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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Detroit and Urban Policy

Growing up in the Motor City, I always felt superior when visiting my parent's family in Sandusky or Toledo or, even, Cleveland. I felt triumphant cheering the Red Wings, Tigers, Lions, Pistons, even when we lost, because our city was a winner. We were the big city, fourth largest, and the engine that won WWII. My Dad worked with GM. He helped first change its plants to make tanks, planes, and guns, and then after the War back to making Chevys, Cadillacs, Buicks, Pontiacs, and Oldsmobiles to power the fastest growing economy in the world.

He used to take me as a little boy to the GM and Fisher Buildings where he worked. We could see the models of the cars of the future. I remember a World of Tomorrow display in which an automated three-dimensional maquette showed the highway system of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Tomorrow came quickly. I remember when the first expressway was created, the Davidson. And then President Eisenhower made that image a reality through the Federal Aid Highway Act. The auto triumphs and Detroit creates conditions for its own destruction.

I was teaching high school in Detroit when JFK was killed. I also saw MLK at a service for Detroiter Viola Liuzo who was killed in Alabama acting for civil rights. Also in Detroit I learned about community organizing in a black, Appalachian white, and Hispanic area near Briggs Stadium and Wayne State University. Therefore, while I am no longer arrogant about it, Detroit and its future matter to me.

After teaching in Detroit, I went to Chicago for further education. In 1967, I was driving back from Cleveland on the Ohio Turnpike when on my car radio I listened to reports of the devastating riots in poor black neighborhoods. Chicago had already experienced a riot in 1966 and would again when MLK was killed. It was in Chicago, especially working with the Contract Buyers League in the context of a community organizing project and gathering information for a dissertation in social ethics, where I learned why Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and many other cities were committing suicide.

I learned how well-intentioned urban stratagems, linked to profit motivated corporate interests in a real estate economy regulated to assist those interests, was destroying our cities. Public housing originally created to help returning veterans was being used to warehouse poor, generally black families and buy up once cheap lands for investment in high end condos. FHA created to give the lower middle class the ability to gain equity in land and single family homes was used to redline certain "high risk" neighborhoods and foster the white flight to the exurbs further subsidized by government investment in infrastructure. Tax exemptions for mortgage and other credit interest gave tremendous advantages to both buyers, sellers, and constructors of homes in cheaper lands outside the city. Such practices reinforced and verified the assumptions they were built on, e.g. black neighborhoods deteriorate, the poor you will always have with you, those people bring it on themselves, government is the problem not the solution, the free market works, immigrants cost more than they contribute, walled communities are safe communities, and so on.

Many of those programs have been reformed piecemeal. Many new tools have been fashioned, often through the hard work of people organizing through their churches and associations, to assist those who have been left out of the real estate wealth game. I worked with HUD (which we had sued in Chicago for its redlining policies) for the last 14 years and saw how many of the new programs could work when HUD community builders worked hand in hand with local community organizations and advocates. (Unfortunately HUD has since withdrawn from local neighborhoods back to more centralized bureaucratic administration of programs.) But there was clearly no coherent and inclusive urban policy to guide it.

I have worked primarily in non-profit organizations working with, and sometimes against, local governments in Detroit, Chicago, San Jose, Honolulu, Cleveland, Fresno and other cities in California's Central Valley. Each place is different they say with its own real estate market. And they are right. But the cities play by the same economic rules supported by the same national government with the same national urban (non-) policy. Each action we took in each neighborhood was important and, when successful, very gratifying; but the rules of the game stay the same because we operate without understanding of those rules and their consequences, often unintended.

