Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Monday, March 13, 2006

American Plans

Maybe it was the implosion of leadership at Harvard last month, maybe it was the shooting of the progressive Christian peacemaker in Baghdad, maybe the Civil War over there, maybe the fall out of Dick Cheney's shooting with exculpation. Bizarre collapses of institutions seem to be happening so often these days that you just get used to it. If you're in your twenties and thirties, maybe you just assume that growing up means learning to tolerate institutional incompetence and get on with your job. But when your parents and elders reach the same pitch of surprise, the speculation starts.

This weekend produced one of those achy discussions with a friend when you try to figure out how we got where we got so that we can get out as soon as we can.

How is it that we all knew about global warming in the 70s, and Green Architecture firms abound, but no university has a Green City Planning Department looking at what to do when cities flood? How is it that we all knew about debt and social security and still did nothing?

If you're a theologian, you might just shrug and say that human greed is a powerful temptation.

But beyond an individual scale, what happened to the American penchant for planning ahead? Where did it all go? In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, America was known for its unperterbable inclination to invent and plan and form community structures, guarding against happenstance. Greed doesn't just dissolve institutions. Their leadership has to become corrupt, fragment, and disappear. Their support systems have to fade. Their patrons have to become distracted by other issues.

So if you're an American historian, the problem gets a little more tricky than just greed. The theory begins to run that our institutions have been melting down since 1975.

Michael Kazin and David Hollinger, modern historians I talk to about the problem of how progressive Christianity seemingly disappeared (and in fact disappeared from media, politics, and education) tag the 1950s and 60s as the "Second American Civil War" - where old regional divides were enforced by the influx of intellectuals from Europe, and the battle took legal and institutional rather than martial forms.

Watching Alice's Restaurant and Easy Rider, for example, is a good place to start when tracing the landscape of that Second Civil War. Yankee farmers with their wholesome values get into trouble when they meet their Western or Southern cousins, who don't like their long hair. The Vietnam War opens up the broader problem of commitments abroad based on capitalism instead of sustainability. Pretty soon you're sending off the neighboring region's unwillling kids to die.

Seriously, for good discussions of this, it's mostly about gleaning the real tidbits of conversation from late twentienth century historians who have thought about it but write pr textbooks -- like Kazin, who's absolute gold in company, or Richard Candida Smith, who in person is a pure fire streak of interpretation. Both of them tend to be sympathetic for the reasons for fragmentation: remember that it's a racial issue in which Jews and Hispanics (ikn addition to African Americans) won the sympathy of the North and so stake themselves as the angriest of partisans against the South. Kazin and Smith are very aware of that, and it makes them more sympathetic to the reasons for the war than perhaps my friend, who wonders what happened to the American aptitude for planning as a result of the war.

No one can deny that a great deal of conversation about planning ahead for sustainable communities was lost in the process of inventing political correctness and fighting political correctness. What's lacking is people who are interested in talking about *what* was lost.

Military people, for instance, are. And conspiracy theorists are. And my last year of casual dallying for fun has convinced me that there are two places there to look if one's really interested in when and how and why:

1) Stan Goff, a retired navy seal, whose many books are basically an attempt to understand why the military stopped doing Cultural Intelligence -- he says, pure and simple racism. The military couldn't invent real reasons to keep blacks out of the seals, and the military was *real* scared of cultural intelligence armed blacks with guns. So they switched from OSS ops to terminator-type genetically modified killing robots and invented lots of fake reasons why blacks woudn't fit the purely genetic tests ("blacks can't swim" etc).

2) Jeff Wells, the nutcase but brilliant Canadian novelist, whose blog Rigorous Intuition consitutes one long thought experiment about when and how and why American politics and military started messing around with Hollywood connections, and thus with New Age connections. One can remain skeptical (as Jeff mostly is) about whether or not the New Age magic is actually real, and still believe that Uri Geller types were dropping a lot of acid, seeing a lot of weird shit, and speculating about whether they could control the subconscious of the citizenry.

