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Go Google Yourself

I just spent a few minutes surfing the World Wide Web, exploiting and learning about the pulses and rhythms of this communication nexus we and God hath wrought. I Googled my last blog post, the one about poverty and misery, and I did a little exploration of finding myself through my name. A solipsistic enterprise, I admit, but it seemed to have an intellectual justification. I do find the permutations of media fascinating.

You see, someone had written me—an actual human being, hallelujah!—a fellow named Bart, in response to these blog posts I'm writing. He'd read that post and said "I looked at Google and see that a number of sites picked up your article." I had never thought to do that, so with some excitement I tried it. I discovered several interesting things. Indeed, several sites including Energy Bulletin, Ecolocity DC, and the Oregon Progressive Party had linked to the article itself. Mostly Water had even devoted a URL to it, and displayed a well-chosen pullquote. Google listed an alternative media site in South Africa, but I couldn't actually find the article from the link—I think it had already been refreshed, replaced by newer news. I found a link to the article on Humanitarian News with its own URL, from January 16. Then I wondered, could I find the article by going in the front door, so to speak? I went to the main Humanitarian News page and found articles from January 18. Now I'm on the 28th continuation of that page and I've only gotten back to January 17. A human can get exhausted trying to keep up with this web.

The web and e-mail, and the newer, knock-on social media vehicles that use the Internet platform, have performed such an epochal feat, historically speaking. If such communication technologies as the printing press and the telegraph made the world a smaller place in their day, the Internet would seem to have finished the job. I don't know to what extent it shrunk the world and to what extent it grew the network, but at any rate, darn if the two aren't starting to look about the same size.

We have not begun to really use these systems, to exploit their full potential. I don't even know what I mean by "their full potential." Something utopian, I guess. Will we have the time on the planet, or the intelligence as a species, to ever develop and mature our political systems enough that we can imagine and realize what these technologies could really let us achieve toward the uplift and saving of we human animals?

But then, what is this network of machines?— this quintessence of silicon? this technical neural tissue stitching our bytes together? Does it really connect us? Does it integrate and replicate we human beings and our relationships, our needs and real interests? Does it represent "the organized system" Paul Goodman railed against half a century ago? How could it not?

Yet the bald suggestion that "the organized system" is humanity's enemy is, of course, far too simplistic, even propagandistic. Goodman used the phrase, I think, to implicate both a particular set of institutions and a mindset that they shared, a mindset that embraces centralization, bureaucracy, efficiency, top-down authority. The Internet, from a medium-is-the-message or media-ecology point of view—Goodman, Marshall McLuhan's contemporary, called it a concern with "format," and a generation later Neil Postman spoke of a medium's epistemology—anyway, from that strain of media theory, the Internet does share some of these bureaucratic/authoritarian characteristics, but its ethos—is it a romantic fantasy?— seems more on the other side of the coin, more in the underdog camp: decentralized, democratic, humanistic, revolutionary in the Romantic sense. Somewhat syndicalist. It's not hard to believe a "community anarchist" like Goodman, known for his antipathy toward the main achievements of the 20th century, could have gotten wholeheartedly behind the Web.

And yet... the question remains. Does it really connect us? I guess it has connected you and me, Bart, and I say that is good. One person at a time is, after all, how we humans are designed to do these things.

Decent Poverty Report: Poverty and Misery

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson launched his War on Poverty, a phrase attributed specifically to the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act and more broadly to his administration's efforts to expand the social safety net and improve education, housing, job training, and health care. The writer and social gadfly Paul Goodman was at the height of his popularity in 1964. As "the philosopher of the New Left," Goodman surely approved of a tighter social safety net, though as an anarchist, he was caustically critical of the federal government's encroachment into arenas better served by local and community-based groups.

