Tag Archives: holistic

Farewell Duluth I: The Answer to Everything

27 Jul

One day in late February 2012, Prof. Patrick Deneen of the Georgetown Government Department (now at Notre Dame) modestly told us students that he was going to give us the “answer to everything.” He proceeded to draw three circles on the chalkboard and explain human nature in the clearest manner I’ve ever seen. It’s an oversimplification, of course, as all such representations must be, but it’s an excellent starting point, and now forms the basis of my worldview, such as it is. What follows is my take on the three circles. I’ve also embellished his drawing with some of my obvious artistic genius.

deneen circles

The three circles represent three rough spheres of human possibility. The center sphere is basic human action; above it we find gods who transcend human appetites and obsessions and lead lives of bliss, and below it we find the beasts, who fixate on instinctive and immediate fulfillment of those appetites.

One very large camp of people, most of them on the political left, draws a line through the center circle and focuses only on the top. They see humanity as fundamentally good, but simply constrained by unfortunate social or historical structures, and believe we can better ourselves by liberating ourselves from them. (This being the left, they often don’t believe in explicit “gods,” but the idea is much the same: humans are the masters of their own fate, subservient to no one, and can be the authors of their own salvation.) The general sense is that everyone has great potential, and it can be unlocked with the right combination of incentives and supports.

Most fundamentally, though, it aims to liberate people so that they’re free from the existing order and can just be their own awesome selves, deciding what’s right and wrong for themselves. If we turn people loose and have a safety net ready when they stumble, things should turn out alright. Humanity can be improved in this way, and the world can become a better place; depending on how far you want to go, we might even be able to perfect it. Marxism took this way of thinking to its furthest possible extreme, but the word progressivism, often used to describe the left-of-center agenda, captures the sense here. Humans are capable of progress and are going somewhere, wherever that might be, slowly making the world a better place. Other relevant philosophers here include Rousseau, the French positivists, John Stuart Mill, and Hegel.

The right also draws a line through the center circle, but focuses on the bottom half, not the top. (Deneen, a self-described conservative whose conservatism bears no resemblance to the contemporary Republican Party, used the term “liberal,” though I think my left/right terminology maps better on to current-day politics.) For the right, humans are fundamentally fallen, and while we may put on shows of benevolence and decency, the self-interest underneath can’t be wished away. Absent strong social mores and an established order, humans will rut around and kill each other and generally live in a miserable state of anarchy. No amount of wishful thinking or fanciful social engineering can get rid of those base instincts that we all have, and the manner in which many on the left react when confronted by conservatism is decent evidence of this. Hence the reliance on tradition, and the insistence on a strong state to keep things in line. (Machiavelli and Hobbes are the go-to philosophers here.)

This way of thinking can take other forms, too. The framers of the U.S. Constitution, for example, saw that those in power were just as likely to be corrupted as anyone else, and sought to limit their ability to exercise power. The Constitution is a fairly conservative document; it makes little effort to guarantee any positive rights that can lead toward the good life. It was written in response to some of the worst of human excesses, and only in some of the amendments do we find a more progressive turn. The emphasis is on recognizing and managing the tragedies in life, which no amount of “progress” can stop.

There is third approach here, less often used but alluring to some: just cut out the middle circle. This is Nietzsche. We have a choice, he argues. We can either be impressive Ubermenschen dedicated to living thrilling and fulfilling lives, taking control of everything and ruling nobly, or we can be feeble, weak people carried along only by resentment and grievance, seeking a pitiful life of bland comfort. It was a good thing for Nietzsche’s already frail health that he didn’t live to see suburban subdevelopments and reality TV. Still, this worldview is attractive for those who slog through Nietzsche: who wouldn’t want to be an Ubermensch? It’s a delightful lifestyle, and it makes for a very crisp, self-serving distinction, as the enlightened ridicule the pitiful masses below. (This is where we’d find the Nazis, who tried to hijack Nietzschean philosophy and turn it into a justification for their atrocities.) That’s a bit of a misreading of Nietzsche, but it also illustrates the weakness of this approach: no matter how hard one tries, it’s impossible to stay on top like that, and very easy to fall back into vindictive backbiting. The divisions aren’t that crisp.

