Dreaming of the Suburbs

Matthew Loftus brought up this article on the suburbs (The Conservative Case Against Suburbs, a reaction to an earlier Joel Kotkin piece). It’s a form of the conservative critique that sees the suburbs or suburban sprawl as the enemy of the local, the agriculture. I can get behind that to a certain extent, but still.

Of course, it’s always fun to bash Joel Kotkin. Nevertheless there is a lack of subtlety regarding suburbs, not least how we want to describe them. In larger metro areas, there are all sorts of neighborhoods that once were properly suburban but now with leafy streets and the like.

I probably would not think of the suburb as “centralized” although that fits certain conservative memes. The heart of the suburb is its decentralized quality, its “nowhereness,” part aesthetic, and part philosophic. The suburban organization is less centralized, than one of nodes and interstate ganglia. At its core, a decentralized place makes it more difficult to live a public life, to participate in public narratives be it the library. the school, the local symphony.

In further criticism of the piece, the question of race is inescapable. The federal policies that promoted home ownership did so at the cost of opportunity for African Americans. The policies (redlining) gave institutional and geographic warrant for racism — see the work of Thomas Sugrue. An urban philosophy that does not wrestle with the questions of race and economics would appear to be at best, effete, the stuff of More Brooklyn sentimentality.

Fact is, we will need to deal with our suburbs — they won’t get bulldozed. We will need to think carefully how we create robust spaces within this suburban matrix where individuals can thrive, and more importantly, where we can live out full (and public) lives.

Students and Self-Determination

This fall the Cal State system will be without its InterVarsity groups. This is  no accident, but one of policy, part of a deepening movement at a variety of higher educational institutions (see this report from The New York Times on similar policies at the highly selective Bowdoin College)

While it is easy to think of this as one more outpouring of anti-Christian (or better, anti-evangelical) animus, the bitter fruit of the gay-religious traditionalist battle, structural considerations also seem to be in play. Two stand out.

First would be  the particular form of American para-church ministry. Para-church is an offshoot (I suspect, fundamentalist offshoot — another story) to the civil religion of the mid century and its ecumenism. Structurally, the para-church does not have any other authority it can appeal to except itself. This autonomy is its great strength, but leaves it open to institutional actions, as it is both “within” and “without”. By contrast RUF do not have this problem since leadership is locked in with the ordained leader.

Secondly, there is the more philosophic question as to how any organization maintains its mission. How does it guard against missional drift? All kinds of organizations, secular and religious, have a vested interest in preserving their internal mission; campus provides one setting, but one can see the same phenomena with other NGOs in society e.g. foundations.   The Cal State position assumes that such preservation is associational in nature rather than structural. Campus groups are whatever they decide to be; this aligns with present-day libertarian and public choice ethos. Groups are what we decide them to be. Period. Practically, this reduces the horizon for any campus group to the school year, but of course, any number of groups plan for longer term since their mission is broader than simply that of student chocie.

Student organizations especially (but not exclusively) represent not only choices, but finally commitments. Being of like mind is the structure, the embodiment of how any association grows.

– a version of this post appeared as a comment in Facebook discussion with Matthew Loftus.

Knowing Our Place


This map of the Universe published the other day in Nature has certainly gotten attention. At first blush it looks as if we are put in our place, a little dot, on a little dot, on a spectacular fold of galaxies. How could we not feel small?

But to begin to think that way is only to assume that we actually are seeing this in some dis-embodied way, a pure ethereal vision, a godlke glance. Of course, that is not who we are, or where we are. Rather we are here, with our bodies, our eyes, marveling at the play of light. We this pattern precisely because we are a part of it. The cosmos is not some transcendent sphere,  but rather plays across my retina. I only know because of my body.

The conclusion that I am small is a conclusion wrought with this embodied self. It is the imagined transcendence. So instead of imagining ourselves upward, perhaps we should simply admit to our wonder and leave it at that.

One other observation stands out. If this is a true map, then we humans are not the only ones looking at it. In a universe of a hundred thousand galaxies, each with their hundred thousand stars — what is the likelihood of some other observer drawing the same map, seeing the same reality? To see the shape of the world or universe is to invite us into a communion with others, and not simply of our kind. (And of course, those others are every bit as embodied or situated in their own physical world as we are.)

Our place is with our body, lost in a vision of wonder.

Expanding the base

MLive reports on the plans by Grand Rapids Public Schools to establish a Museum school. At first blush this looks a tad precious, a frou-frou sort of program while the district faces intense challenges on the educational performance front. However, looking more closely, one may see the outline of a two pronged approach. What makes the educational needle so difficult to thread in Grand Rapids is the relative diversity of the community as a whole, coupled with the concentration of minority and poverty-impacted families within GRPS proper. The strategic challenge for the district is how to avoid being known only as a provider for the poor, a school of last (and worst) resort. So two broad directions need to be taken.

