Saturday, April 30, 2011

Framing Dorothy Day I

In Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, a character named Mary Crawford has grown up in the household of a corrupt uncle, a Navy admiral. At one point, she says wittily that she knows all about "rears and vices," following that with the statement "Now don't accuse me of punning." Of course, it seems obvious, even without Mary pointing to it, that she is indeed punning--she knows all about rear and vice admirals and all about their "rears and vices."

However, on the various Jane Austen lists to which I subscribe, violent fights break out periodically over this statement. One faction sees the worldly Mary punning, the other says no, of course she's not punning--look, she even says she's not punning. I have a level of frustration with this second faction, wondering how in the world they can't see the pun, especially given that Mary and her brother Henry are serpents who invade the "garden" of Mansfield Park, complete with allusions to Milton--and complete with adroit skills at manipulating language. I give enormous credit to Jane Austen for creating in Henry and Mary such well-rounded characters--they are so charming, so talented, so delightful, so capable, at times, of genuine social kindnesses--that you half fall in love with them, while at the same time knowing the "city" has twisted and corrupted them. Their vices hide in plain sight.

Dorothy Day was an enormously good woman who should, I believe, be made a saint. Her childhood contributed to that, and she's documented her tale of growing up at least three times. Yet because of the way she's framed it, the real story may be hidden in plain sight. To be continued ...(Not a tease, I'm just out of time right now ...)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Happy Easter

With Easter almost here, I am imagining preparing the earth to be pleasing and welcoming for a loving God's return. If we made that our goal rather than profit or domination or personal pleasure, what a beautiful world we would create.

I imagine we would clean up our mess, plant trees and treat the animals kindly.

I imagine we would feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless.

We would definitely stop bombing and fighting each other with carnal weapons.

And, while we're envisioning this, what if God kept delaying his return day by day, so it was always tomorrow ... and we were on good behavior so long that it became a way of life?

What a wonderful world it would be.

Happy Easter.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

New York Times: The Missing Photo

I have been writing "utopic" visions and with others, have begun to envision a world of small, caring schools, floating to work on waterways and more time at home to hang laundry and grow gardens. This is the beginning of a lovely portrait of a shalom world, and it's fruitful to have these visions. "Without a vision, the people perish."

However ... in the real world, I sense something fearful.

I sensed it this morning when I woke up and pulled up the New York Times. I was faced with an image of illegal immigrants in Arizona, dressed in their black and white striped prison uniforms. For a moment, I couldn't quite register what I was seeing. If it hadn't been for the bright color photograph, I would have thought I was looking at a Nazi concentration camp. It was a disturbing image. So disturbing that I decided later I would blog about it.

But strangely, when I went back to grab the image from the New York Times, it had disappeared. A slideshow of five photos had been reduced to one image of students in Georgia protesting immigration. Hhhm. For some reason, the sudden disappearance of the inmates troubled me as much as the initial image.

The photo I've posted here is from the website:

The photo we now see is captioned: "Approximately 200 convicted illegal immigrants were handcuffed together and moved into a separate area of what has been deemed Tent City, by order of Phoenix Sheriff Joe Arpaio on Wednesday, Feb. 4 2009. Arpaio is using Tent City to keep illegal immigrants separate from the rest of the inmate population. (AP photo)"

I wake up every morning and see the contours of life as I have always known it. There's food in abundance, a roof over our heads, warmth in the winter and gas for our cars. We take summer vacations and our children go to school or to college and we have gifts for Christmas and we read books and watch movies, take walks and visit friends. If we are sick, we go to the doctor. We put money away for retirement.

Yet since the financial crisis of 2008, I've felt anxious.

Roger and I spent a long weekend in Toronto last summer. We loved Toronto. Everyone seemed so relaxed and at ease. I didn't feel the undercurrent of fear that I do here.

At a weekend retreat in Barnesville, I asked a Canadian Friend about this, commenting on the different atmosphere I sense between here and Canada. Is it just me? I asked. Am I projecting my own anxiety onto the people around me?

No, he said. There's definitely some level of fear in the United States that's palpable. He feels it when he comes here. He doesn't know what it is.

