Unsettled

January 29, 2017

We, the people, are now at war with our federal government.  Amazing that it's come to this, and so quickly too.  For the moment, it's more of proxy fight than an actual blood-and-guts war.  But our Americanism is under assault, of that I'm certain.  Our scientists are gagged from publishing their science.  Our intelligence officers are condemned for gathering intelligence.  Our reporters are arrested for reporting.  Our Muslim brothers and sisters are singled out because of their faith.  Our alliances around the world are blown up over nothing.  Our senses are flooded with nonsense.  

 

We're being attacked with executive orders, propaganda, diversionary tactics and lies.  Our defense, and pray it holds, is the United States Constitution: freedom of assembly, of the press, due process, representative government and all the rest.  America has long been a divided country and politically paralyzed, but that doesn't explain what's happening now.  What's happening is that we've entrusted the country to halfwit corporate raider and his millionaire buddies who've decided that the country is ripe for a leveraged buyout.  

 

This president is intent on two things: completing a takeover of what he understands to be USA, Inc., and being adored for doing so.  

 

The country is so big, and so diverse, with so many angry and misinformed people, that he'll be able to accomplished the latter of these. And if the adulation fails to satisfy his monstrous ego, his sycophants will apparently alter the facts until their emperor is satisfactorily flattered.  As for the takeover, it's really down to the existing board of governors -- and that would be the Republican-controlled congress. Thus far they seem tantalized by this buyout bid and the personal gains that might be in it for them.  Perhaps we shareholders can prevail, by proxy, on our representatives in Congress, to turn these pirates aside.  If not, we may find ourselves holding shares of a company worth far less than we ever imagined.  

 

It helps me to think about the current national breakdown in these terms because I believe this is closer to the truth of what's happening in Washington DC than any explanation grounded in political theory, governance, or statesmanship.  Of course a country is not a corporation, but how would the new president know that?  The man knows nothing about government, domestic policy, foreign relations or even leadership. The first rule of leadership is to create order and it doesn't matter if you're a king, a sea captain or a parent.  With his confused and confusing directive to ban immigration this weekend, the president demonstrated that he's unfit to run even my neighborhood elementary school.

 

In the end, he is nothing more than the boss-from-hell -- the bloviating old codger who careers through the office spiking projects, subordinates and hard earned market share on the spear of his nutso meglomania.   He is hellbent on destruction and the question now is only how soon, and how badly, will it end.  He won't last.  Childish as ever, the president does not seem to recognize that he's sitting in the middle of the house he's setting aflame. But he won't be the only casualty.  Barring the worst, we will soon find out whether the girders that support our liberal democracy have been fire-rated appropriately.  

 

I've also found it helpful to begin thinking about the work ahead in a post-Trump world.  I wrote in my first post that there's no center to return to.  There's going to be a lot of cleaning up to do and a lot of creative rethinking must happen as well.  

 

For starters, we need to get our arms around this "jobs" thing.  Have you noticed that the answer to every problem, and the cause for every concern, is "jobs?"  Immigrants take our jobs.  Globalization outsources jobs.  The swing states were lost over jobs.  We need better education so we can create and fill more jobs.  Wanna know what utopia looks like in 2017 America?  Tomorrow everyone wakes up and gets to go to work.  What I've figured out, in puzzling over this and thinking about Wendell Berry, is to beware of any talk about jobs, job creation, or economic stimulus, that doesn't also take up the problem of land, land use, and land settlement.  So, yeah.  Sorry.  Beware of all it it.  

 

Our Deserted Country is a 50 page primer on Berryism, if there is such a thing.  His lifelong themes are all in here - the unfairness of industrial capitalism toward small land-based economies, the pleasures of country living, the limits of expertise and science, the inalienable connection between peoples and their lands, and resources we ought to examine more carefully if we are to make a turn to a better economy.  

 

But he starts where he must - at the fountainhead of the problem.  The industrial revolution, he reminds us, set in motion a dynamic that is still with us today.  It is the cheapening of work through the displacement of people by industrial technology so to increase the flow of wealth from the less wealthy to the more wealthy.  The wealth transfer part, thanks to the absurdity of the past 30 years, has finally registered on the radar.  Grievous income inequality, most people now understand, is a problem.  But the first part?  Joblessness?  On that, we are woefully confounded.  