Now I am in the "belly of the beast," Washington DC working as a volunteer leader in a church/community-based housing and community development corporation headquartered in a former riot blighted, now one of the most gentrifying, neighborhood of the city. We attempt to retain and even increase the supply of low-income housing in a market that is pushing people out of the city often into long commutes through snarled traffic. DC has probably the most progressive housing programs that I've seen in a city and, unlike Detroit and more like Pittsburgh and Chicago, the inner core is prospering with the immigration of young, talented, and wealthy or wealthy-to-be people of many ethnic, racial, cultural backgrounds. But with those winners, especially the early investors, there are many losers.  And metro-Washington is in trouble as it continues to sprawl out.

I am convinced that my colleagues (and I have have wonderful colleagues in each of the cities I mentioned above) and I need to keep acting in our local situations to build local leadership and to use the tools we can to fight poverty, create affordable housing, organize safe and healthy neighborhoods. But we also need to engage in the discussion of a new national urban policy based on the analysis of the political, economic, and cultural patterns that are in fact creating the divisions, fragmentations, and destruction of our cities. Detroit's move to bankruptcy is the occasion for this. It is a symbol of failed national urban, housing, and racial policy as identified by the Kerner Commission after its riots.

Just as we did through action in Chicago to uncover, not racial tension--that was apparent--but the patterns of buying, selling, and building or "improving" real estate that were reinforcing that tension. Now the tension is less between black and white (though the Travon Martin case shows that still exists), but between the well-to-do economically secure with multiple options and the poorer not-so-secure without many options--all founded on a spirituality of success as defined by money.

So I invite my colleagues for a discussion of a new urban policy for the US. I think our discussion might:
  • Start with an understanding of urbanization in the US, its scope and character.
  • Include an analysis of the patterns of urbanization and their consequences, economic, political, cultural, spiritual.
  • Identify the regional and national practices and programs, or lack thereof, that are contributing to these patterns as well as the culture that legitimates them.
  • Concretize these patterns in many diverse urban settings with institutions and persons named.
  • Show how how our actions in our local neighborhoods and organizations relate to these patterns of urbanization.
  • Identify the elements of a new urban policy.
  • Put those elements together into a coherent policy that can be used throughout the nation.
  • Put together the strategies and actions that will be needed to get this policy accepted and implemented by public, private, and non-governmental, non-profit organizations.
What do you think?

PS while I was thinking about this, Dan Balz in the Washington Post just wrote about Detroit's woes and a lack of Urban Policy. Check it out.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

And Miles to Go

In my "retirement," I have been gathering the results of all my explorations in philosophy, theology, science, and art to suggest an ethics for the 21st Century. This is more than a theoretical or academic enterprise for me, but relates to my past and present work in urban ministry and social justice. It is a way of reflecting on what I am doing and why. It is a way to keep learning. And going.

And I see I have a long, long way to go.

Recently I sent out to a few friends for comments the first section of my work called "The Philosopher's Stone: Ethics and Philosophy." It is to be followed by three more sections on Ethics and Science, Ethics and Religion, and Ethics and Politics. But from the first comments I gratefully received, I see the need to rewrite extensively.

My friend is very intelligent, a post graduate university teacher, a lawyer, and writes on theological matters. He said he was "totally confused" by what I sent. Now confusion doesn't bother me because it is often the prelude to insight. And to some extent I intended and acknowledged the confusion hoping it would entice the reader to the next sections. But as he described his confusion, I realized that he wasn't at all getting what I wanted to get at.  And if he didn't get it, maybe nobody would. And they would never move on to the next sections. Three alarms sounded in what he commented.

First, he did not accept one of the main reasons for my new inquiry into ethics, namely, the accelerating movement to a transhuman future. Considering this "pure science fiction,"he clearly was not following the experimentation and results that I was following in thousands of laboratories dealing with body and mind enhancement, artificial intelligence, body-machine interface, much less brain scanning and uploading. For me this is the greatest challenge for a 21st century ethics closely linked to the changing of the human condition of the earth and its resources.  How can we define human nature as it has evolved such that we can collectively choose the nature that we want to be and the environment that will sustain/advance us? But if you belittle or deny transhuman and environmental mutation, you definitely remove the urgency that moves me.

