A Few Book Reports

I’m back, tanned and rested, but not ready for the winter that welcomed me back. I have always been quite content with the winters in New England, but find myself less happy with the concomitant snow shoveling that goes with it. But all that fades on a morning like today’s. Last night it snowed slowly but steadily with the temperature just about freezing. The result was a winter wonderland. Every tree had a sparkling white winter coat, glittering in the bright sunshine. The warm day that followed was most welcome, but at the cost of all the beauty as the snow quickly melted and fell off.

The publication date for Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability is getting close. It is due in the stores by May 15th at the latest. My co-author, Andy Hoffman, and I are gearing up for the necessary publicity work. It’s arrival is too late for courses this semester, but not for the Fall term.

Roger Williams

I spent a lot of time around the pool and on the beach while at Cancun last week, taking in the sun and reading. I brought the texts for the two courses I am taking at my geezers institute for learning in retirement and also our book club book. Some thoughts about what I read before it all fades. The book club book was the story of Roger Williams, perhaps best known as the founder of the colonies that became Rhode Island. He was a most remarkable man persevering in a times fraught with religious and political strife in England that followed him to the New World. A deeply religion man, he fought with the Puritan leaders that has established plantations (settlements) in Massachusetts largely out of opposition to the authoritarian context of their church.

Williams strongly believed that every person should have the freedom to determine his or her relationship to God without the strictures placed by the established church hierarchy. He argued for a context of toleration opposed to a conformist structure. He further opposed the conflation of church and “state.” I put state in quotes because there was little formal state then in the colonies. His primary reason was that his belief that the combination would corrupt the purity of his religion. But he also, as I noted, believed in the freedom to choose one’s approach to God and that the authorities whether political or ecclesiastical should not interfere.

What I found most relevant to flourishing was the absence of domination in his philosophy and theocracy. His notions spilled over to his acceptance of the Indians that surrounded all the early colonies as fully human. He learned their languages and became the most important negotiator between the several important Indian tribes and the English settlers. Life in those times was hard, but by living an authentic life, Williams could be said to flourish amidst the strife of the times.

Jim Crow

The next book is about the New Jim Crow and the subjugation of black males through the mass incarceration policies associated with the continuing War on Drugs. I can’t remember all the statistics on the percentages of young black males in prisons, but it was disturbingly high. Besides a terrible story about cruelty and callousness, it tells another about the failures of linear, instead of systems, thinking.

The notion that severe, mandatory sentencing for even minor drug-related arrests would stem the use and trafficking of drugs produced perverse effects, with many young blacks accepting plea bargains in very weak cases that might well have been won if the cases had been tried. But once accepting a plea bargain, the young men are labeled as felons, a millstone that they carry the rest of their lives, barring them from voting, employment, government assistance programs and other societal functions necessary for what might be considered a minimally free existence. Flourishing is out of the question. The context of mass incarceration ignores the many complexities of living at the bottom of society and narrowly compresses a complex set of issues into a single category of criminal justice. Add a large dose of racism and we end up with a prison population far greater per capita than any other comparable country. In terms of sustainability, as I write about it, this situation indicates the virtual absence of care on both individual and institutional levels.

Hungry Years

The third was a tale about life during the Great Depression years starting in the late 20’s in the United States. Its name had economic roots but better described the state of mind of many of those affected and certainly of many readers like myself. I have only read the first few chapters, but enough to begin to visualize the extreme conditions surrounding life for so many. While the causes of the economic shutdown were manifold, the bursting of the speculative bull market was clearly a trigger, just as the market for derivatives led to a speculative bubble that burst to initiate the great recession of the last few years.

As many as 25 percent of the workforce were unemployed in the 1930’s and many others were severely underemployed. Early on, without the later massive governmental relief programs of the first Roosevelt Presidency, there was an outpouring of voluntary assistance that did make life better for some but was grossly inadequate to deal with the scope of the problem. I don’t see much evidence of anything like this in the recent social crisis. I wonder if, as we have become more affluent and consumeristic, we have become even less caring. I suspect so, but haven’t any scholarly data close at hand to support my sense.

In the New Jim Crow class today, someone asked if the plight of the blacks (and browns) and the other social breakdowns emerging today was related to an “American Character.” I do not think that the notion of a national character, especially in the US, is a useful metaphor. But I do think that our norms reflect a certain set of dominant beliefs, and that these are factors useful to explain the behaviors that lead to pathological societal conditions. Domination and discrimination leading to inequality and injustice are traceable to the prevalent acquisitive individualism rampant in the US. The “other” is viewed with indifference or, worse, aggression (put them in their place).

Flourishing is impossible in such a context. A few can try to insulate themselves from the mainstream, but even that will not lead to flourishing because it exacerbates the sense of isolation, rather than the inherent interconnectedness of all of us. Simplistic solutions, such as incarceration or bank bailouts, simply are inadequate to deal with the systemic nature of societal life for both the rich and the poor.

“Character” is nothing more than an assessment of the nature of someone’s habitual behavior. There is no such “character” inside one’s skin. But there are common beliefs that lead to such an assessment. It’s here that any solutions to our problems lie via changing these beliefs. Recovering caring that accompanies being authentically human, that is reflecting the unique characteristics of our species, is essential to any efforts that can truly begin to make these and other problems ameliorate and maybe disappear. But even that will be insufficient until we begin to treat these problems as systemic and stop applying Band-Aids, even very expensive ones.

|