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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Radical Constructivism and the Revolutionary Mind

A classmate I had in college once said of classicists who malign jazz that they have a “univocal notion of being,” whereas jazz lovers have “an analogical notion of being.” He was referring to the Aristotelian Thomistic refutation of the Platonists. He was arguing that being or reality was approached through analogy rather than direct intuition of eternal ideas.  Reality is not fixed out-there apart of human intellectual operation. There is no perfect form of music or of anything. Reality appears only through human perception that uses images, models, and analogies—constructed forms. It distinguishes itself from a passive theory of knowing that assumes an independent reality in itself separate from human imagination and symbolic activity.

Recently a colleague accused my ethical theory of integrity as illogical and unrealistic because it was built on an understanding of existence as operating in the environment to fashion worlds, many diverse worlds. He thought I had gone bonkers. “if it quacks and looks like a duck, it is a duck,” said he. “An apple is an apple is an apple.” Yes, said I; but “apple” and “duck” have a long development in the Indo-European language tradition and take their meanings within a whole set of assembled relationships in the English speaking world. “Bonkers,” he responded.

In epistemology or the theory of knowing, I situate myself with those, like Ernst von Glasserfeld, who call themselves “radical constructivists.” I find John Dewey’s pragmatism, Merleau-Ponty’s existential phenomenology, and Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper’s instrumentalism within the same vein. I argue that human knowing is a construction and reconstruction of the images, metaphors, or models we use to encounter the world and achieve reality. And I cite many a neuroscientist and evolutionary psychologist to prove it.

A fact (“factum’) is the construction of interacting minds. It is a model that fits our common experience, a formula that works to sum up and express the evidence of our perceptions, or a word that we use in common to standardize and pattern our sensations. It is “radical” construction because it follows on the deconstruction of previous patterns and habits of thinking. However, it does not destroy the past, but transforms it into the new mode and model of thought.

I don't like to divide the world into twos: liberals and conservatives, good guys and bad guys, citizens and barbarians, christians and heretics, clean and unclean, and so on. Doing so neglects the complexity of life and the multiple tensions of human existence among which are past and future, interior and exterior, self and other--the Kantian mind categories of space, time, and self. Also it confuses economy where life's needs are met, culture where we assert and make meaning, and politics where we act together in common space. It's too simple, uncritical, and too absolute.

But that's just it. Those who see the world in terms of either/or lack the subtlety, ambiguity, and irony of our humanity. They are the "realists" with a univocal notion of being. Let me define "realist" as that mode of thinking in which thinking tries to mirror or correspond to the reality out-there. Things are there and give off their essences to the open, receiving mind. All you have to do as a realist is look. Realists are distinguished from "constructivists" who think that knowing is a dialogue between the organism and it's environment through, in the case of humans, symbols (images, words, formulas, models) that are fashioned to adapt the organism to its environment and the environment to the organism. Now this division of minds explains a lot to me including all the other manufactured dualities.

I believe that this mind, the radical constructivist theory of knowing, separates the progressive revolutionary from the true believer of the absolute mind. The absolute mind falls into either idolatry where the word is venerated as unchanging truth that cannot be transformed into a more complex and inclusive model. Or iconoclasm where all past words and formulas are disdained and destroyed, wiped out in favor of some discontinuous ideal that has been revealed from outside.

The true progressive revolutionary mind is that of the early Marx and Mao, not the Marx interpreted by Engels, not the Mao of the Cultural Revolution. It is the mind of Socrates before Plato and Jesus before the Fathers of the Church. This mind accepts the founding documents, whether Bible, Koran, Book of Mormon, Upanishads, or Constitution, as living developing words, not dead and embalmed.

The difference between the two minds, realist and constructive, is significant. In the realist mind, one shifts responsibility to the divine or the demonic. In the mind of reconstruction, one accepts responsibility.  As Von Glasserfeld says: “Indeed, one need not enter very far into constructivist thought to realize that it inevitably leads to the contention that man – and man alone – is responsible for his thinking, his knowledge and, therefore, also for what he does. Today, when behaviorists are still intent on pushing all responsibility into the environment, and sociobiologists are trying to place much of it into genes, a doctrine may well seem uncomfortable if it suggests that we have no one but ourselves to thank for the world in which we appear to be living. That is precisely what constructivism intends to say – but it says a good deal more. We build that world for the most part unawares, simply because we do not know how we do it. That ignorance is quite unnecessary. Radical constructivism maintains – not unlike Kant in his Critique – that the operations by means of which we assemble our experiential world can be explored, and that an awareness of this operating … can help us do it differently and, perhaps, better.“[i]

