Category Archives: history

The Butcher, the Baker, and Bain?

The Invisible Hand (courtesy of jeff-for-progress.blogspot.com)

The Invisible Hand (courtesy of jeff-for-progress.blogspot.com)

. Old adages die hard. Just consider the longevity of Adam’s Smith characterization of the self-regulating market as an invisible hand in his classic work, The Wealth of Nations. As Smith opined, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

This sentiment, a persistent trope reverberating from one generation to the next, has become a center-piece of the American ethos as well as a mainstay of the Republican party. Nowhere is this more evident than in the on-going Republican electoral campaign. Thus, it is only by invoking the mantra of the invisible hand that Romney can criticize President Obama’s economic strategy, and get away with it, without having to lay out a strategy of his own. He claims to have the magic formula! So, instead of policy ideas, we hear the old refrain, “what’s good for business is good for the country,” or as updated by Romney, “What’s good for Bain is good for the economy.”

The Tooth Fairy  (courtesy of zazzle.com)

The Tooth Fairy (courtesy of zazzle.com)

Call me a skeptic, but having faith in the invisible hand today seems no different to me than believing in the Tooth Fairy. After all, no one can seriously claim that bankers, investors, and equity firms, such as Bain, were not pursuing their own interests when the economy went belly up. How else to explain that big business magnates increased their wealth dramatically in the wake of the 2008 recession, while those lower on the rung experienced calamitous losses. But this begs the question: if businesses were doing what they are wont to do, why then did the market fail to regulate itself? Might this be black magic?

Perhaps is is time to forego the rhetoric of the Republican Party and take a hard look at Smith’s long-standing dictum. To date, neo-classical economists offer little hope in this regard: Try as they might, they have yet to explain how individual actions at the level of the butcher or the baker translate into macro level outcomes, whether good or bad. Fortunately, some nontraditional economists, viewing the economy from evolutionary and complexity perspectives, have provided some promising new insights.

Robert H. Frank, in his book The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good, addresses the issue of the invisible hand head on. As he contends, Darwin’s evolutionary theory, especially as it relates to the role of competition, is far more accurate about the nature of economic life than Adam Smith’s account’s in The Wealth of Nations. In Frank’s words:

When the ability to achieve important goals depends on relative consumption, as it clearly does in a host of domains, all bets regarding the efficacy of Adam Smith’s invisible hand are off. Notwithstanding the uncritically enthusiastic pronouncements of many of Smith’s modern disciples, unbridled market forces often fail to channel the behavior of self-interested individuals for the common good. On the contrary, as the pioneering naturalist Charles Darwin saw clearly, individual incentives often lead to wasteful arms races.

Combining the wisdom of evolutionary and complexity thinking, economist, Erik Beinhocker points out that the equilibrium outcomes, associated with the invisible hand, are entirely unrealistic. As he notes in his pathbreaking book, The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics, the economy is not a static phenomena, but rather a dynamic, complex adaptive system, which is subject to oscillations, power laws, and phase transitions. Moreover, outcomes, as traditional economists would have us believe, are not the product of predictable linear processes; instead, they emerge from the bottom up as the result of the constant interactions and adaptations that take place at all levels of the system. Hence, policy interventions–be they Republican or Democratic–may play a role in determining outcomes, but they are only one factor in a myriad of influences on the economic system.

rough_seas (courtesy of adpulp.com)

rough_seas (courtesy of adpulp.com)

When the economy is conceived in complex, evolutionary terms, the present economic crisis makes a certain amount of sense, unpleasant though it may be. However, what makes no sense at all, given the complexity of the economy, is to blame Obama for the present state of affairs, as Romney so flagrantly does. To the contrary, in times such as these, when the seas are rough and the future uncertain, what’s needed is not someone like Romney, who flips and flops floundering with the waves in the hope that equilibrium will naturally follow, but rather a captain, such as Obama, who will be steady at the helm and stay the course.

What’s Fair is Fair

What's fair is far (courtesy of openlibrary.org) Life, of course, is full of ironies, but what strikes me most recently as such is the coincidence between FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski‘s decision on August 22, 2011 to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine and the raging debate about Super Pacs brought on in part by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Communication Commission. This game-changing Supreme Court decision allows groups of people, including corporations, to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in support of a candidate, so long as there is no coordination with the candidate.