This brings us to the last approach, which encompasses all three of those circles. It recognizes that humans have qualities that overlap with those of gods and of beasts, but that, in the end, we’re somewhere in between, wandering between the two and often in an ambiguous middle realm. We’re not inherently good; we’re not inherently bad. We have moments where we reach toward god-like status, and we have moments where we live among the beasts, and in the end we’re left with a confusing mix that isn’t quite as black-or-white as we’d like. The boilerplate left and the right stances both get part of the picture, but neither one quite grasps it all.

This is a very old notion of human nature, and its modern-day caretakers are, for the most part, Catholics, following in the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas. I’m not Catholic, but Catholicism has always hovered around my life, from deeply faithful grandparents to Catholic universities to travels in Mexico, so it’s probably no surprise I find this worldview most appealing. (Sticking with Nietzsche, we might say I’m living in its shadow, and quite thoroughly.) The very word “catholic” means, roughly, “about the whole” in Greek: it encompasses the totality of life, and tries to cover everything. To use my current favorite word, it’s holistic.

Theology digression: even if this seems obvious, it really isn’t a common worldview in this day in age. One need only look at the reactions of the left and the right to our current pope and his predecessor: one side loves Francis while the other is skeptical of him, and vice versa with Benedict. This is a pretty good sign that people are coming to the popes not as Catholics, but instead as liberals or conservatives who want Catholicism to conform to their preordained political worldviews. This isn’t to say that one can’t disagree with certain aspects of papal teaching, and that popes themselves may not be influenced by different forms of thought, but it reveals the disconnect, and how wholly we’ve adopted the modern political mindset in how we try to analyze things. Faith, for most moderns, has become a crutch in times of need and a source for inspiration that can give people a little nudge down a preordained path. But rarely is it a way of life, and when it is, it seems fundamentally alien. Moral therapeutic deism reigns triumphant.

Still, the three circles begin long before St. Peter. Prof. Deneen is a staunch Catholic, but he wrote one of his first books not on anything Catholic, but on the Odyssey and how it fit this conception, with Odysseus constantly pulled both up toward the gods and down toward the beasts. Philosophically, the man at the root is our old buddy Aristotle, who said that beasts or gods are unique from humans in that they’re capable of living free from community. But since we can’t ever live entirely in one of those realms, we’re neither. This doesn’t mean we have to submit ourselves solely to a communal order, whether it be of the left or the right; it just means we have to live in constant accordance with that fact. Instead of starting our theories by considering humans in vacuums and making presumptions about their nature from there, we need to understand each other socially. You can find a lot of spilled pixels on that topic elsewhere in this blog, so I won’t belabor it here, but in the end it does boil down to living in community and finding our niches within whatever ecosystem we call home, realizing it is neither heaven nor hell. Instead, it is complicated, and complication deserves respect, though once we’re inside it we can certainly leave our own marks. (Equally important is the need to step out of the community from time to time, in order to gain some perspective, before heading back in.)

Six years ago, when I left Duluth for Georgetown, I cared only for the top half of the diagram. My admissions essay for the School of Foreign Service was a paean to the power of liberal education to change the world. I don’t think my evolution was a complete surprise—in retrospect, I’m pleased with the subtlety expressed in the more thoughtful writings of my adolescent self—but evolve I did, from a fairly activist man of the left to something a lot more murky. Fixing the world’s problems proved a lot more difficult than waving some liberal magic wand, and my personal experience also suggested I was missing something.

Eventually, I found it. This was great for my understanding of the world, but something of a disaster for someone whose pre-college career interests had involved saving the world, and using the progressive agenda as my vehicle. I went home to Duluth, part out of philosophical belief in the community closest to me, and part because it was the only place I could go to figure out what the hell came next without undue stress. “Duluth needs people like you,” Prof. Deneen told me in our final meeting, and I took those words to heart.