But I suspect he had a deeper, more philosophical quibble with the "War on Poverty" rhetoric, stemming from his often-stated commitment to what he called "decent poverty." The essay "Politics Within Limits," in Goodman's posthumously published book Little Prayers and Finite Experience (also available in Crazy Hope and Finite Experience, 1994, edited by Taylor Stoehr), contains this reference to the decent poverty idea:
There must not be horrors that take me by the throat, so I can experience nothing; but it is indifferent to me what the Growth Rate is, or if some people are rich and others poor, so long as they are pauvres, decently poor, and not misérables (Péguy's distinction). I myself never found that much difference between being very poor and modestly rich.
This distinction between poverty and misery, which Goodman made in several essays and speeches, is very interesting and rather clarifying. Charles Péguy was a socialist French poet from the turn of the century. Goodman's reference is to Péguy's 1902 essay called "De Jean Coste," a piece of literary criticism about a novel called Jean Coste by Antonin Lavergne. The title character of this novel is a rural schoolteacher who is paid so poorly that he can't make ends meet; with a sick wife and sick mother, he gradually falls deeper into squalor. The novel's irony comes from the hero's valiant efforts to keep up appearances, which succeed so well that those around him, looking on with indifference, are blind to his suffering. (My source for this is an essay by Charles Coutel, in French.). Here's the key Péguy passage, roughly translating from the French:
Misery and poverty are frequently confused, because they are close-close, but located on either side of a limit. On one side, economic life is not assured; on the other side, it is assured. Beneath that limit, there's misery, no certainty of a viable life, constant risk; above the limit, the risk stops, and poor or rich, there is assurance. Immediately above the limit is poverty, and above that are the successive zones of affluence. All below is misery; poverty is only a little above; thus the two are close in quantity, closer than much affluence is to poverty. Judging only by quantity, wealth is much further from poverty than poverty is from misery; but between poverty and misery is a distinction in quality, in nature.
Goodman understood both styles of deprivation from his own life experience, growing up fatherless and fancy-free on the streets of New York, then struggling to raise children as a proud, starving artist in a two-income household. The distinction between poverty and misery was very clear to him, but for numerous reasons of ideology and culture, it's a distinction the Americans have never recognized or respected. And I think he's on to something. It's a bigger deal than it might seem.

Poverty itself, the absence of money to spare, is not the enemy, Goodman told us. We should be more precise and define the problem as economic insecurity, the threat of utter destitution, the constant specter of misery and ruin. If America could eliminate or substantially reduce that threat, for millions of people—say, the threat of homelessness, foreclosure, or eviction-then living here in poverty would be tremendously improved, and suffering greatly diminished. If the nation could put a firmer floor under its people, and ensure a roof over their heads, decent poverty might begin to resemble a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity. It could be something a person or family might choose: off the grid, out from behind the wheel, extricated from the cash nexus, downscale. Such a notion seemed out of step with the affluent ethos of the early sixties, literally countercultural. But today, when it's ever clearer that the affluence of a few and the consumption of the many are at the core of our economic, environmental, existential exigency, the time for this idea may have come.

A war on poverty, like a war on terrorism, can never be won because it's so poorly defined. But some strategic skirmishes against economic insecurity, if the political will existed, could still make a big difference. Can we imagine a war for poverty—decent poverty?

***

Roger K. Smith is a freelance writer in Ithaca, New York. The documentary film Paul Goodman Changed My Life will be released in 2011.

when I'm gone

The year 2011—a half century from the innocence of the early 1960s—will mark the release of the documentary film Paul Goodman Changed My Life, a movie whose project is to revive the memory of, and introduce to a new generation, a nearly forgotten sixties figure who profoundly influenced that decade's countercultural and political awakening.

The doc market's a little crowded just now. Another biopic with the same mission just had its New York opening. I'll be delighted if Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune brings many people to that true-blue troubadour of folk music's peak era—including you, dear reader. Ochs' earnest, tremulous tenor invariably goes straight to my heartstrings; I always hear the heart on his sleeve, whether he's satirizing American gung-ho ("One More Parade," "Draft Dodger Rag"), pouring out a tender ballad ("Changes," "When I'm Gone"), or even trying to get a rise out of the choir he's preaching to ("Outside of a Small Circle of Friends," "Love Me, I'm a Liberal"). He was a political radical, an original Yippie, and never watered down his message to get airplay or reach a broader audience: "Play the chords of love, my friend, play the chords of pain, but if you want to keep your song, don't play the chords of fame."