Free speech, it now seems, is no longer a constitutional right; but a matter of money. Those without, are in effect silenced. Scratching my head, I have to ask myself: What’s fair about that? Thanks to Stephen Colbert, the situation was brought into stark, as well as comic, relief when he parodied the new campaign finance rules, setting up his own Super Pac, Definitely Not Coordinated with Stephen Colbert Super Pac, and transferred it to his alter ego Jon Stewart.

Not that the Fairness Doctrine has been active over the past 20+ years. Put into place in 1949, the Doctrine was intended to assure that broadcasters not only made room for issues of public importance, but also aired contrasting perspectives. The rational behind the Government’s involvement in broadcasting–notwithstanding the Constitutional guarantee of free speech–was the industry’s use of scarce, public airwaves–a rationale that was upheld by the Supreme Court in its 1969 decision Red Lion Broadcasting Co. vs FCC.

Televisions are Not Toasters (courtesy of ancient jars.com)

Televisions are Not Toasters (courtesy of ancient jars.com)

The subsequent expansion of media venues gradually weakened this rationale. In 1987, FCC Chairman Mark Fowler--famous for equating televisions with toasters–repealed the Fairness Doctrine, although it remained on the books until Chairman Genachowski’s recent decision to effectively eliminate it.

Paradoxically, today, while media outlets are plentiful, opportunities to raise one’s voice and be heard are becoming increasingly scarce. For, as Tim Wu has argued in The Master Switch, growth in media has led, time and time again, to vertical integration and greater industry concentration. Likewise, in his book The Myth of Digital Democracy, Michael Hindman illustrates how, as the number of outlets on the Internet grow, they become more and more concentrated in accordance with a power law. Hence, to gain a platform for expression under these circumstances requires having money, and lots of it.

To appreciate the full impact of this situation, one need only consider the frantic scrambling in the Republican Primary, not so much for votes but for dollars. As the contest shifts from backyard barbecues to the national media, and from policy pronouncements to negative advertising, the candidates chances of success are measured increasingly by the size of their Super PAC’S war chests. In fact, pointing to the $30.2 million that his Super Pac, Restore our Future, has raised, Mitt Romney has triumphantly predicted his own final victory.

Fierce competition, they say, is good for democracy, not just the market. Recent events make me question whether this is always the case. At the very least, this spending spree is wasteful: I can’t help thinking that the amount of money raised by the SuperPacs to promote–what more often than not is–false information far exceeds the meagre $23 million annual budget of the former Office of Technology Assessment, a Congressional agency tasked to seek out the truth, and one that Newt Gringrich, when Speaker of the House, helped to destroy. In his thoroughly engaging bookThe Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition and the Common Good, Robert H. Frank cautions against unbridled competition on more theoretical grounds. Employing Darwin as his frame of reference, he argues that such contests are likely to lead to an arms race, in which the winner may benefit in the short run, but the society will lose overall.

Sadly Frank’s scenario sounds all too familiar. With money now a proxy for speech, dialogue has become more and more vacuous, even as speech is no longer free. Could it be time for a new Fairness Doctrine?

Republicans in Wonderland

Alice_in_Wonderland  (Wikipedia)

Alice_in_Wonderland (Wikipedia)

Following the Republican Primary I feel that I am, much like Alice in Wonderland, trapped in a fantasy world full of bizarre happenings, none of which make any sense. “Curiouser and curiouser” is all I can say!

Like the unpleasant characters that Alice encounters along her way, the Republican candidates appear consumed by their own sense of importance. They contort their appearances, much like the Cheshire Cat, as they obfuscate and twist facts to suit the audience of the day. As Alice said to herself: “[They] look good natured, but [they] have very long claws and a great many teeth.” So behind the masks, Ron Paul the libertarian glad-hander is an angry bigot; Mitt Romney the conservative businessman is a closet social engineer; Gingrich the intellectual genius is unable to tell the truth; and Rick Perry the Christian preacher has forgotten about the word Love. Clearly, the candidates must have met the Duchess along the campaign trail, and taken her advice when she said:

Cheshire Cat (Disney)

Cheshire Cat (Disney)

Be what you would seem to be, or if you would like it put more simply–Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would appeared to have them to be otherwise.