The progressive revolutionary mind accepts, indeed takes, responsibility for her world and helps others to see that they too create the world that will sustain and further humanity or destroy it.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Seizing Power

Toronto, Leslie Community. Neighbors between Queen and Eastern Streets in this largely blue collar and working poor area felt powerless to do anything but breathe the sooty fumes from the smokestacks of nearby Canada Metal Company. That is until they organized themselves at a meeting with Carleton Smith, president and general manager. At this meeting, Mr. Smith said that there was nothing that could be done to retrofit the air polluting flues, but under pressure of the crowd, said he would look into it. The crowd then took to the streets, leafleting the workers of the plant and presenting their demands to stockholders, to the local member of parliament, to the local City Councillor, and to the general public. Mr. Carleton quickly called for another meeting at which he announced a timetable for the retrofitting of the smokestack to prevent particulates from entering the air. The Organization immediately embraced Mr. Carleton and Canada Metal as a good neighbor. At the founding convention of the Greater Riverdale Organization (GRO), Canada Metal agreed to appoint a vice-president to its board and became one of the key supporters of the community organizing effort being sponsored by local churches and neighborhood associations throughout the Riverdale area of Toronto.

With power comes respect. And the strongest motive for human being and behavior is respect.

Yes, we want to be liked; but we are willing to be disliked to be respected. The child will risk being seen as a nuisance to gain the attention of respect. An organizational leader will gain respect before trying to be liked. Yes, we want to be loved but only a love built on respect is true love. Yes, we want to live and survive; but survival without respect is slavery and, for many, worse than death.

Power is not given and received. It is recognized and exercised. While authority is often given from someone or someones in power, authority is not power unless it is recognized and exercised. This makes power different from potency (potentia) from which the word is often translated--e.g. power is the capacity to act or even, better, the capacity to act in concert which implies a "power base" on which to act.

The capacity to act is given to all of us by God, Nature, or evolution and is closely linked with the capacity to imagine, to use images to understand the world, its past and its posibilities.  It is the foundation for the dignity of all persons. But it only becomes power when it is seized upon. Authority is received, power is assumed.  Think of the elected official or even the monarch or despot and their appointees, the autocrats and the bureaucrats. Their power only comes when it is recognized by themselves and by others and when they use it.

Power can be seized by force as did Alexander the Great, Ghengis Kahn, Napoleon, Andrew Jackson, Oliver Cromwell, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and innumerable others throughout human history. But to be power, there must be a base of popular support, an army, a fearful or compliant populace, a consensus of lords with armies and fearful, compliant populaces,  Power seized by force must usually be defended by force. And since force is the application of violence, the state in which laws are enforced becomes a "monopoly of the means of violence," rather than an expression of the consent of the governed. Thus power by force and the authority that comes from it is dependent on violence.

This is of course the neo-conservative and neo-liberal, sometimes called realist, point of view which argues that the dominant powers--they who control the means of violence--must build the boundaries, enforce the rules, thus providing the space for human growth and prosperity. And there is much to be said for this argument. Even Marx thought that a dictatorship of the proletariat needed to precede the demise of government in a classless society. But violence as a means usually winds up in a violent end.

Yet, there is another kind of power. It is the power that comes from inside-out rather than top down. Some call it "power-with" to separate it from "power-over." Some call it power-from-consent to separate it from power-from-force. This is a power against violence, a power that comes from within persons both individually and collectively, not a power that is forced upon them. It is a power that, like martial arts, uses violence against itself, as did the freedom movements led by Ghandi, King, Havel, Arbenz, the student leaders in Cairo and Libya until many of these movements were turned to violence as happened in the French and Soviet revolutions.  Necessity in these cases overcame freedom.

In America, these two kinds of power are often confused. Populists of left and right are opposed to "big government" and want to reduce its power and define freedom as liberty--or freedom from government. Yet they often paradoxically support neo-conservatives or neo-liberals in supporting the use of government to control markets and other nations. Or another way of putting it: "freedom-from" overcomes "freedom-to."

True democratic republicans will focus not on the size of government, but on its effectiveness in supporting publics, spaces of freedom where people can gather, speak, and act to take care of themselves, their families, their neighborhoods, and their cities. Also they will not confuse free markets with private corporately controlled markets using the military power of the state.