Often, I want to brush all this away, like some nightmarish cobweb, to convince myself that it's some weird, warped fantasy devised by my own mind. Perhaps it's my fevered imagination that finds beneath the facade of normalcy that America is changing in unsettling and ominous ways. It must be me, I think. Perhaps I am spending too much time reading about Germany in the 1930s: Don't we always diagnose the illness we are studying?

And yet the dots ... I keep finding dots that unsettle me.

Five states, including Ohio, calling for sub-minimum wage for teenagers--along with a rollback on protections for teen workers.
IKEA taking advantage of the cheap labor in southern Virginia to open a factory there--$8 an hour for workers versus $19 in Sweden (their minimum wage).
Draconian laws against illegal immigrants.
A city in Michigan assuming "emergency powers ..." that takes governance from elected officials in favor of vesting it in an appointed board: (HT: MM)
Constant reports of the dramatic increases in the wealth of the upper 1 percent of our country, along with the flattening and even decrease of wealth for the rest of us.
News that Paul Ryan, author of the bill that would replace Medicare with inadequate medical vouchers for seniors, requires his staff to read Ayn Rand, a "philosopher" hostile to Christianity and apparently to any form of compassion save self interest.

I'm sure much more could be added. I worry that something strange is happening in the United States that will strip most of us of our rights and our livelihood, predicated on a financial "emergency." Am I even thinking this? How can this be? I fervently hope I am wrong and this current period and its excesses will dissipate as the American economy recovers.

Thomas Wolfe wrote eloquently about about his gradual, growing awareness of the profound evil of Nazi Germany during a visit there in 1936. It was this awareness of what he called a primeval evil that led him to conclude he couldn't go home again. He'd lost his innocence. The passage below, written on the heels of his visit to Germany, could equally apply to today:

From You Can't Go Home Again

I think the enemy is here before us, too. But I think we know the forms
and faces of the enemy, and in the knowledge that we know him, and shall
meet him, and eventually must conquer him is also our living hope. I
think the enemy is here before us with a thousand faces, but I think we
know that all his faces wear one mask. I think the enemy is single
selfishness and compulsive greed. I think the enemy is blind, but has the
brutal power of his blind grab. I do not think the enemy was born
yesterday, or that he grew to manhood forty years ago, or that he
suffered sickness and collapse in 1929 [or 2008], or that we began without the
enemy, and that our vision faltered, that we lost the way, and suddenly
were in his camp. I think the enemy is old as Time, and evil as Hell, and
that he has been here with us from the beginning. I think he stole our
earth from us, destroyed our wealth, and ravaged and despoiled our land.
I think he took our people and enslaved them, that he polluted the
fountains of our life, took unto himself the rarest treasures of our own
possession, took our bread and left us with a crust, and, not content,
for the nature of the enemy is insatiate--tried finally to take from us
the crust.

I think the enemy comes to us with the face of innocence and says to us:

"I am your friend."

I think the enemy deceives us with false words and lying phrases, saying:

"See, I am one of you--I am one of your children, your son, your brother,
and your friend. Behold how sleek and fat I have become--and all because
I am just one of you, and your friend. Behold how rich and powerful I
am--and all because I am one of you--shaped in your way of life, of
thinking, of accomplishment. What I am, I am because I am one of you,
your humble brother and your friend. Behold," cries Enemy, "the man I am,
the man I have become, the thing I have accomplished--and reflect. Will
you destroy this thing? I assure you that it is the most precious thing
you have. It is yourselves, the projection of each of you, the triumph of
your individual lives, the thing that is rooted in your blood, and native
to your stock, and inherent in the traditions of America. It is the thing
that all of you may hope to be," says Enemy, "for"--humbly--"am I not
just one of you? Am I not just your brother and your son? Am I not the
living image of what each of you may hope to be, would wish to be, would
desire for his own son? Would you destroy this glorious incarnation of
your own heroic self? If you do, then," says Enemy, "you destroy
yourselves--you kill the thing that is most gloriously American, and in
so killing, kill yourselves."

He lies! And now we know he lies! He is not gloriously, or in any other
way, ourselves. He is not our friend, our son, our brother. And he is not
American! For, although he has a thousand familiar and convenient faces,
his own true face is old as Hell.

Look about you and see what he has done.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Dorothy Day and a good book on children's literature

I'm reading a good book on children's literature called American Children's Literature and the Construction of Childhood by Gail Schmunk Murray (1998).