Now then, how do we know where the truth lies? Certainly not by whose winning and losing. For just as Alice, upon drinking the potions and eating the mushrooms and cakes, vacillated abruptly from being ten feet tall to two inches small, so too the candidates, when imbibing the nectar of success, have had their sudden ups and downs.

The Queen of Hearts has the solution. A caucus, or better still a trial, she said. On the condition that there be no judges, Gingrich concurred. Quoting the Fury’s invitation to the mouse, he proposed:

Let us both go to law; I will prosecute YOU. . .Come I will take no denial; We must have

I'll be judge I'll be jury

I'll be judge I'll be jury

a trial; For this morning I’ve nothing to do.’ Said the mouse to the cur, Such a trial, dear Sir, With no jury or judge would be wasting our breath.’ ‘I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury, Said cunning old Fury: ‘I’ll try the whole cause and condemn you to death.’

Such nonsense can be very irritating, indeed. Like Alice I hope to wake up soon from this bad dream. Fortunately, Alice shows us the way out. Reaching the limits of her patience, Alice regains her true size and stature, and then, standing tall, she speaks the truth to absurdity.

Rick Perry & The Return of Elmer Gantry

Elmer Gantry (monsterhunter.coldfusionvideo.com

Elmer Gantry (monsterhunter.coldfusionvideo.com

My mother, a young adult trying to get a handle on life in the chaotic thirties, was an avid reader of the works of social critic and Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis. His stories satirized the hypocrisy of the time, be it with respect to religion, capitalism, the bourgeoise, or politics. Happy to share her books with me, my mother introduced me to Sinclair Lewis one summer when I was confined to a chair on the screened-in porch of our Lake cabin, recovering from a nasty foot injury. Although an antsy teenager at the time, I was happy to stay put, enthralled as I was by Sinclair Lewis. Now, many years later, I find myself sitting on the same porch, in the same wicker chair, struggling, much as my mother had, to make sense of the politics of our times. Then, in a flash seemingly from nowhere, I recall Sinclair Lewis, and the story of Elmer Gantry.
Sinclair Lewis (findagrave.com)

Sinclair Lewis (findagrave.com)

To fully appreciate the book Elmer Gantry it is important to keep in mind the context in which it was written. The year was 1926, a time of tremendous social and political upheaval arising in the wake of the First World War, which took the form of mounting economic woes, labor strikes, and violent racial confrontations. Fueling these tensions was an underlying intense cultural conflict in which a rapidly growing and increasingly vocal evangelical movement pitted itself against raucous, flamboyant, urban moderns, who personified what came to be known as The Jazz Age.

Life1926-02-18 (courtesy reading.cornell.edu/.../ gatsby/jazz_age.htm)

Life1926-02-18 (courtesy reading.cornell.edu/.../ gatsby/jazz_age.htm)

These two movements fueled each other’s flames, and intensifed their rhetoric, raising the ante for both. The stakes were exceedingly high–nothing less than sin and salvation on the one hand vs. freedom and autonomy on the other.

As described by Barry Hankins in his charming book, Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties and Today’s Culture Wars, the character Elmer Gantry, a narcissistic, opportunistic and–more often than not–ruthless Baptist (and later Methodist) preacher, epitomized the rise and confluence of these two seemingly contradictory social phenomena, which actually fed upon each other. An adherent of the evangelical tradition, Elmer preached the literal Bible; called for the renunciation of sin and salvation through a personal Jesus; advocated prohibition; and lambasted evolution. At the same time, Gantry’ behavior and rhetoric typified the individualist, anything goes, attitude of the roaring twenties. In contrast to his pious, dour colleagues, Gantry was a very charismatic figure; his revival meetings were major productions, exceptionally well marketed and carefully scripted and staged with music, costumes, props and gimmicks, all aimed to capture the hearts of wayward sinners. And not withstanding the many betrayals he carried out; the people whose lives he ruined; and the scandals in which he became involved; Elmer Gantry always came out on top. This cynical, no less than satirical, outcome might explain why the book was banned in Boston, and why, after its publication, Sinclair Lewis was threatened with imprisonment and death.