Ochs wrote a lot of gorgeous melodies, but quite a few of his later lyrics, such as "Rehearsals for Retirement" and "The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns," have haunting touches. You can almost hear the demons Ochs could never shake, the ones that did him in in the end, a suicide at age 35. That's part of his legacy, too. It's what I mean about the heart on his sleeve—that unbearably poignant mixture of optimistic sweetness and ironic bitterness is always there in his voice.

Ochs and Paul Goodman surely crossed paths more than once, both being manically social—in Ochs' case, manic-depressively—New York radical peace activists. Goodman disdained the youth music pretty much across the board, but perhaps he would have appreciated Phil's musical settings of poems like Edgar Allen Poe's "The Bells" (Oh the tintinnabulation!) and Alfred Noyes' classic of romantic Victoriana, "The Highwayman." (Both are played beautifully in a 1968 concert released as "There and Now" —it's Ochs at his most heartful.)

And like Goodman, Phil Ochs is a name that just doesn't ring a bell for a lot of younger people. Perhaps it's because he didn't achieve that top-of-the-pops tier of celebrity; perhaps because his early, narrowly topical songs dated quickly and his later, deeper work confounded what his listeners had come to expect; perhaps because, rather like Goodman, he embodied the times so thoroughly that you just had to be there. Who knows why some catch the wave of posterity and others, when they're gone, are gone. Phil and Paul both deserve to be remembered. Nay, more than that—they are both essential to remembering, recapturing, and rekindling the vital spirit of the radical sixties, American history's most beautiful dream.
There's no place in this world where I'll belong when I'm gone

And I won't know the right from the wrong when I'm gone

And you won't find me singin' on this song when I'm gone

So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

The Error of Their Ideas

Diane Ravitch's change of heart is reason to take heart. A prestigious policy voice in education, she served in the Poppy Bush administration and for many years was a top supporter of the whole right-wing vision of school reform—charter schools, free markets, demanding "accountability" from teachers and principals, No Child Left Behind, and testing, testing, one, two, three. Now she's done a nearly-complete turnaround. She deliberately chose the title of her newest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, to sound like Jane Jacobs. Certainly a sign of having traveled some distance from the Bushes!

The ideas she's currently promoting seem much more sensible, humble, and uphill-battle. Schools need a rich, diverse, well-conceived curriculum, not just an intensive focus on the "basic skills" (reading and math) that get tested up the wazoo. Way too much is riding on these high-stakes tests, including the closure of many schools, a drastic outcome that should certainly result from deeper deliberations. Schools and school systems should be run by teachers and people with educational expertise, not MBAs and corporate managers. Charter schools, it turns out, don't produce results any better than your average public school, although they do succeed at attracting more motivated students away from your average school, so their net impact is somewhat negative.

None of Ravitch's conclusions seem very surprising or even all that interesting to this reporter. The surprise lies more in why such an intelligent, truth-respecting scholar should have fallen for these conservative shibboleths in the first place, and what gave her the courage to recant. I only wish her book were a bit more forthcoming on these points.

The argument in Death and Life seems in keeping with liberal/progressive voices in the education debate—but for my money, you might as well seek out people who were never deluded. For example, I greatly admire Deborah Meier, who led the highly successful Central Park East Secondary School, a small, progressive public school in Harlem that became a model for urban "alternative schools." Her book The Power of Their Ideas (1995) captures both the flavor and issues of day-to-day life at a school that works and the progressive perspective on education policy honed by the experience of an accomplished practitioner. (Meier and Ravitch are now colleagues at NYU's Steinhardt School of Ed.)

Meier writes in the Fall 2010 issue of Dissent magazine that Paul Goodman "would be horrified to watch this relentless march into orderly conformity, schools organized as boot camps and test-prep academies, searching for methods to instill 'right answers' into our young in the name of equity. We need to revive Goodman’s spirited defense of a spirited citizenry." It's clear that "compulsory mis-education" (the name of Goodman's best book on education) is ever more the order of the day. It's clear that we need to move away from bureaucratic, technocratic approaches to educating young people, away from standardized testing and its insidious influence on curriculum, away from centralized, top-down, Bloombergian structures of power, and toward making sure that schools remain (or become) places where community is built; where actual children's actual learning, in all its quirky and intangible permutations, is the main event; where the humanistic values embedded, imperfectly, in the liberal arts and sciences can get passed down to future generations.

