Archive | March, 2012

Citified America and other facts of life. Deal with it.

27 Mar

Cities on our minds, even back in the day. Life magazine, Dec. 24, 1965.

Presidential candidate Rick Santorum bragged about his appeal to small-town, rural America last week, even pitting himself again urbanites. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. We all have our audience.

But if Mr. Santorum really wants to be president, then the math of small-town America is working against him. Like the rest of world’s population, which became mostly urbanized in the last decade, most Americans by far live in urban areas, according to the Census Bureau. That’s not news; that’s been the case for decades.

The most recent figures from the Census Bureau show that 79 percent of Americans live in urban areas. (In 1790, the days of the founding fathers, only 5.1 percent did.) The trend toward urbanization has slowed a little, but it continues.

So I find Mr. Santorum’s souring on cities a little confusing. Even an electoral map of last week’s Illinois Republican primary shows where most people live. He won the greater number of counties in the state, but thanks to Chicagoland, Peoria and Springfield, not the greatest number of voters. In fact, Mitt Romney won the state by almost 12 percentage points–a difference of more than 100,000 votes out of fewer than one million cast.

Mr. Santorum’s emphasis on values taps into a certain nostalgia and romanticism about small-town life. I know its charms firsthand. My earliest memories are of New York City, but the moves of my life since childhood have taken me to ever-smaller places. The town I call home now boasts a population of about 63,000, and sizable swaths of farmland still exist inside the city limits (although housing and commercial developments are gradually erasing them). Emotionally, the intersection of Norman Rockwell Boulevard and Disneyfied-Main-Street is a very inviting place.

But that’s not where most of us live. Not anymore. So Mr. Santorum or anyone else who wants to be president must deal with the fact of cities. Like it or not.

Mr. Santorum’s dilemma prompted me to think about other assumptions about American practices and ideas that don’t really match reality, at least anymore. A sampling:

  • Marriage rates are decreasing. In 1990, 9.8 people out of a thousand were married; in 2009, the latest figure available, the rate was 6.8—a 30 percent drop.
  • But divorce rates are decreasing too, from 6.1 per 1,000 to 3.8 in 2009.
  • These days, most children born to women under 30 years old are born out of wedlock.
  • The conventional wisdom used to be that couples who lived together without marriage were more likely to get divorced. Not anymore—not if they’re engaged when they are cohabiting.
  • Man as the breadwinner? Going, going … Present trends suggest that “by the next generation, more families will be supported by women than by men,” writes Liza Mundy in a new book excerpted in Time magazine (March 26). She continues: “Not since women entered the workforce by the millions after World War II has America witnessed economic change on this scale. Some of this is driven by the dramatic rise in single-parent families, but it is increasingly true in two-earner families as well. In 2009, the most recent year for which U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures are available, nearly 4 in 10 working wives outearned their husbands–an increase of more than 50% from 20 years before.”

You can probably think of other stereotypes or dreamscapes that don’t fit reality anymore. (Feel free to add them in comments after this post.)

We might love or loathe any particular change, but that’s not the point. The point is: Certain facts reflect the current American landscape, and we must figure out how to navigate it rather than deny it or simply throw brickbats at it. Like it or not.

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Maybe it’s not just the economy

19 Mar

Tennessee does not have a state income tax. In fact, it’s the figurative third rail of state politics, the surest route to electoral oblivion for any politician. For example: a once-popular Republican governor, Don Sundquist, left the governor’s mansion all but ostracized from the party for even mentioning it.

I’ve puzzled over that attitude for a long time because it’s been established that a state income tax would have a net benefit to the state (which near the nation’s bottom rung for education spending), it would be almost a wash on middle class tax burdens, and it would actually ease the tax burden on poor people. (I’ve lived in four states, two with and two without state income tax. Being severely middle class, our total tax bill in each place was roughly the same.)

Yet voters reject it time and again. The state legislature is even on the brink of passing a “no income tax, ever” amendment in the state constitution.

Why do Tennesseans vote against their own best interests, I’ve wondered.

One hunch I’ve had — no proof, no hard evidence, no studies to back me up, just a hunch from talking to people and listening to the no-income-tax rhetoric — is that Tennessee’s political history is steeped a screw-you attitude when it comes to governments.

Exhibit A: The Watauga Association, possibly the first attempt at an independent (read: rogue) government on American soil, illegal under British law at the time, was formed in what is now Elizabethton, Tenn., in 1772.