Second, his comment about "pure science fiction" tells me that he does not understand science and philosophy the way I do. In my understanding of scientific method, all knowledge begins with fiction. As Brian Greene says in a recent article: "Before the elusive Higgs boson could be discovered--a smashing success--it had to be imagined." Imagination, making and combining images, is the human way of acting--and this leads to the third alarm. But the alarm here is that I assumed too much--that people were reading and thinking about what I was reading and thinking about. I thought I was writing for the general public. But there is no general public.

Third, and this is my most crucial concern, he labeled my assertions concerning the symbolic mode of human behavior in its co-adaptation with the environment as "complete nonsense." He asks how his breakfast eating that morning had anything to do with symbols or metaphors. Well I could definitely show how his breakfast eating was ripe with symbols including the eggs, cereal, table, spoon, calories, vitamins A, B, and D, H20, cholesterol, etc. But I don't think he would understand. But the problem isn't with him, but with me. I was again presuming too much. And I was not communicating the symbolic character of human behavior that did not seem as "complete nonsense."And not getting the symbolic character of human existence means that my ethic would make no sense at all.

The ethic that I am advancing is one of "continuing transcendence" in which the product of each successful experiment in science, art, religion, politics, ordinary language, or whatever is subject to further inquiry. It's kind like "permanent revolution" in Jefferson, not Trotsky sense. It means continual problem solving and making in the human quest for the infinite--a quest that emerges in the dynamic structure of symbolic behavior. It also means the mission to continually integrate symbolic act and existence by holding tension in the present with past and future, inner and outer, individual and society, real and ideal, body and spirit, the expressed and the expressing, figure and ground, etc.

Now that last paragraph will take a lot more unpacking for some, I admit. But if one is a "literalist" or "objectivist" or "fundamentalist" and does not accept the symbolic or analogical or metaphoric character of human behavior, I have no chance of making my point. Moreover, I lose the very basis of my ethic and its reason for being, namely to confront the fallacies of literalism, absolutism, objectivism, and fundamentalism.

So I need to reach the literal or univocal mind. But I am not sure how. My sense is that we are on the cusp or maybe beginning stages of a new "Enlightenment." The old Enlightment took maybe 500 years to take hold with its humanism, science, liberal economics, republican politics, naturalism and probably half the world is still resisting. The new Enlightenment is emerging with its transhumanism, new science in which quantum physics, neuroscience, and cybernetics are dominant, global economics, transnational politics, and post naturalism. I think that the new Enlightenment embraces the culture of "non-dualistic constructivism" in its philosophy, science, art, religion, and politics. This is the path that the Pragmatists took (Peirce, Dewey (Reconstruction in Philosophy), and Rorty (Philosophy and the Mirror of Reality), the Phenomenologists took (Husserl, Merleau-Ponty), and the Constructivists (Piaget, Glasersfeld, Mitterer) in opposition to "realism." And I think that an ethics and politics for the 21st century have to be developed in accords.


When the Austrian philosopher Josef Mitterer handed out his dissertation Sprache und Wirklichkeit. Eine erkenntnistheoretische Abhandlung [Language and Reality: An Epistemological Treatise] to some colleagues for feedback in the late 1970s, the reactions varied between incomprehension, friendly rejection and a straight “he must be joking.” Disappointed by some rather hostile receptions (some even called it a “danger to academic philosophy”) he turned his back on academia. Mitterer followed the suggestion of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who wrote in Vermischte Bemerkungen, “The greeting among philosophers should be ‘Take your time’,” and did not publish the book version of his dissertation until 1992, under the title Das Jenseits der Philosophie. Wider das dualistische Erkenntnisprinzip [The Beyond of Philosophy: Against the Dualistic Principle of Cognition]. In 100 theses he developed a non-dualizing epistemology, which forgoes the categorical distinction between language and reality beyond language. This book was to become the first in a series of three. The second volume, Die Flucht aus der Beliebigkeit [The Escape from Arbitrariness], published in 2001, is a critical assessment of the traditional goal of philosophy, i.e., truth. The last volume, Die Richtung des Denkens [The Direction of Thinking] is in preparation and will deal with a critique of the object-orientation of epistemological thought.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Michael and Lucifer

Religions have their angelic and their demonic sides.