Decent Poverty Report: Necessities

Today was a momentous day for our family, and not just because we celebrated the solstice. We got a home phone, a landline, after going cellphone-only for nearly three years. We did it mostly for our daughter, largely because of concerns about radiation but also because we want her to know the experience of having a "real" phone that's as much hers as ours, dialing one, answering one, using the answering machine, knowing people's numbers. It really is a beautiful technology.

I don't think our family's ready to give up the cellphone just yet; we're exploring options like tracphones but I imagine our decision will mean a slight increase in our monthly communications costs. It got me thinking about the costs we carry and the things we think we need in our lives. Anybody know that great Stereolab song that goes, "We need so damn/ many things/ to keep our stupid/ lives going"? Back in the 1940s when Paul Goodman was practicing a bohemian artist's lifestyle of decent poverty, he lived in Manhattan in a cold water flat—no hot water, no heat—and had no phone.

This is what I mean when I said in a prior post that my childhood taught me to assume a set of values that go with prosperity. I think of a hot shower as a necessity rather than a luxury. And a refrigerator and freezer, and a phone, and some other electronic gadgets, and nowadays, Internet access. Oodles of electricity. What else do we take for granted? What would it be like to contemplate giving some of these things up, by choice or necessity? What really is a necessity? Could it be that we've re-categorized too many luxuries as necessities, and that that's part of why decent poverty seems so hard to achieve in our time?

From another point of view, what about things like a habitable planet, a stable climate, a viable community: are those necessities? Let me leave off with this sentence from Taylor Stoehr's introduction to the forthcoming Paul Goodman Reader:
Goodman would no doubt have felt the loss in our time of what he considered essential goods of life—not marketable things, but leisure, public space not given over to automobiles or advertising, fresh air and sweet silence—ever more scarce in the tide of increasing technological dependencies.

excitement and growth, absurd

I've written several posts recently about the psychological theory that Paul Goodman spelled out in his contribution to the 1951 book Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. In my view, it is an admirable and thought-provoking attempt to synthesize the essential insights of Freud and Wilhelm Reich with the assumptions of philosophical pragmatism and express all that in un-jargony language applicable to empirical experience. But apart from the relative merits of Goodman's theory, it's worth knowing about because it's one of the main starting points for Goodman's most celebrated achievement, Growing Up Absurd (1960). I finally got my hands on a copy of this countercultural bible after a long search and I'm not even halfway through it but I'm very glad I learned about Gestalt Therapy first.

A reader familiar with the Gestalt theory can spot its influence on Growing Up Absurd from the opening sentence of the introduction: "Growing up as a human being, a 'human nature' assimilates a culture, just as other animals grow up in strength and habits in the environments that are for them, and that complete their natures." Goodman is laying out the premise that growth—a word so essential to Gestalt Therapy, it's in the book's subtitle—is a process of assimilation or absorption of resources available in the environment. He goes on to argue that this process is not equivalent to socialization into the habits and mores of a particular culture. It is certainly different from the modern social-science idea of engineering a well-adjusted population to man the machines of the "Organized System" of industrial, rapidly becoming post-industrial, America.

With this premise, Goodman introduces the book's central topic, juvenile delinquency or "problems of youth," and frames the problem in Gestalt terms:
Growth, like any ongoing function, requires adequate objects in the environment to meet the needs and capacities of the growing child, boy, youth, and young man, until he can better choose and make his own environment. It is not a "psychological" question of poor influences and bad attitudes, but an objective question of real opportunities for worthwhile experience. It makes no difference whether the growth is normal or distorted, only real objects will finish the experience....[O]ur abundant society is at present simply deficient in many of the most elementary objective opportunities and worth-while goals that could make growing up possible."
This assertion that American culture lacks what would "make growing up possible" has to be at the heart of why Growing Up Absurd packed such a punch and caught on so big with young people in the early 60s. But rather than simply a rhetorical flourish, the phrase encapsulates Goodman's thesis, his therapeutic analysis of the trouble at the "contact boundary" between America and its youth. The notion returns in his clinical diagnosis of the genre of disaffection known as the Beat Generation. To Goodman, the hip and cynical Beat youth behaved "as though they were trapped in a Closed Room and must live on their own guts, without available environment." In Gestalt terms, this would be one common type of reaction to the frustrated attempt to grow, the inability to find what they needed either at home, in the schools, or... On The Road. But that's another story...