Exhibit B: What is now northeast Tennessee was almost the nation’s 14th state, the state of Franklin, an attempted breakaway from North Carolina, which in the 1700s stretched–in theory, anyway–over the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. A bunch of settlers didn’t like an attempted “land grab” by North Carolina legislators, not to mention the idea of their hard-earned dollars going back east over the mountains to Raleigh. So they petitioned and even shed blood to form a new state.

Underneath these stories is an idea: We don’t want anyone telling us what to do, even if it costs us. We’re independent. (Never mind that Tennesseans receive $1.27 in federal benefits for every $1.00 of federal taxes they pay.)

But Jonathan Haidt puts all this much more neatly and convincingly in an essay last week in the New York Times, “Forget the Money, Follow the Sacredness” (March 17). He wasn’t talking about Tennessee and taxes; he has in mind a larger stage. But if the shoe fits, as the saying goes. The author’s name might ring a bell from a previous post.

I encourage you to read Haidt’s entire essay. Here’s an excerpt:

Despite what you might have learned in Economics 101, people aren’t always selfish. In politics, they’re more often groupish. When people feel that a group they value — be it racial, religious, regional or ideological — is under attack, they rally to its defense, even at some cost to themselves. We evolved to be tribal, and politics is a competition among coalitions of tribes.

The key to understanding tribal behavior is not money, it’s sacredness. The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred. People who worship the same idol can trust one another, work as a team and prevail over less cohesive groups. So if you want to understand politics, and especially our divisive culture wars, you must follow the sacredness.

This analysis may also explain why GOP voters generally aren’t thrilled with Mitt Romney as their presidential candidate, especially when compared with the followers of Rick Santorum—as well as Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann before him. Romney’s rivals have stirred up more enthusiasm, if not more votes, because they seem to tap into big themes (even at the risk of getting their facts wrong), while Romney tends to sound more like the very capable office executive he has been: steady but not exciting. (Remember the old cliche about “the one you date and the one you marry”?)

Just this week, Santorum said the election isn’t really about the economy, which seems like a crazy statement at first glance. But he’s trying to tap into a deeper well—something more “fundamental,” to use his word. Or maybe something “sacred,” to use Haidt’s.

Top photo: Jaime Dowell (Manifestation Nation)

Notes from England: A Christian socialist on faith, politics and Thatcher’s legacy

8 Mar

Terry Wynn, MEP

In the last post, I introduced Terry Wynn, a long-time friend from England: Wigan native, rugby league fan, Methodist lay preacher, veteran of the shipping industry, Labour Party leader, former member of the European Parliament, author of two books that outline his beliefs about the relationship of faith and politics, Onward Christian Socialist (1995) and Where are the Prophets? (2006).

I emailed him a few questions last week, asking him to reflect on the Thatcher years, when my family and I lived in England, and to find out what he thinks now. What follows, slightly edited, are my questions and his answers. (I’ve kept the British spelling.)

Dahlman: What do you think Margaret Thatcher got right for the long term? (She served as prime minister from 1979 to 1990.) What did she get wrong? What did the UK gain as a result of her premiership, and what did it lose? What might Europe learn from those years?

Wynn: My industry was shipbuilding, and it was wiped out because it was being subsidised. New yards were closed and ships were then built in Korea or Japan. She did the same with the mining industry and there have been lasting legacies. … So I could have lingering anger at what she did.

However on reflection (and I speak from a centre-left perspective, having moved further right as I have got older), she was ahead of many in Europe who saw subsidising traditional industries as the norm. Over the years I have come to realise that most industries have to work in the market.

Having said that, I’m not too sure that profitable industries, like the energy sector, needed privatising. The privatisation of gas, water and electricity just gave massive resources to a small group who bought them. When water was sold off, huge tracts of land, the water catchment areas, went with it. … This really was giving away the family silver and it applied to other sectors.

Taking power from the trade unions was inevitable; they had gone too far under Labour. (Thatcher’s) trouble was that she was ruthless, and once she knew that she could get away with whatever she wanted, with no-one advising against, she just went gung-ho in what turned out to be a suicidal course.

Tony Blair (prime minister, 1997-2007) had a lot of respect for some of the things she did, and I suppose his attitude remains mine. Not many Brownie points in the Labour Party for saying that.