What interests me about children's literature is the lifelong impact it has on readers: In other words, that it's formative. It colors how we view the world. As Murray argues, it's also conservative. Such literature is written by adults who have typically wanted to inculcate children with whatever they consider the prevailing "good" morality of their time period, be it Christian sentiment in the 19th century or acceptance of minorities in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. I would add too, that because it is imagined by adults who, inevitably, transmit the values of their own era--essentially the era before the birth of the child reader--children who internalize these values are carrying forward and conserving older values. If they express these values as adults, they are expressing the values of their grandparents' generation, though, of course, influenced by the experiences and values of their own lives.

Dorothy Day, a founder of the Catholic Worker movement in the 1930s, was much influenced by the 19th century novels she read as a child. Two that impressed her were Wide, Wide World and Queechy by Susan Warner, both huge best sellers before the Civil War and an influence on a generation of literature to come. In these novels, which are sentimental by today's standards, young orphan girls survive in a cruel world through faith in God, patience, innocence, kindness, forgiveness and self sacrifice. Although these novels were written from an evangelical Christian perspective, Day was able to carry their values into the Catholic Worker movement. Along with other books, they gave her an inspiration and a touchstone. The Catholic Worker hospitality houses required huge amounts of patience, kindness and self sacrifice. They also ignited the popular imagination: the CW hospitality house movement spread quickly.

Books like Queechy and Wide, Wide World remind me of Shirley Temple films of the 1930s, often featuring Temple as a brave, innocent and virtuous orphan girl who makes her way in a cruel world. It interests me that such Victorian motifs carried into the 1930s, a time of great suffering, and that they manifested in both films and the Catholic Worker movement. One could argue that the compassion imagined in the 19th century is in many ways realized in the 20th century, especially during the New Deal of the 1930s, as many of the people who grew up reading 19th- century children's literature came of age. And it's surely possible that children's book like the Little House series, which, as Murray points out, promoted self help and implicitly critiqued government programs, have influenced the politics of our era in an individualist direction.

Questions that arise for me include: What values did I imbibe and have I carried forward as a child reading children's literature in the 1960s and early 70s? What values are today's young adults carrying forward? What impact have they had and will they have on how our society is structured?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sub-minimum wage

Here's on child labor:

Several states, including Ohio, want to roll back minimum wage for people under 20. The details vary from state to state, but apparently Maine is proposing $5.25 an hour for this specific group.

Here are my problems with this:

An acquaintance of mine has a daughter who started at the same state university she attended 30 years ago. She wanted the daughter to work her way through college for character building reasons, but noted that the cost of the education there had gone up by 10 times in 30 years while minimum wage had increased a mere 2.5 times. These figures made it impossible her daughter to earn enough to work her way through school. A sub-minimum wage would make that financial struggle even harder, especially as Pell grants are under attack now.

Apparently, at least in some states, the proposals abolish the kind of oversight that prevents abuse. In fact, some of the legislation takes away any requirement for record keeping. The message is clear: Employers can hire very young workers and do what they want with them. (This in the wake of the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Fire?) The most vulnerable will be the most exploited.

I have been wondering when and how the assault on minimum wage would come. Never, ever do you hear anyone like Boehner, our representative from Ohio, say anything but "job creation." There's never any talk of decent jobs at decent wages with decent benefits .... Now I know how minimum wage will be attacked: Use the states, target specific groups, slice and dice, whittle and prod .... Then the "rest of us" will have to compete with $5.25 an hour ...

Where is the mainstream media on this? The New York Times spent masses of time on the Triangle fire but in the meantime, in real time, Rome is burning all around us. We hand wring over past abuses while politicians are trying to rewind the tape to recreate those days.

Perhaps this summer, when it looks like I will be unemployed, I can get involved in politics for the second time in my life. I'm simply not an overtly political creature ...

Am I over-reacting to this? I really see this as a part of a "vision", not to bring the rest of the world forward to decent wages and benefits for workers, but to create a huge class of underpaid proles in America who can "compete" with Third World workers in a race to the bottom. It makes me deeply sad on spiritual level.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Visioning the green community

Shak El writes:

"Green Utopianism does not have to mean a return to the farm (tho it would not stop those who wished to do so). It could easily embrace an industrial society based on green energies (sun, wind, wter, geo-thermal etc). necessary labor would be gradually reduced by moving ever towards full automation and shared work load divided amongst the population. Some estimate that we could produce everything we need with only 10-15 hours of necessary labor."