RFP OK!

Many of you may have heard the news that New York City is taking the initial steps—or should I say first pedal strokes—toward instituting a bicycle share system. The city is initiating a public-private partnership to create a network of rent-a-bike stations around town, and on November 23 the Department of Transportation announced a Request For Proposals from potential private-sector partners. Here's the pull-quote from DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan:
Biking has become a serious transportation option in New York and bike share is the clear next step. New York’s ideal geography, high residential and commercial density and growing bike infrastructure make it the perfect option for short trips since over 50% of trips in NYC are under two miles.
I don't know the ins and outs of bike shares, but now that my hometown is getting serious about it I look forward to learning more, and I plan to start with this City Planning Department study that seems bullish on the prospect.

I was in NYC a couple of weeks ago and I have to say, as enjoyable as it is to walk from Chinatown to Union Square on a Friday night, I would have loved to bike it. And I'm excited by anything that might make New Amsterdam feel more like the old.

It's also highly fortuitous that the city's bike RFP coincides with the conclusion of the Paul Goodman Changed My Life win-a-bike contest—which was also based on a request for green city proposals. Goodman, the New York poet, street philosopher, and human-scale technology proponent, would surely be great-guns behind the practical-utopian ideas this contest has generated. Congratulations to the winners! Every planner a citizen, every citizen a planner! The society you live in is yours!

Paul Goodman Bike Contest winners announced!

For Immediate Release: Falmouth, Maine – December 14, 2010 ­­­­

JSL FILMS Announces Winners for Bicycle Contest To Encourage Transportation Alternatives

JSL Films, producer of the documentary Paul Goodman Changed My Life, has chosen the two winners of its web-based contest to help encourage local transportation alternatives.  The winners will each receive a new commuter bicycle, donated by Breezer Bikes in the US and Biomega Bikes in Europe.

They are:

Guillermo Rozenblat of Miami Beach, Florida

Guillermo is from Argentina, a recent graduate of the Miami International University of Art & Design, and currently owns and operates a Design and Web Studio named Rock&Bone.

Justin Hyatt of Budapest, Hungary

Justin works and campaigns in the area of sustainable urban mobility. Currently he coordinates "Social Bike Business Budapest" and is a member of an NGO called ZöFi. He is also a writer and translator and occasionally a lecturer.

To win a new bicycle, contestants were asked to submit five proposals to their local government (mayor, city council, etc.) to enhance forms of transportation that do not contribute to global warming.

The contest was held with the support of the Alliance for Biking & Walking, the World Carfree Network, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, and Dissent Magazine. The bicycles were donated by Breezer Bikes in the US and Biomega in Europe.

Paul Goodman, with his brother Percival, was the co-author of “Banning Cars in Manhattan,” a 1961 proposal to improve New York’s streets by eliminating private auto traffic. Half a century later, his ideas are now heralded as being before their time, with limiting traffic in city centers becoming more and more common.

Decent Poverty Report: Bust and Boom

This reporter's parents were born in the early 1930s. Their worldview was formed by their Depression-era childhood, by World War II, and by the postwar era in which they grew to adulthood. They had the good fortune, and the talent, to follow in their own lives the trajectory of the American economy's greatest bust-to-boom. But their values remained Depression values, so they were always more grounded than giddy as they ascended toward material success. An aphorism my father taught me expresses what I mean concisely: "Once you're poor, you're never rich."

This reporter was born in 1967. It's boom-to-bust, not bust-to-boom, that I've lived through. Instead of Depression values, I absorbed in my childhood years an ethos that went along with prosperity; but my circumstances have grown less prosperous as my life has gone on. I don't think my father's aphorism works in reverse. Having experienced material comfort, it is quite possible to become poor and to be poor, in the deeper senses of that muddiest of verbs. A rather un-comfortable position.