Just as the Riverdale neighbors did in creating their own power base to gain the respect of corporations, governments, and themselves.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Going Deep

When we lived in Hawaii, we'd meet haoles with what was called "rock fever." They felt stuck in a small place, marooned on an island in the middle of the Pacific with nowhere to go, isolated from the outer world.

Visitor friends would often ask me: "don't you get rock fever?" meaning, wouldn't they?  I would respond that it all depends whether you have horizontal or vertical consciousness. With vertical consciousness there was no end to the levels of depth that you could keep discovering. Never were you constrained by boundaries on land or sea.

Another way of putting it is pointing out the difference between a consciousness of scarcity and a consciousness of abundance. We all know people, even very rich or wannabe rich people, who are more apt to see what they don't have and are fixated on getting and consuming more and more. They see the world, people, and themselves as deficient, as victims (e.g. of corporations, others, government, communists and capitalists), as needing to free themselves from constraints to gain more power.

And we also know people, even very poor in material possessions or poor in spirit, who are more apt to see what they do have and are grateful for their life, their friends, and the beautiful world they have inherited. They acknowledge their limits in time, space, and capacity but use them to grow in wisdom and grace. They recognize and experience injustice done to others because they have a strong sense of empathy but even this they see as a way to free themselves to engage with others to gain more power.

I pray to be a person of vertical consciousness with a spirit of abundance. I imagine the Buddha, Socrates, Jesus of Nazareth, Saint Francis, Saint Ignatius, Emerson, Gandhi, King, Mandela and all true revolutionaries to be such souls.

I am working in a small neighborhood, through a small organization, connected to a small faith community of the District of Columbia. This does not seem as exciting as heading a UN project or a multinational corporation, not as thrilling as contributing to space exploration, not as significant as restructuring a political party to change national policy or studying the neural basis of Alzheimer's disease as I have friends who are so doing.  Yet, when I think about it with my vertical consciousness and abundant spirit I am quite energized.

For I see our little project in our little neighborhood of Columbia Heights, DC as a microcosm of, entry point into, and lesson for a universe. It doesn't get much bigger than that!

Let me probe the levels of what we are doing. It compares to inhabiting the crust of the earth with its seas, mountains, and plains. But underneath tectonic plates are moving. And underneath them a flow of molten lava that affects the planet's magnetic polarities. And then we come to the core and the center of gravity.

Here are levels of our human life and action that a vertical, abundance oriented spirit might discern.

1. personal: solving personal problems through programs and projects.
2. common: knowing and affecting the region within which our little neighborhood is being shaped
3. sociological: discovering the patterns in the American political economy that has shaped the global economy.
4. philosophical/ethical: probing the roots of behavior in human nature and existence.
5. spiritual/religious: co-creating a universe of meaning for our being and action.
6. transcendent--descending into the core of existence and ascending through it out to the stars.

The personal level is where individual troubles and opportunities arise. Its where we make day to day decisions about where to live and work, where to shop and bank, where to go to school, and who to befriend and love.

At the common level we recognize that our individuality is really conditioned by our affiliations, our families and clans, our communities and nations. We do not exist except already connected in a web of relationships. This is the John Donne "No Man is an Island" level.

The third level is discerned by what C Wright Mills called "the sociological imagination." Here we uncover the hidden social structures in our political economy within which our personal troubles and opportunities arise and how they are being shaped by the society into which we are born or plunged.

At the forth level, through deep thinking within ourselves and each other and with the aid of philosophic and scientific psychology and anthropology, we reflect on the structure of our common human nature and existence. Through our understanding of the human condition and capacity, we can develop criteria for judging our behavior individually and communally. We are able to raise the question of justice.

At the fifth level we critique and reinvent the narratives that give us meaning--the narratives relating to our origins and destinies, our place and time in the universe.

The final level for me is the dynamism that connects all levels and all beings vertically and horizontally. It is the transcendence in evolution, in community, and in our spirit.


And so I have developed a proposal that I have submitted to the Atlantic Magazine and the Washington Post.

I propose an article on Columbia Heights, DC as a microcosm of, window into, and consequence of the urbanizing process in the US that is promoting increasing inequality and division as well as great opportunity for many. This dynamism seems to be a result of free individual decision making of many seeking amenities and opportunities. But is there underneath these observable activities a more hidden dynamic in the way our winner-loser economy and housing policies are structured?