I don’t know if Duluth needs me, but I sure needed Duluth. I’ve slowly gotten myself tied up in community affairs over the past two years, and I’ve found that this whole philosophy really does work in practice. I’ve also started down a career path that nurtures those goals; one that seems to have a healthy balance between practical work and the up-in-the-clouds thinking I enjoy but can take too far. It all worked out. I’ve found healthier channels for some of my instincts, both the ones that told me I could be a god and also the ones that had me wallowing in muck. (Channels, I hastily add; not stoic suppression.) I’m only human, so there will be continued temptation in both directions. But for now, I spend most of my time grounded in the middle circle and reveling in my community, where I belong.

Part Two is here.

Holistic Government: Duluth City Council Notes, 7/21/14

21 Jul

It was a hot and sticky day in Duluth, but a decent crowd still made its way into the humid Council Chamber on Monday night. To kick off the proceedings, CAO Montgomery announced that all Council broadcasts are now closed-captioned, while Councilor Julsrud updated everyone on the Georgetown University Energy Prize, which will be awarded as part of a friendly competition between cities to reduce energy costs and change the culture around its consumption. (Hopefully having an illustrious alumnus in town will sway the committee.)

The Council began formal business with the host of resolutions that had been tabled the prior week, beginning with a move to again table the DECC casino plan. Next came the reappointment of several members of the Spirit Mountain board. Councilor Julsrud had held this one back because she’d originally had designs of splitting it up for votes on each individual, making good on her promise to “crack the whip” on Spirit Mountain’s financial management at a previous meeting. After further review, however, she declared herself confident in the “cultural shift” underway in Spirit’s leadership, and, after all four candidates got an endorsement from Spirit’s board chair, it passed unanimously.

Next up was the case of the Twins Bar, an East Hillside establishment whose liquor license was in danger due to excessive police calls and crime. Mr. Carl Green, who runs the bar, tried to plead his case, saying he’d already surrendered the license, disputing the number of police calls, charging racism, and threatening to sue. The Council, however, spoke with one voice, articulated by Councilors Gardner and Fosle: Mr. Green’s beef was not with the Council, which simply was there to authorize the “very clear” report from the Alcohol, Gambling, and Tobacco Comission. The Council meeting was “not a hearing,” Councilor Fosle explained, and Councilor Gardner spoke of the many complaints she’d received about the bar. The license was revoked unanimously.

Two Park Point residents spoke on the next resolution, which authorized St. Louis County to go forward with the sale of tax forfeit land on the Point. Both complained that past sales had been offered to the neighbors first; this one, which would sell the block-long properties in a single chunk, would like prove too expensive for residents and be snapped up by a developer. Councilor Gardner went to bat for them, drawing an explanation out of Mr. Mark Weber from the County as to the statutes surrounding the land. He was open to dividing the parcels, though this could be done at a later date; the Council, however, exercised caution, with Councilors Sipress and Fosle arguing in favor of tabling so as to allow further discussion and perhaps attach an amendment. It was tabled 8-1, with only Councilor Russ insisting on prompt action.

The longest debate of the night was about a plan to construct a city water main on 85th Avenue West, whose 13 houses are currently serviced by an often faulty private line. The whole process was a debacle: first there was grant money, then there wasn’t, then there was some for the 4 lowest-income households, and the city had to figure out how to assess the residents for the rest. CAO Montgomery recommended assessing everyone the same amount, since house tapped the water line once, while Councilor Fosle proposed an amendment that would instead charge by each property’s foot frontage on the street. There were six citizen speakers; four for the by-foot assessment, one for equal assessment, and one who appeared to oppose the plan entirely. Both sides agreed there was no good answer here, and people would feel jilted regardless; Councilor Fosle said that a majority got a somewhat better deal with his version. He’d done his due diligence and had figures ready for each household, which was enough to sway most of the Council; Councilor Julsrud was one of the few critics, and she came at it from a different direction, worrying that Councilor Fosle’s plan—which would require another return to the neighborhood for review—would only prolong an ugly process that had pitted neighbors against one another. It was a respectful and cautious debate in which established battle lines were irrelevant, and in the end the by-foot amendment passed 7-2, with Councilors Julsrud and Russ in opposition. The amended version then passed 8-1, with Councilor Julsrud as the lone ‘no.’