This is the main reason I'm so interested in Paul Goodman's notion of decent poverty: I'm seeking some philosophical and moral clarification, since materially speaking, prospects are looking a little grim. As I read Paul Goodman's sixties writing, I keep noticing the essential difference between then and now in terms of the overall economy. In Growing Up Absurd (1960) and People or Personnel (1962), Goodman is strongly influenced by John Kenneth Galbraith's work on The Affluent Society (1958). Goodman takes it as a given that full employment and optimal productivity are not only attainable but practically at hand; and his analysis starts from that framework, moving on to the particular problems given to a society larded with too many good rat-race jobs. The political argument for decent poverty—that is, for a welfare state that ensures its possibility—is pretty easy to advance within that framework. That is, a society in which real incomes are rising should be able to sustain a class of people in modest but secure means.

But obviously, the political system never agreed to create anything resembling "a sector of pure communism, free appropriation adequate for decent poverty for those who do not want to make money or are too busy with nonpaying pursuits to make money..." (see full quote in this prior post). And how large is the constituency supporting this way of thinking today? Maintaining a safety net becomes a much more strenuous enterprise when real incomes are falling or have been stagnant for a generation. And the kind of austerity plan the Obama administration clearly favors, as in the dire Bowles/Simpson program, made much more likely by the imminent tax cut deal, will accelerate the long-term depletion of public sector funding, particularly for safety-net purposes.

So if Goodman thought that actually living in decent poverty was nearly impossible in the USA in the early 1960s, does that mean it's all the more impossible today? It certainly doesn't diminish the appeal of the idea, at least to my mind.

Decent Poverty Report: Planning Ahead

Unlike millions of Americans, I have had the good fortune to survive well into adulthood without accumulating any debt. To be honest, it's not something for which I deserve any... well, let's not say credit, let's say praise. The fact is I've been privileged by my parents' efforts, talents, and good fortune. They both worked all through their adult lives and both had very rewarding careers, easily surpassing their own parents on the ladder of success. It so happens that their early adulthood years coincided with the peak years of the U.S. economy, so they had the wind at their backs, and were able to carry me under their wing a good long way, offering financial help I could lean on when needed.

Historically, I'm a member of the first generation of U.S. children not expected to surpass their parents materially (for reasons I alluded to in a prior post). But I've also used my privilege to cultivate a lifestyle with the characteristics of "decent poverty" that Paul Goodman talked about in his various works. I've never earned much, nor wanted to; I've always done work I wanted to, work that felt socially worthy; and I've always tried to keep my expenses low. In my twenties that meant sharing apartments with roommates, low health care costs, not going out all that much. As I got older it got more complicated... but long story short, let's put it this way: I seem to have run out of fiscal shenanigans to avoid the hard facts that income must meet expenses and expenses tend to rise. Maintaining the "decent" part of decent poverty has become more challenging for me of late and may get harder still. At this point my efforts are devoted to keeping my head above water; planning ahead is beginning to feel a bit like a luxury.

Well, speaking of fiscal shenanigans: these little ruminations were prompted by this article that splashed across my screen a few days ago. Depressing news, but not surprising. Thinking about the agonizing Bush tax cut debate; thinking about the GOP on the warpath for their #1 issue, the principle they clearly prize above all others—keeping the richest Americans undertaxed; thinking about the childishly irresponsible way these budget-busting tax cuts were pushed through in the first place, with that expire-in-ten-years clause—you'd think that Dubya's minions who had the bright idea of planting this time bomb back in 2001 would be laughing malevolently at how well their evil plan has worked out. And, as this article reveals, you'd be right. Obviously, somebody was very carefully planning ahead. To be charitable, they thought they were laying a trap to ensnare the opposing party, but now the whole country's caught in it.

Perhaps we should think of it this way, albeit out of context:
The best defense against planning—and people do need a defense against planners—is to become informed about the plan that is indeed existent and operating in our lives; and to learn to take the initiative in proposing or supporting reasoned changes. Such action is not only a defense but good in itself, for to make positive decisions for one's community, rather then being regimented by others' decisions, is one of the noble acts of man.

- Paul and Percival Goodman, Communitas