I had not thought about Elmer Gantry for years, that is, not until, late in the summer, when my husband read a newspaper article to me about Rick Perry. Perry, a Governor, had called upon Texans to pray for rain in their drought-ridden state. Not soon thereafter, and not long before the Iowa Straw Poll, and his presidential announcement, he hosted a ‘day of prayer,’which had all of the trappings of an evangelical tent revival. With God in his heart, he then sought to intimidate Ben Bernanke, by threatening to make life difficult for him if he were ever to come to Texas. On hearing this, I felt that I had met this guy before. But where? Of course; here again was Elmer Gantry. Didn’t Perry and Gantry both have the same modis operandi –charming on the outside, ruthless within. As telling, both are evangelicals first, citizens second. Both put religion over reason, leaving it to God to solve complex world problems, such as climate change. Both employ the Bible to dispute evolution. Both wear their religious faith on the sleeves, but rarely live up to it in their pugnacious, arrogant dealings with other people. Driven by their individual fervor, they both leave no holds barred.

In writing his satires, Sinclair Lewis intended not only to expose the hypocrisy underlying American society and culture, but also to make the country sit up and take notice, especially of the rising threat of fascism. His book, It Can’t Happen Here, reminds Americans that they too are subject to over simplifications, false promises, and rhetorical sway. The book tells the tale of how a a charismatic character, much like Elmer Gantry, or Rick Perry for that matter, might employ inflammatory rhetoric in the name of ostensibly religious goals to fool the public and build up a popular platform that can undermine democracy in the United States. Athough It Can’t Happen Here was written with rise of European dictatorships in mind, it is still a provocative read that can better help us understand the politics of today.

He Who Forgets History. . .

Paul_Reveres Ride

Paul_Reveres Ride

There is considerable irony in the fact that Tea Party groups have sought to legitimate their cause by choosing a name that evokes the Founding Fathers and the events that culminated in the writing of the Constitution and the birth of the Republic. For it is, in fact, these politicos who have conjured up and propagated a totally slipshod account of early American history. Of course, history is open to interpretation, and reinterpretation, but not to distortion of the facts. As Cass Sustein emphasizes in his book Republic.com 2.0, what’s alarming about today’s historical expediency is that, for many undiscerning people, it fills a gap in their historical knowledge, substituting fiction for fact.

Perhaps no one has gone further to link him or herself to the trappings of American history than Sarah Palin who, while coyly avoiding questions about her potential candidacy for President, undertook a bus tour of historical places as a means of educating Americans about their origins. (Presumably, if people understood American history, they would see the merits in Palin’s political positions) What hubris! The trip backfired, to say the least. Visiting the home of Paul Revere, Palin garbled the story of his ride, contending that Revere road to warn the British rather than the militia. When challenged by Fox News, Palin denied her gaffe, insisting that she “knew her American history.” So ended her tour, if not her presidential ambitions.

Palin is not alone in crafting historical events in accordance with her own political objectives. Speaking to the group Iowans for Tax Relief, Michele Bachmann claimed, for instance, that equality was not something that was contested and fought for, even at the expense of a civil war; rather, as she said, individuals, regardless of their origins, came to the United States and were treated as equals.

Slavery in America

Slavery in America

Acknowledging that slavery existed at the time, she contended that the Founding Fathers — especially John Quincy Adams–vowed to work for its elimination. No matter that a number of Founding Fathers–including Washington and Jefferson–were slave owners; that the Constitution counted slaves as three-quarters of a man; or that John Quincy Adams, a young boy at the time, was not a Founding Father.

Even more alarming than these individual cases is the formal rewriting of history, as in the recent case in Texas. Concerned that American textbooks veered too far to the left, the Texas Board of Education (comprised of ten Republicans and five Democrats) unabashedly voted to alter the American narrative to bolster a conservative perspective. Most outlandish of all, the Board voted to discount Thomas Jefferson’s role in providing the philosophical underpinnings of the new Republic, notwithstanding his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. As Fritz Fischer, national chairman of the National Council for History Education characterized it: This should not be a matter of partisanship, but rather of good history.