Columbia Heights, scene of urban segregation, riots, white flight, and slumification, is now the fastest gentrifying and high rent neighborhood of the Capitol area. There has been an invasion of upwardly mobile Millennials while long-term residents, many African American and older, are being priced out. Much of this has been articulated in recent news articles like: “Millennials ready to break out into households;” “Latest poll shows inequality is a matter of geography;” “ Where are all the boomers going?”  “US Cities with the Highest levels of income segregation;” “Redlining in the 21st Century.”

The District of Columbia has excellent programs for developing and maintaining affordable housing and the diversity of residents, more than any other city, I believe, in the nation.  These include rent control, inclusionary zoning, a housing trust fund, support of non-profit housing groups, public-private partnerships, and all the federal HUD programs for private multifamily and public housing. Yet the poor, and especially the working poor, are being sucked out into places where jobs and transportation are less available.

I have worked in housing and community development most of my life in many cities, both in the private and public sectors. I am now working in Columbia Heights through my All Souls Church housing corporation with tenants trying to organize to stay in their units and with active voluntary groups trying hard to maintain the diversity of the neighborhood.  They are trying to use all the programs available.  But are these program mere patches on a splintering wall attempting to hold back the latest tsunami?

I think Columbia Heights can be an avenue to the story behind the story and, thus, may help us refine our housing policies and, more important, our economic investment and taxation policies. Ta-Nihisi Coates in his excellent article on “The Case for Reparations” cited Clyde Ross a leader of the Chicago Contract Buyers League that uncovered the structural racism, embedded in public policy, which created a segregated and unequal Chicago and many other cities. I worked with Clyde Ross and the Contract Buyers League and so learned the causes of racism and inequality that went far behind black-white cultural views and feelings. 

Now we need to uncover the structural causes in the 21st century despite the many good programs that were fought for in the 20th.  These go far beyond Columbia Heights to the regional Capital area including Maryland and Virginia and all the way to the housing and economic policies of the nation.

It was largely the young who learned and organized themselves to bring in the rights of African Americans and the fights against poverty of which we now celebrate the 50th anniversary.  But they also had the assistance of veterans of earlier struggles.

I see many Millennials in the Columbia Heights neighborhoods who are recognizing their role in changing the patterns of urbanization even as they attempt to start establishing their household. And while they contribute to smaller programmatic efforts in their neighborhood, they also need handles for grasping and acting upon the underlying causes in our social policies and economic structures. It is with them I have the most hope and to which I raise these questions. But as boomers attempt to find and cap meaning even as they move to the security of care in old age, I address them as well to support the new generation of Millennial challengers.

How shall I tell the story of Columbia Heights so that it beams light on the urbanizing processes of our nation? I want to tell the story through the mouths of the participants. I propose to interview the following:
1.     Old timers in the neighborhood and those who have left.
2.     New comers in the neighborhood—both those in affordable housing and those who are renting and buying new houses, condos, and apartments.
3.     Institutional leaders in urban development and housing in DC including Adianne Todman, BB Otero, Harriett Tregonning, John Kelly.
4.     Leaders in non-profit organizations advocating and developing affordable housing:
5.     Think tank leaders including Bruce Katz of Brookings, Rolf Pendall of UI, Victor Rubin, Angela Glover Blackwell of PolicyLink, and Richard Florida of the Atlantic.
6.     Other City Leaders including Bill O’Brien of Detroit, Keith Bergthold, Ashley Swearengin of Fresno, John McKnight, Jack MacNamera of Chicago, Julian Castro, San Antonio, HUD

Some of the questions I will ask of resident leaders in and out of Columbia Heights:
1.     What are principal reasons they moved in (or out)?
2.     What was/is happening in C H that they like or don’t like?
3.     What/Who are the key movers for CH?
4.     What generation do they identify with? (pre-boomer, boomer, generation X, Millennial.
5.     Who else do you suggest I talk with?

Some of the questions I will ask institutional leaders?
1.     What patterns do you see in the urbanizing process that relate to race, class, income, wealth, divisions?
2.     Are there winners and losers in the process and who are they?
3.     What do you think are contributing to those patterns?
4.     What would you suggest in housing and economic policy to foster more equity. 
5.   Who else do you suggest I talk with?

      I will reflect on the data I gather by using the criteria of justice based on an understanding of human nature and existence, informed by many thinkers, scientists, philosophers, and theologians. I will suggest alternate scenarios and narratives to guide us in the setting of policies and action to achieve justice and so transcend the injustice in which we find ourselves.