He says that was the coldest winter of his life- he has been living in the States for 9 years now. Alie and his wife moved to Chicago because there were no job opportunities in Syracuse for him. The U.S. government provided subsidies for the first 6 months after they arrived and then he was supposed to be fluent in English and have a good job to pay all his bills and be completely self-sufficient.  He says working as a cab driver is better than some other jobs he has had but it is rough these days. No matter how much or little money he makes a week, he has to pay the cab company owner $575 a week for renting the cab. He says these days, there are many weeks when he doesn’t even make the $575.

The part of his story that really made me sad was the fact that Alie and his wife were hopeful that when they came to the United States, they would be able find a fertility doctor and finally have children.  No one told Alie and his wife that working 16-18 hour days 7 days a week as a cab driver will not get you health insurance thus will never be able to afford a fertility doctor.

He says he’s gone to a few doctors with his wife but after initial checks up, he cannot afford any further follow up appointments so they have given up.

I think it is so sad that someone who has suffered and survived in a war torn homeland and worked his way over to the United States, that the best he can do is drive a cab for 120 some hours a week that may just get him enough money to pay the $575 to rent his cab that he drives and has no health care for his family.

What an irony is that. Alie has gone from living in one of the poorest countries in the world to the richest country in the world and he still faces the same problems. When I hear stories like Alie’s it makes me sad and angry. It makes me sad because it is such a tragic situation, and then it makes me angry that this country cannot do better but waste millions of dollars prioritizing things only rich and powerful people care about and leave people like Alie in hopelessness. Alie isn’t asking for millions, he just want a chance to raise a family.