As George Santayana said, He who forgets history is doomed to repeat it. Might Santayana’s admonition provide a clue as to why Tea Party members, and others of their ilk, seek to distort it? I believe so. In fact, it would appear to me that today’s Conservatives would like nothing more than to return to a semi-mythical past when, according to their lights, life was much simpler, God prevailed, and Government was more circumspect. It’s time for a rereading, not a rewriting, of history.

The Dark is Rising

Complete Lunar Eclipse (NASA)

Complete Lunar Eclipse (NASA)

It may seem curious to entitle a blog, “The Dark is Rising,” just a day after the Winter Solstice, when I experienced a phenomenal lunar eclipse. Nevertheless, remembrances of the children’s book, bearing the same name, and written by Susan Cooper, keeps seeping into my conscious mind. It is a book that I read to my son Stephen, one Christmas long ago, when he was confined to my mother’s living room couch, while recovering from a nasty bout with pneumonia. My mother cooked and did her art work, while I read; no matter, we were both engrossed, almost as much as Steve. Given recent events, I realize that the story line of the second book in Cooper’s five part series–appropriately entitled The Dark is Rising–is very timely; there are, in fact, a number of eerie parallels.

the never ending battle between the forces of good and evil

Writing in the tradition of J. R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, Cooper employs mythical symbols and tropes to depict the never ending battle between the forces of good and evil. Time shifts and magic play important roles as well. In the story, the protagonist, young Will Stanton, discovers on the morning of his eleventh birthday, which occurs evocatively on Midwinter’s Eve, that he is the last of the Old Ones–people who, having been granted supernatural powers, have used them across the centuries, to push back the dark.

Will’s entry into this realm is full of foreboding. He is destined to be a seeker. To do his part, Will must collect six sacred, ornamental signs, which, when joined, will defy the Dark. A looming atmosphere accompanies Will throughout his journey: for the forces of the Dark make themselves ever present in the guise of a tremendous chill and snow storm that paralyzes the town; birds attacking from the sky; a wandering madman called the Walker, lurking behind every corner, and the Rider, who, appearing dressed in black and riding a large black stallion, personifies evil. Fortunately, Will is rescued from these encounters by a host of Old Ones–some from many centuries ago–who share his mission on behalf of the Light.

First New York snow of 2011: Nolita from Dan Nguyen NY

First New York snow of 2011: Nolita from Dan Nguyen NY

Now, let’s consider this Christmas season. As in the time of Will’s brush with the Dark, these past few weeks have yielded some unusually tempestuous weather, with torrential rains in California and Australia, causing life-threatening mudslides and floods, not to mention snowy blizzards carpeting most of the East Coast. We must take notice, too, of the birds falling from the sky, and the dead fish washed ashore? More troubling still is the political climate of hatred exacerbated by media pundits and right wing politicians, such as Sarah Palin, who seek private gain at the expense of humanity. As we have seen in Arizona, the consequences can be catastrophic. What accounts for all of this? If you look at the Homeland Security report Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment, you can only conclude that THE DARK IS RISING.

Today, there are no Old Ones, as in the myths bygone. But some of us are “old” in the sense that we have lived through more civic–even if stress ridden–times, times when people reached out with a hand, and not with a gun. Like the Old Ones of the past, perhaps we need to work together to hold back the Dark, reconstructing a narrative based on trust and caring. As the neurobiologist Dr. Douglas Fields has demonstrated in his research, our brains are the product of our environments. Hence, those of us who grew up in better times can play our parts by reconstructing and retelling the magic inherent in our memories.

Who Turned Out the Lights?

Who Turned Out the Lights? from Jim (jaytay)

Who Turned Out the Lights? from Jim (jaytay)

My father could not abide waste. To encourage my sisters and me to consume each and every crumb on our plates, he not only told us about “all the poor starving children”; he went much further, instituting the Clean Plate Club. Each time we finished a meal, we received a badge of honor–that is, a medal that he made by wrapping the cap of the milk bottle with tin foil. Sadly, the scales testified to the success of my father’s endeavor.