 

First of all, no one is honest about the math.  Every industrial (now technological) innovation is assumed to be entirely good for everyone. Yes, painlessness is preferable to pain and comfort is preferable to discomfort and we have industry and technology to thank for innumerable advances.  No one can oppose painless dentistry.  But why, Mr. Berry asks, does no one ever consider the costs for achieving painlessless, comfort, labor "savings," progress, speed, convenience, and creative destruction?  "In all the industrial world the least popular mathematical operation is subtraction.  We habitually imply that all the gains of technological progress are entirely net. Nobody pays, nobody loses."  

 

So one problem is that we are simpletons when it comes to thinking about, talking about, and accounting for the losses that accompany the gains from techno-industrial progress.  This might be why we've landed on one blunt and dumb metric: jobs.  Just to cite one example from my podcast travels this week:  America's opioid epidemic is most severe in Appalachia, not far from where I grew up and where Mr. Berry lives and works.  Are people abusing pain pills because they don't have work?  Surely that's one reason.  But why don't people have work in Appalachia?  That must be the question asked before the jobs question.  And if everyone there had a job to go to tomorrow, would they all magically wake up no longer addicted?  In an honest account, the costs of this one very isolated problem, human and economic, would be subtracted from the advances our society has enjoyed because industry and technology figured out how to cheaply mine coal in this part of the country.  

 

We also have selective amnesia about joblessness.  Maybe it's just a matter of numbers, but people have been losing their jobs to machines for a long, long time.  What became of all those small family farmers whose livelihoods were destroyed by the high costs and outputs of industrialized food production in the second part of the 20th century?  Hard to know, since these workers were apparently as disposable as paper plates, judging from the amount of attention and policy corrections their plight garnered.  Wendell tells us what happens to these people, whether from eastern Kentucky, the rust belt, the agrarian south, native American reservations or the Scottish highlands.  They become useless and wageless, taking their chances, as they must, in urban centers, and in situations alien to their experience and abilities.  They become utterly dependent on a money economy, having no recourse to the non-monetary supports of community, family and subsistance landholding.  These are the people conservatives deem too lazy or disincentivized to be productive members of society, and on whose behalf liberals justify another government program or public charity so a "new start" or "tiding over" can be arranged.   

 

The lesson is as old as it is straightforward.  When people are disconnected from the land, they suffer.  And not just that. The land suffers too. To keep land producing in the absence of its people, factory methods -- technologies and automation, have had to replace farm families. Extraction of resources has replaced the husbandry of fertility.  And so the land is getting exhausted.  Soil is alive and must be used with care, but "care is not an industrial product or an industrial result.  It cannot be prescribed or enforced by a market, free or unfree.  Care can only come from what we used to understand as the human heart, so called because it is central to human concerns and to human being."  Industrial land economies, absent care, view not just the soil, but anything unprofitable that comes from the land, as an enemy.  Human beings, along with every woodland, tree, pasture, pen or crooked stream, must go.  "Questions relating to ecological and human health, or to the health of the local economy, are easily ignored because there are no industrial answers to such questions."  In the world to come, let's insist that if our systems cannot provide answers, then the systems, and not the questioners, be held to account.  

 

The war that's underway with our federal government is unlike anything I've seen in all my years.  I am eager to begin thinking about the terms of a future peace.  The one term that Wendell Berry will not compromise on is the only one that's truly non-negotiable. It's not in the minds of many yet, but it's just a matter of time.  It's the one term that none of us would budge on if we could only could only see past our comforts and fears.  And no, it's not just about protecting our precious planet. And no, it's not just about jobs either.  It's both of these.  It's about our right to work in place, where we can prosper, from one generation to the next, alongside friends, family, neighbors, creatures and all of life seen and unseen.  I think that's called settlement.  We haven't done that yet, in this country.  If there is a great reset, I hope we will begin.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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