A discussion on the future of Hartley Nature Center also took a while. There were four citizen speakers, with three in favor and one railing against the disruption of habitat. Mr. Waylon Munch of the COGGS biking group talked about the compromise involved, and Hartley Nature Center Executive Director Tom O’Rourke spoke the importance of environmental education. While the group did not have an official representative at the meeting, he also noted the criticism of Hartley education programming sponsor Gender Matters, which objected to aspects of forest management and the possible restoration of Tischer Creek’s natural, un-dammed flowage.

When the Councilors took up the issue there was much bashing of the original redesign, which included paved trails and seemed to go way too far toward recreation. There was also much happy talk about experiences in Hartley, with Councilor Gardner reminiscing on going berry-picking in Hartley Field (when it was still called that) with her grandmother, Councilor Julsrud waxing about moonlight skis and getting in a Joni Mitchell reference, and President Krug saying that all of her experiences with Hartley involved getting lost. The Hartley Field reference showed how much the site has changed over the years, reminding everyone that humans are indeed a part of the natural habitat, too; Councilor Larson spoke of “stewardship” (an excellent word), and Councilor Sipress thanked people for speaking up and being passionate about parks so as to arrive at a plan most people liked. Councilor Fosle thanked the Hartley staff, and the resolution passed unanimously.

The final resolution on the agenda authorized a consultant to do a review on the main branch of the Duluth Public Library facility; as Councilor Larson explained, it has its issues, from a bad h-vac system to safety concerns to general architectural weirdness. She heartily endorsed the consultant, which pleased Councilors Gardner and Sipress after the criticism of the Hartley consultant; Councilor Julsrud went further than most in saying she wouldn’t mind seeing the thing torn down. Councilor Fosle alone thought the library had architectural merit, and while he supported the resolution, he did warn the Council that they were likely to get a “fancy book” asking them to spend lots of money they probably didn’t have on a redesign. It passed 9-0.

The Council pushed through its ordinances with some scattered debate but no serious disagreement. Matching funds for West Duluth tourism projects passed unanimously, while Councilor Fosle was happy to hear that a sewer-lining process was nearing its close. An ordinance eliminating the redundant posting of rental notices in owners’ homes also sailed through, and while Councilor Fosle wanted more answers and ultimately voted against the plan to annex a portion of Midway Township (mostly parkland), it passed without any other objections. At the end, Councilor Fosle thanked the Councilors and other city staffers for their support in recent weeks, as his granddaughter underwent surgery to remove a lobe in her lung. (After a minor complication, she appears to be fine.)

Despite it being a long night in a room without air conditioning, this was a model city council meeting. Sure, it probably helped that there weren’t any life-or-death issues up on Monday night, but there was an interesting array of topics, and each one got its due diligence. There was serious debate, but general agreement in the end, and on many of the measures the debate transcended the issue at hand and took up broader principles. And yet things remained very even-handed and respectful; it seemed like everyone there genuinely enjoyed their work, even when it was difficult. Both the populist impulse for citizen representation and an interest in intelligent planning from a distance were well-represented, and there was also refreshingly little politicking or grandstanding. This is how local government should work.

I would say it’s a very balanced council, but the word “balanced” has always struck me as a bit lame, aspiring for equity for equity’s sake instead of a higher aim. It is also far from being politically balanced, and the lack of obvious left-versus-right issues on Monday probably helped the good vibes. Instead, I might offer up the word “holistic”: there was a thoroughness to the Council’s work that is not often seen in government, with the varying perspectives and recognition of broader strains of thought, all coming together into something coherent. For one night, at least, the Council deserves a lot of credit, and they now have themselves a midsummer break to rest on their laurels and head out to the beach (where their trips will, hopefully, not be interrupted by a bunch of ugly, piss-yellow signs that have cropped up in some areas). They’ve earned it, but they’ll have to be back at it before too long, and they’ve set a high bar that they ought to aim for again and again.