My father’s campaign to induce us to turn out the lights had far less impact, however. Exasperated by our failure to respond to his admonitions, he resorted to bribery. Leave it to a banker!

My father as a young man.

My father as a young man.

Leave it to a banker. He offered us a deal.

Here was the deal: If my two sisters and I would only turn out the lights, he would give us the difference between what the electricity bill was, and what it would have been had we simply clicked the switch. A no-brainer to be sure. My father’s efforts, however, were to no avail. Speaking for myself, it wasn’t a disregard for financial rewards, nor for that matter laziness, that fueled my resistance. No, at an age when one’s imagination runs wild, I found it reassuring to be ensconced in light.

Today, I feel the same way. Wherever I look, there are dark clouds overhead–the depressed economy, the BP oil spill, the war on terror, the rise of the Tea Party and the mid-term elections, and, oh yes, the slaughter of the bears in my beloved New Jersey. It’s time to turn on the lights!

Washington Revels (revelsdc.org)

Washington Revels (revelsdc.org)

However, having absorbed my father’s penchant for efficiency, and my husband’s concerns about the environment, I certainly don’t advocate wasting electricity. No, my recommendation is far brighter: a performance of the Washington Revels. A yearly event in Washington, the Washington Revels have used song and dance to reenact, according to one traditional narrative or another, how mankind has, over generations, endured the Winter’s darkness by celebrating one another in a spirit of good cheer and benevolence, as they await the return of the light.

So too, in our own lives today. Accompanied by a glass of good cheer, my husband Brock and I, rejoice in in the song Drive the Cold Winter Away. Verse seven is most enlightening, as well as one of my favorites. We’d be happy to have you join in.

This time of the year is spent in good cheer,
And neighbours together do meet
To sit by the fire, with friendly desire,
Each other in love to greet;
Old grudges forgot are put in the pot,
All sorrows aside they lay;
The old and the youth doth carol this song
To drive the cold winter away.

Right, Left, Right

Left....Right....Right Bird March (Ananth's)

Left....Right....Right Bird March (Ananth's)

Several weeks ago, I read an article reporting that Dick Cheney feared the rise of the Tea Party. The reason? Focusing on Rand Paul’s politics, the news story claimed that Paul was too conservative for Cheney. I tried the idea out for size. But deep inside, I suspected otherwise. Was it possible, instead, that Rand Paul might be too radical for conservative republicans, as we now know them?

Might not the Teaparty be too radical for conservative republicans?

At first, It was only an impression, inspired by books I had read years ago. Intrigued, I decided to revisit them. First up was Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, an elaborate story featuring classic Dickens characters that builds upon and derives its intrigue from people and events that traverse the shadowy backdrop of the French and English revolutions. Recalling a germane passage in the novel, I now sought it out.

Like most other Dickens novels, The Tale of Two Cities is a cliffhanger. So I read it transfixed until three in the morning, when I finally came across the key scene that I was looking for. You may recall it.

Madame_DeFarge_I_by_Goldenspring

Madame_DeFarge_I_by_Goldenspring

In this scene, the character Sydney Carton, who although he is about to take the hero, Darnay’s, place at the guillotine, is inspired by a vision of a peaceful Paris, a heaven on earth, in which many of the bloodthirsty revolutionaries–including the irrepressibly vengeful Madame Defarge–will share in his same fate. I wonder, is this what Dick Cheney had in mind?

 Day 152/365: Searching for Clues(from weboricam(

Day 152/365: Searching for Clues (from weboricam)

In search of more clues, I turned to historian Crane Briton‘s classic analysis, The Anatomy of a Revolution, a book I had first read while in graduate school at Columbia. Employing as his lens, the course a fever runs, Brinton compares the French, English, Russian, and American revolutions in terms of the following stages: precursor situations and events; the rise and rule of the moderates; the accession of the extremists; the reign of terror, and the thermidor reaction. It is uncanny how many parallels Brinton was able to draw, but even more so when we compare these parallels to our own situation today.
Pillar10-History-French-Revolution-Delacroix

Pillar10-History-French-Revolution-Delacroix

Consider, for example, the rumblings leading up to all of these revolutions. As Brinton notes, there was growing resistance to excessive taxation; increased outrage about injustices and inequality; a loss not only of government legitimacy but also of the rationale for government itself. While catalytic events may have set the revolutionaries into motion, the driving force that sustained them was a radical utopian vision–much like that held by Sydney Carton–of what a post revolutionary future might be like. Does it sound familiar?