"Some estimate that we could produce everything we need with only 10-15 hours of necessary labor."

When I was growing up in the 1960s and even into the early 70s, a shorter work week was very much a vision. With increased productivity, we would could all live well and by working fewer hours live, paradoxically, more abundantly.

In the 1960s, the idea of a shorter work week was linked to the technological Utopia that was going to liberate us all, and we were less sophisticated about environmental issues. I remember the first Earth Day, when our elementary school class stood on the baseball diamond and let go a great flock of colorful helium balloons. We wouldn't do that today ... but we meant well.

What made my heart sing was hearing others speak (not just Shak El, but Alice, Hysery, etc.) of that seemingly long lost vision of an abundance of time rather than of material goods. I have been thinking much about vision these days, and the quote from Proverbs that "without a vision, the people perish" sticks in my mind. It's not just any vision that Proverbs means, but a vision, as the next part of the quotes notes, that is tied to the law--which, as I read it, links it specifically to the building of the shalom community.

We seem so surrounded by visions of scarcity. We are told must work longer and harder for less and less and do so in an environment of fear. Yet our productivity has grown massively in the past 50--and even 20--years. By embracing a vision of simply living more simply, and wisely using the technology we have, we could be released from lives of toil. If we lived at the level of the average family of the 1950s, we could all work shorter weeks, with less stress and more joy and time for family, friends and community.

Back in the 1930s, Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin and the Catholic Worker movement advocated for the same vision: People living simply by working 20 hours a week and spending another 20 hours a week in discussion and education, ie. in community. If people in a society that had so much less could have this vision, we can too. (I think. I hope.)

We live in a culture too that values work as work, so that one can be fearful of advocating for leisure. And some, but not all of us, will have passions, be it for building a bicycle from scratch to helping build a Friends boarding school, that will take up large amounts of time--but not feel like work.

Overall, this green vision is not about "leisure" per se but achieving a more balanced life. In The Overworked American, the author, Juliet Schor, cites studies that once people work 30 hours a week or fewer, they actually watch less television and are more apt to be involved in politics and community. Could this be the real reason we are told we must work ever longer and harder?

Not to restate the obvious, but maybe it needs to be said more often: Fewer hours in an office or commuting to a job might lead to less money but it would also open up more time for gardening and hanging laundry and walking places and enjoying life. Maybe we'd read more books. Maybe we'd be healthier, driving down health care cost. Perhaps I dream ...

Beautiful Barnesville, Fairyland and Walking.

Roger and I walked the seven miles round trip to the Fairyland ice cream stand yesterday. One of the charms of Barnesville is how it captures a simpler, bygone era. Of course, my feet now hurt ... even after bathing them in Olney's lake. Ah spring!! How we love you!

I'm struck with Barnesville's quiet when I come back here from Richmond on the weekends. I live on a shady, quiet, old-fashioned street there, but Route 40, a few blocks a way, provides constant, subliminal traffic noise and there's the train whistle, and an undercurrent of hum from people in houses built in a row along a street. It's not bad noise, but it's noise. Our house in Barnesville, however, is surrounded by fields and a barn, with the lake on one side, and we are set far back from the road, so the quiet is profound, except for the birds and the geese, and occasionally, sounds drifting over from Olney.

Since, like Jane Austen, I live "half in" all the books I've read, our walk to the Fairyland reminded me of when Donna Parker and her best friend Ricky, a freckle-faced girl, took a long walk to the soda fountain on their day off from camp counseling in the Donna Parker books, a children's series written in the late 1950s, early 1960s ... which book was that? Of course, the soda stand looked a lot closer when they were whipping past in the car on the way to camp ... Has anybody read the Donna Parker books?

And while I'm ruminating on long walks ... trekking to the Fairyland reminded me too of a March of Dimes walk-a-thon through Baltimore when I was 14. I wish I had photos and/or a route map from that day, because it was street after street of tidy rowhouses with marble steps ... and most of that is probably gone now or in disrepair ... I took it all for granted, of course. I know there's a metaphor here somewhere. :)

Any walk memories?