First, GRPS needs to address the performance impact of poverty on the students. The correlation between poverty and lagging achievement has been long recognized. While schools can compensate for this impact to some extent, tht path is not only costly, but still subject to the external factors. Success here can be achieved, but it is of a slow variety.  In the meantime, hopeful parents look to charters as an alternative.  GRPS therefore needs to address the issues arising from poverty: safety, some fundamental achievement, better retention (which is to say, better hope).

But that is one side of the coin. Grand Rapids is more than minorities and poverty. Much more. If the district is to thrive, it needs to find ways  to make room for more middle class families. And just to be clear, the Census has been recording a vanishing of families with teens for decades. Retention, too may be subject to significant external factors (e.g.  size in the City versus house size in  the new suburbs). What makes an Initiative such as the Museum school so hopeful is that it appears to recognize another truth in educational reform, that students from poverty background do better in a more economically diverse classroom. Thus if one is to meet the challenge of the concentration of poverty, one ought to be looking at ways of adding more middle  class families to the mix.

The innovation programs far from being something of a frou-frou, are strategically working to broaden the base, and so diminish the impact of concentrated poverty. Moreover, one needs more programs that are not test-in.  Further, such programs along with neighborhood schools also need more expenditure of social capital by those “outside.” 

In a complex educational environment that includes varieties of schools, programs, and opportunities, GRPS needs to think about what it has that can contribute to the health of the entire community. it is not at all clear that schools and parents will easily match up by neighborhood. Within the urban area we are far more likely to see a number of programs that parents choose from or participate in. More options within the district are an essential for GRPS if it is to remain competitive and not simply fall into the school of last (and failed) resort. That would be a tragedy for the region.

Roughing up the journalists

Outrage In Missouri Town After Police Shooting Of 18-Yr-Old Man

Reading Max Fisher’s laundry list of confrontations between journalists and the police in Ferguson MO can leave one drained. Or in despair. We have entered the strange stage set of public political theatre. So police officers who have put on the regalia, the costume of the security State, no feel an obligation or perhaps a freedom to act out that role.

The weapons, the helmets, the vehicles and body armor are all signs of Authority. One is not to challenge them, certainly not in an age of Security. Yet fundamentally one must. One must challenge precisely because this is a theatre, a mock show. Challenge in order to save them from themselves, from the cloak of curses that seeps into them like oil (Ps 109.17). The cycle of violence keeps asking for escalation, because it is the substance, the purpose of Authority. Such a sign, is of course one that pushes out the republican truths of discourse and citizenship.

As long as we engage in our political Security Theatre, we render ourselves unable to see our neighbor. For some that is a flaw, the fear is that for others it is a feature.

What leadership looks like.

In what is surely news to the jaded world, the Washington Post reports that Raymond Burse, interim president of Kentucky State took a pay cut. A $90,000 pay cut, so that  the minimum wage employees could have their pay raised to $10.25. He buys more than gratitude, it builds solidarity in the institution. At a time of cynicism and increasing separation, this is a throwback to the older standards of solidarity by which all stand or fall in the organization.

Raymond Burse_2

The Long War

Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy asks a useful question regarding WW I,

An equally important question and one with considerable contemporary relevance is: why did the war last so long?

The answer is not simply historical, the reasons extend to all sorts of conflict. Why do we keep on fighting? He outlines three lessons:

First, and most obviously, it is much easier to get into a war than it is to get out of one. This is true not only of war, but our political conflicts (think partisanship) or even marital conflict. Once you’re in, the reasons all seem to line up to convince you to stay in.

Second, the long and bitter experience of World War I reminds that truth is the “first casualty” in war. Often it is not the “lie” but the bubble that prolongs the conflict. We lose sight of the impact of the conflict, sometimes because we are too removed (e.g. the turn to easy answers on immigration as in “just send them back.” As if.), and sometimes because of our own optimistic and finally self-referential self-talk. We opt for propaganda because it matches our political goals. This is the path that the philosopher Henry Frankfurt rightly labeled as bullshit.

Third, the tendency to demonize and dehumanize the enemy remains a central feature of modern warfare. And not just warfare, but in most conflict. This is an extension of the propaganda, instrumental use of communication. Demonization is the necessary component of the bubble, it misrepresents.

Thus, to get out of the long wars, interpersonally, politically, and certainly internationally, it takes a commitment to truth. And that invariably appears as the harder task. Harder, but ultimately the only path for whatever salvation we seek.




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