To hear echos of these phrases today, one need only listen to the metaphysical tone that underlies much of the Tea Party rhetoric. As journalist J.M. Bernstein describes:

The seething anger that seems to be an indigenous aspect of the Tea Party movement arises, I think, at the very place where politics and metaphysics meet, where metaphysical sentiment becomes political belief. More than their political ideas, it is the anger of Tea Party members that is already reshaping our political landscape.

Look Homeward America

Look Homeward America

If you need further convincing, take a look at Bill Kauffman‘s Look Homeward America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals, a sympathetic, and somewhat nostalgic, perspective, which not only puts the Tea Party’s philosophy in perspective but also aligns it with some of the idealistic anarchism of the past.

Granted, Former Vice President Dick Cheney is not known for his academic erudition. But let’s take a leap of faith, and assume that he has read Dickens and Brinton in the past. Might he have good reason to be afraid of the Tea Party. I would think so. As the 17th/18th century revolutions show us, entrenched, traditional authorities have always sought to remain in power by reaching out to the moderates; the moderates have overtaken the traditional conservatives by reaching out to the radicals; whereas the radicals have toppled governments with the help of the mob. If the Republicans build their future political campaigns on the foundation of the new reactionary radicals, are the Tea Party gang likely to do otherwise?

The World Turned Upside Down

my mother (left) preparing-the-beans

my mother (left) preparing-the-beans

My mother was a fine artist, always painting, sculpting, or making woodcuts. Although she maintained a studio-like setup in our basement, she and her work always seemed to make their way upstairs, giving rise to a world of clutter.

Worse still, as a youngster, I wasn’t sure my mother was presentable: knock on our door and you would fine a handsome women, wearing her red plaid flannel work shirt atop a pair of well-worn jeans, a pencil behind her ear, and the remains of paint and printers ink lodged under her nails. If that wasn’t enough! Just consider what was, perhaps, my most embarrassing moment, when I brought a school friend home for lunch, only to find my mother “cooking” her etchings on the kitchen stove.

I wasn’t sure my mother was presentable. 

Given my mother’s interest in art, one can understand why, as children, we spent a lot of time in museums, as well as browsing through the numerous art books that my mother collected. Whereas most parents spend a lot of time reading to their children, my mother spent much of our quality time sharing her thoughts about paintings and art.


The World Turned Upside Down (Jan Steen ca 1660)

The World Turned Upside Down (Jan Steen ca 1660)

One of these paintings is still vivid in my mind–The World Turned Upside Down, painted by the Dutch Master Jan Steen sometime around 1669. Relating it to my own family life, and envisioning my world falling apart, I was horrified by it, so much so that the painting is still engraved in my memory. Of course, I now know that I needn’t have worried. As with most of Steen’s works, this painting not only characterized daily life in Holland; as importantly, it employed humor and allusions to proverbs, symbols, and myths so as to depict a moral parable. In fact, this particular painting became a trope in Dutch life, as burgers came to describe a lively, untidy home–such as the one I had been raised in–as a “Jan Steen Household.”  Still very young at the time, I was too innocent to appreciate the duality in Steen’s painting: I saw the chaos, but I failed to see the spirited activities that gave rise to it.

The World Turned Upside Down

The World Turned Upside Down

Revived during times of trial, this schematic of the world teetering on the edge of chaos has endured for centuries. Not surprisingly, it accompanied the revolutionary era, appearing first in England and then in the United States. (See Chris Hill, The World Turned Upside Down; radial ideas during the english revolution, Penguin Books 1991.) In 1643, for example, a broadside first published the English ballad The World Turned Upside Down, whereafter it was sung as a protest against Parliamentary policies, which sought to outlaw traditional Christmas Celebrations. Rumor has it, moreover, that American troops also played this tune during the American Revolution, when General Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown in 1781.
The World Turned Upside Down