Monday, April 4, 2011


In her essay "Lush Life: Foucault's Analysis of Power and A Jazz Aesthetic," Sharon Welch quotes Steven Weinberg's list of five widely held utopian visions:

Free Market utopias: In this vision, government is limited and the world, freed of regulations, becomes “industrialized and prosperous.” However, “For many Americans the danger of tyranny lies not in government but in employers or insurance companies or HMOs, from which we need government to protect us. To say that any worker is free to escape an oppressive employer by getting a different job is ... unrealistic," Weinberg writes.

Best and brightest utopias: The best and the brightest are put in charge. The problem: all elites end up prioritizing their own interests.

Religious utopias: Religious revival sweeps the earth, getting rid of secularism. We know what happens when religious communities start to safeguard their "purity."

Green utopias: The world rejects industrialism in favor of simpler living and small communities. This vision “falls prey to the common tendency ... for those who don’t have to work hard to romanticize labor.”

Technological utopias: A dream of a world made efficient and rich through the dispersal of cutting edge technology. This vision doesn’t sufficiently address environmental concerns of loss of local community.

I've read much about all these visions, and the one I probably fall prey to is the Green utopia, probably because I never have supported myself through farming. Do you have a "favorite?" Are there more to add to the list? Could all of these work together or is that another utopic fantasy?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Against Polemics

I've found an interesting book called Postmodern Theology, edited by Graham Ward (2001). The essays I have read so far have put an emphasis on joy, community, embodiment and mutuality as the hallmarks of the Judeo-Christian ethic. Who knew the postmoderns were such a cheerful lot?

Sharon Welch, a theologian, has an essay called "Lush Life: Foucault's Analysis of Power and A Jazz Aesthetic." One timely idea she culls from Foucault, who died in 1984, is a rebuttal of polemics. In an interview late in his life Foucault said:

“polemics allows for no possibility of an equal discussion; it is processing a suspect, it collects the proofs of his guilt, designates the infraction he has committed and pronounces the verdict and sentences him…But it is the political model that is most powerful today. Polemics … establishes the other as the enemy …against which one must fight until the moment this enemy is defeated and either surrenders or disappears.”

Sadly, almost 30 years later, polemics still reigns in politics--and in religion. How many denominations, Quaker included, are threatened with being torn apart because two sides have locked into positions, each refusing to move one micron against the demonized Other?

Foucault located the future of philosophy in a post-imperialist world in non-European countries. Certainly, we've seen an explosion of global readings and perspectives on culture and history in the more than 25 years since Foucault died. However, it seems to me that most of this is still largely informed by Western European, and more specifically, French and German, philosophy, as we all process the ideas of their enormously important thinkers.

Finally, Foucault poses the question: How do marginalized people move beyond critiquing structures of domination and imperialism? How do we use what power we have in a way that doesn't involve dominating others? Foucault distinguishes between power and domination, putting him much in accord with Jesus, though Foucault would not, by any stretch of the imagination, have regarded himself as Christian.

One of his answers to the problem of domination is to veer from Utopic visions with their "certainty" and embrace a vision that acknowledges imperfection and mistakes, but nevertheless keeps on trying to build a better world. There's a huge amount of wisdom in that stance. Foucault wanted his ideas and theories not to be "grand narratives," universal and totalizing, but to fucntion as a "toolkit" from which people could choose what was useful. This humility, admission of human frailty and pragmatic idealism also aligns with the classical Christian worldview. (The Christian worldview that was not co-opted by imperialist thinking).

Welch compares this way of thinking to the creative and improvisational nature of jazz, an art form created by a marginalized group, which is more about invention than perfection.

I remember once, in a reading group in which we were discussing a visionary community, noting that these communities always seemed to fail after, at most, a couple of generations. Why? Another member of the group pointed out that we tend to hold Utopic communities to too high a standard. How many businesses last more than a few generations, he asked. When I thought of the number of cherished Baltimore businesses (the closest city to where I then lived) that had folded in my lifetime, I had to agree: most organizations are inherently ephemeral.

So as I envision us floating to work in our rafts and sending our children or grandchildren to small, caring schools or Quakerism revitalizing, and then see how these things can go wrong, I am comforted to think that we simply need to keep trying. So what is the next step?