One of the functions of religion even in its most primitive form is separating what is permitted from what is not. The concept of taboo or kapu or impurity is an important evolutionary adaptation to ensure health of the body extending to the psyche. And it seems that the demonic and angelic applies, not just to the outside world, but to the religion itself. Its teachings and practices can be benign but also destructive. One of the most difficult areas of discernment within religious movements is locating where, when, and with whom is salvation and damnation, clean and unclean. What is orthodox and what heresy? Who is the Christ and who the anti-Christ? Catholic or Protestant? The true desciple of the Prophet? Shia or Sunni?  Insiders and Outsiders, Angels and Demons, are found in every religion.

On the way home from Michigan, Bernie and I listened to an audiobook: Inside Scientology by Janet Reitman--an excellent study of a new religious movement from which you can grasp the nature of religion and its function in our culture. Showing both the destructive and creative aspects of a contemporary religion, this study is conducted by a neutral reporter who is neither an adherent or an opponent and who considers evidence from many diverse aspects. She tries to be the Alexis de Toqueville merely describing the movement as a phenomenon.

One could argue that no observor/reporter can be totally detached and neutral with respect to even a religion that is on a distant island or long gone. The most "objective" recorder has a point of view, an understnding of human nature including right and wrong which shapes her reporting, her selection of witnesses and evidence, her decision as to what to include and what to leave out. This is another reason why ethics, as a critical inquiry into human behavior and morality, is crucial to articulate and critique the assumptions and orientation guiding the inquiry.

After reading both the book and the Rolling Stone series of articles on "Inside Scientology," I have a picture of the Founder of the religion, its development, its teachings and practices, and its effects on people and society. This study furthers my insight into the general role of religion in society and in society's culture and future.

Founder Ron Hubbard was a man of tremendous imagination and a great salesman. Like Warner Ehrhard of EST, from his work in literature, his experience with counter cultural movements, and his readings of psychotherapists, he developed a doctrine of pop psychology which he promoted with great marketing expertise to a world experiencing disorientation.

The 50s to 80s of the 20th century were a time of existential angst. The Cold War with its pacifying balance of terror was raging. The war in Vietnam was also accelerating and, for most, without justification. The Civil Rights movement was trying to assert itself. Although a time of growing affluence or perhaps because of it, people, and especially young people, were searching for some meaning to their lives. They were encouraged to drop out and tune in. Drop out of the normalcy that leads to war, racism, and the culture of money. Tune in to a a new way of being human--one that heals the inner divisions, calms the fears, and provides some answers to the perplexities of life. The times were similar to the times of Caesar Augustus when the whole world, pacified and subject to the Roman Empire with limited political space, broke out in many religious and quasi-religious experiments, i.e. movements of personal and psychic salvation (rather than political) as a way to social change.

It was in this milieu that Hubbard wrote his book on Dianetics, an instant best seller offering a way to personal and psychic health for all and then a program that people could take to learn its doctrine and practice. How he decided to transition this program into a religion and then spread it worldwide into a formidable organization with a growing doctrine and ritual is well described.

Like many new religious movements by a charismatic founder, it started as a small tight community of enthusiastic followers with controls for maintaining purity of doctrine and practice (which is secretive--the meaning of "mystery"--and sometimes abusive), and clear boundaries between insiders and outsiders. Like a cult it was considered anti-establishment and encouraged both persecution and paranoia. As a religion, it gave and still gives its followers a place, a home and supporting community, a sense of meaning and purpose, an opportune time, a clear transcendent ideal in the often mucky real world. It develops its own special language with new words and phrases and with old words but new meanings.