The World Turned Upside Down

Most recently, the author/journalist Melanie Phillips has borrowed on this theme, attributing todays absurdities–such as climate change, the war in Iraq, fraud, bank failures, etc.–to a world run amok. According to her, science has been overturned by ideology.
Network Economy Dinner (courtesy of Isaac Pacheco

Network Economy Dinner (courtesy of Isaac Pacheco

Having become far more cosmopolitan over the years, I can now see the world in complex terms. What to earlier generations was considered a world upside down, now looks to me like a phase transition. Fortunately, for me, growing up in a bohemian household has helped me to deal with ambiguity, such as is depicted in the paintings and tropes I have mentioned. Better still–although there is no paint or printers ink under my nails–the way of life I learned from my mother has prepared me to follow in her footsteps, and enjoy complexity to the fullest.

Love Springs Forth in Springfield

Springfield, Colorado

Springfield, Colorado

I had never heard of Springfield, Colorado before. Springfield, Illinois: Yes. Springfield, Missouri: Yes. But Springfield, Colorado: Never. Have you? The sad fact is that we should all know about Springfield, Colorado. For Springfield is in the heart of the Dust Bowl. A terrifying, but also encouraging, lesson can be learned here–especially today–as we seek to deal with the recent oil spill off our Gulf Coast.

My introduction to Springfield Colorado proved to be a delightful affair–the wedding of my son Noah Evans to Sarah Moffett, a lovely young woman, who had grown up there.

Tea kettles were boiling; cultural wars raging; and this was Republican territory 

Although my husband Brock and I had already spent some time with Sarah’s parents–Joel and Sheila–as well as many other family members, we left Washington on the weekend of the wedding not knowing what to expect. After all, tea kettles were boiling; cultural wars were raging; and this was Republican territory. Along we came, east coast Democrats, and environmentalists to boot.

We were not the only ones who were somewhat tenuous about our final destination. Driving five hours from Denver, my husband stopped to ask a policeman for directions to Springfield. How were we to interpret his answer? The policeman had never heard of Springfield before! En route to the wedding from New Jersey, my son Stephen got similar vibes when the car rental representative at the airport advised him that there were far better places to visit in Colorado than Springfield.

And to be sure, from the perspective of a New Jersey girl, Springfield appeared somewhat stark, to say the least. Much of it seemed to live in the past. With many storefronts boarded up, there was not much to see. So, even arriving late at night, along a barren truck route that suddenly turned into Main Street, we found our destination–The Starlight Motel–straight away.

Haley, Ben & Sophie at Picture Canyon (courtesy Steve Garcia)

Haley, Ben & Sophie at Picture Canyon (courtesy Steve Garcia)

 A morning hike to, and exploration of, Picture Canyon provided a glimpse of the panoramic grasslands that make up part of the United States’ Eastern Plains. Accompanied by lots of wind and tumble weed, we climbed the rocks and eyed the delicate wildflowers pushing through the dry ground.

In Springfield, the ebullience and generosity of the Moffett clan pervaded the atmosphere, as we all gathered together in the backyard to witness the wedding of Sarah and Noah. A wonderful reception followed. Everyone–family, friends, young and old–pitched in. How else, one might ask, would it be possible to transform a large farm structure, on the family’s ranch property, into an elegant wedding ballroom, with delicious home-made food for all, where East met West, Red met Blue, and some–I am told–danced till three.

The Wedding of Sarah & Noah

The Wedding of Sarah & Noah

Back home, recovering from bronchitis (altitude + grasslands!), I sought to find out more about Springfield, Colorado, and its history as part of the Dust Bowl. Everyone recommended that I read The Worst Hard Times by Timothy Eagan. I am so glad I did! However, the book, which described how the people of the Plains not only helped to cause the great Dust Bowl, but also managed to survive it, haunts me still.  Now I understand, at a far greater depth, the long, lonely horizon that I saw on encountering Springfield. But I take hope knowing that the young people I met at the wedding are starting out with hopes anew, even as Sarah’s father, Joel, is working for the National Resources Conservation Service (established by President Roosevelt to deal with the crisis of the Thirties) to help restore and preserve the landscape’s future.  Perhaps there is hope for the Gulf as well.