Oh, and maybe such thinking gave way to institutional idolization of an illuminati model rather than a democratic model for national leadership, in which the elite were prepared to give up on saving the nation in the face of certain impending disasters - overpopulation, nuclear, pollution, warming etc etc - and so theorized about a 'culling of the herd.' 'Culling the herd' cuts way beyond normal human greed, stretching into the realm of an original and unconsciousable relationship to other human beings, power, and life.

Fun fun fun. For if such a kind of elitism is actually prevelant in any form, it would mean that at this point, now, it's possible that many people with power hav checked out of the game of long-term planning to make things better. It would mean that most people now simply reckon that we're nearing collapse, just as c19 Britain reckoned that its imperial expansion was bleeding its real sources of stability dry, and thus started fantasizing about wild collapse (earthquakes in london, vampires, etc etc etc -- see the that wonderful book Derek Jarrett's (sp) The Sleep of Reason). In which case, *of course* you'd see increasing displays of attention deficit disorder among the reigning bureaucrats. Of course you'd see FEMA defaulting and middle America caring more about Armageddon than about rising malnutrition in their own neighborhoods. Of course any concerted attempts to plan ahead, to work on international education and free institutions and committed communities, would strike many people as already dead on the tracks. There would be no going forward any more, for the people living in world of nightmares.

Until an alternative was formulated that was so clear, so simple, and so plain a path back to reason, that person by person the world might slowly wake up again and get back to work.

Pray for a ministry to the elite, to reach them in their seats of power, to wake us up, to bring us back to our humanity.

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Anonymous said...

a ministry to the elite.. or rebranding to the masses? where does the real power of influence lie? who listens to the elite? the power elite are embedded in power. membership in elites requires allegiance, in my experience.

10:20 PM  
Anonymous Scott Paeth said...

"Watching Alice's Restaurant and Easy Rider, for example, is a good place to start when tracing the landscape of that Second Civil War. Yankee farmers with their wholesome values get into trouble when they meet their Western or Southern cousins, who don't like their long hair. "

I certainly agree that these movies are era defining expressions of the late 60s/early 70s cultural situation. But I'm not sure I'd agree that smuggling heroin across the country in the tank of your Harley constitutes wholesome Yankee values!

On the other hand, the secularized church in "Alice's Restaurant" is a pretty good metaphor for the view of religion during that time -- pressed to the margins, deemed irrelevant to what's really important. The characters in "Alices Restaurant" (Alice particularly), struck me as horribly lonely, but unable to see religion as a way of providing healing.

Two good movies, nonetheless. But can someone explain the end of "Easy Rider" to me?

6:58 AM  
Blogger J said...

kevin is soo smart. kevin is the smartest guy.... yep, thinking about restructuring institutions is hard for those of us in the education business to take. :) we just want to make the future elite think harder. :) and then there you go, pushing us. darnit.

can i have a very *small* university when the revolution comes? pleeeease?

scott, my take on easy rider was as a moral tale for young men (actually in that case from the wholesome jack london 40-acres west. see, they shoulda stayed in nevada where everyone was nice, because responsible and self-sufficient): new mexico was sorta kookie amd codependent (possibly doomed to failure); texas is even worse (outlaws and liars); louisiana is full of liars but they're even angrier and more aggressive; as you go East, people lie more, resent you as a stranger more, become more aggressive and more stupid. Don't go East or South. If you are in California learn to accept that you have already reached the end of pilgrimage and you should stay RIGHT where you are.

9:31 AM  
Anonymous kevin jones said...

When i first came to Itawamba County, Mississippi, which in the 60's was the poorest county in the poorest state in the union, so constituted, i cut my hair, because i had seen easy rider. i lived there seven years and both my children were born there. my difference from that place, and those people, was the foundation for my wandering around, (listening deeply to what's said and not said) approach and figuring things out. ... yankee values? who said yankee's had values? yankee sell things of value.

6:35 PM  

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