Scientology is not Christian nor worships God or gods, but neither is it anti-christian or atheistic. It does have supernatural entities, bodiless spirits that take on bodies, but can become like gods as they progress in spiritual growth through greater purity. I would argue that the value it gives to money and its accumulation for members and for the church makes it an American religion. Its practice of "auditing" is very much like the examination of conscience I learned as a young Jesuit. "Clearing" is like confession. Those ministers who assist the aspirant are spiritual directors who lead themselves and others to greater enlightenment. It also has many of the characteristics of total institutionalization in prisons, mental hospitals, and monasteries that Erving Goffman described in Asylums.

My intent here is not to denounce Scientology but to understand religion in relation to ethics in all its profundity and silliness. Religion with or without a god is a product of our existence, an element of our culture, the "meaning element." It is important to recognize it for what it is and how it functions in our lives and culture, how it uses all the tools of culture including language, narrative, artistic expression, and ritual, how it expresses the transcending dimension of our existence, its drive for more fulfilling life, for beauty and meaning, and for truth. Religion expresses the moral content of culture--good and evil, what is forbidden and what is permitted, what is clean and what is unclean, who can be trusted and who can not. It therefore has been naturally selected to preserve the live of the individual, the clan, and the society.

But it is also important to recognize the demonic side of religion where it actually suppresses transcendence, diminishes existence, destroys persons and communities in its insistence on purity, its claim to be the whole or ultimate, its revolutionary desire to wipe out its opponents considered carriers of evil and falsity. Traditionally, the demonic side of religion has been expressed as "idolatry" and "iconoclasm" with the counsel to steer between them. Idolatry is taking your beliefs and others' too seriously, treating them as unchanging truths, revealed by the gods, or as gods themselves. Iconoclasm is also taking beliefs too seriously as evil falsities that must be purged. Both are a reversion from the analogical to the univocal mind in which faith is confused with beliefs. That can lead to all kinds of abuse and destructive behavior.

Religious reformers like Socrates, Jesus, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, John XXIII, Dorothy Day, Jim Wallace, and many others challenge a contemporary religion and its morality based on a higher standard outside of the religion they are criticizing.  Anthropologist Robert Redfield, discussing cultural relativity, discussed the son of an Aztec chief in Central America who broke the rules of the religion and morality by refusing to sacrifice a young woman to the gods. His father and the clan were furious. Redfield commented that he knew he should not take sides, and be a neutral observer; but he could not help but consider that the chieftain's son was pushing the religion and the culture to a higher plain of humanity. Indeed cultures and their religions play an important function is social cohesion and their mores should not be dismissed lightly or judged harshly. And yet, cruelty is cruelty whatever the rationale.

There are two significant orientations of religion and morality in history. One starts with the story of a broken world and humanity--the original sin. The other starts with the story of the wholeness of earth and humanity--the original blessing. Both are functional ways of dealing with the world. Their differences illustrates the differences in our orientation to the world and to each other.

Original sin cultures and religions are more revolutionary. They see the world as evil and humans born in sin. They express the need to rectify reality often by sacrifice to the gods, by confessing our brokenness, by a separation of matter from sporty, body and soul. Confession, penance, sacrifice will cleanse oneself and the world of evil. The liberated spirit leaves the body and disowns matter for a higher realm of truth and holiness.

Original blessing cultures are more progressive. They see the earth, matter, and the human body as fundamentally wonderful, the very symbols of goodness and the holy. Their task is not to overcome the world, body, and matter as impure, but to affirm their goodness. They celebrate the natural cycles of life and hope to get matter and spirit back in sync where they belong. They see spirit not as opposed to body or matter but as their transcendence.

Both religious sentiments and their expressions have roots in human existence and its cultural product. Both need to be accepted for what they are and who we are. The problem with Scientologists and most religious adherents is that they believe their bullshit and take themselves far too seriously.