Terry and Doris Wynn, at home in 2003

The long terms pluses were a slim-line economy ready to face the challenges of new technology.

The downside was that she created a me-too society, where caring for one’s neighbour was less important. Looking after number one was what mattered most. The UK became a selfish society, and she did say, “There is no such thing as community.” It was the time when materialism took centre stage.

I think Meryl Streep’s portrayal (in The Iron Lady) was pretty good, but I know Labour colleagues who didn’t like it. I thought it a great movie.

As for Europe: The single market demanded a free-market economy and many countries had to come to terms with competition. (Thatcher) had put the UK at the forefront and it was a benefit.

How have your politics changed over the years? I thought of your book, Onward Christian Socialists. If you were to revise it, what would you change, if anything?

I re-read (the book) some years ago and decided the only thing I would change were the two or three typos that I found.

I’d like you to finish this sentence, in your own voice: “Jim, if there’s one thing I want you to learn from your time over here, particularly about putting faith and politics together, it’s …”

“… it’s that if you live by the teachings of Jesus, you can’t help but to be political. Whether that be as politicians or being involved in everyday local politics, even church politics. Jesus demands that we act, we are our brother’s keeper, we have to love our neighbour. But above all we have to stop being judgemental of others and learn to empathise and understand their plight.”

 “Socialist” has become an even more loaded word in the U.S. than it used to be and can be easily misinterpreted. (I think some readers’ heads might explode when they see “Christian” and “socialist” together.) So how do you define the word “socialist” or “socialism” in this context?

Can Americans accept that Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela would describe themselves as such? … Don’t forget the old Labour Party Clause 4, which Tony Blair had to ditch for electoral reasons, is straight out of (the book of) Acts: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” That’s my kind of Christian socialism.

Onward, Christian socialists! (Really?)

7 Mar

St. Tesco's: Yes, this was a church building. The former Westbourne Methodist Church in Bournemouth is now a supermarket.

The English church scene differed greatly from the U.S. in the 1980s, when my family and I lived there and worked with a small congregation near Wigan. (See my previous post.) It still does, starting with the fact of the state-supported Church of England. Entire books have been written describing the British religious situation, far too much to summarize here. But a few constants remain from the 1980s, including:

  • About 5 to 10 percent of adults attended church each week, most of them over 50 years old. That’s still the general situation, both in Britain and in Western Europe, although we can see some pockets of growth among younger adults.
  • While the cultural remnant of Christianity is very visible in everything from place names to historic buildings to the role and public pageantry of the Anglican Church, its day-to-day impact is minimal. By 1980, the UK and Western Europe were deemed “post-Christian.”
  • The Pentecostal-charismatic groups and congregations have made a strong impact, partly due to the lively worship, partly due to the sense of renewal, partly due to immigration. House churches mushroomed, and the charismatic movement was felt in virtually every church group, including Anglican and Catholic.
  • Immigration also changed the country’s general religious makeup. By 1985 more Muslims than Methodists lived in England.
  • No Christian group could be pegged to a particular political philosophy or party, at least not accurately. Even the institutional Church of England had already turned from being “the Tory Party at prayer” to being a frequent critic of political Conservativism.

Terry Wynn

Terry Wynn and I met in 1983, thanks to a mutual friend, and we’ve been friends ever since. He worked in the shipbuilding industry, but by the time we got acquainted he was a leader in the Labour Party and could reckon national party leaders among his friends. (He caught me off guard one day when he casually referred to Neil–as in Neill Kinnock, the Labour Party leader.) He was later elected as the Member of the European Parliament for our region, serving there for 17 years until he retired in 2006.

He and his wife, Doris, are also dedicated Christians, members of the Methodist Church. Terry, who came to faith as a young man, is a licensed lay preacher. So of course we talked a lot about religion and politics. (We talked about rugby league too, since like any self-respecting Wiganer, Terry loves that game.)

So last week, as I thought about our time in England, I sent him an email, asking him to reflect on politics and faith, looking back to when we lived there, back when Margaret Thatcher was in office. Had his views had changed with the times?

I already knew that Terry’s starting assumption is that people of faith can’t check their beliefs at the door when they enter the public square. No matter where they work or what they do, Christians can’t–and shouldn’t–stop thinking like Christians, including the political arena. He uses the word “integrity” a lot, which he knows is a rare thing in the political scrum.

With Terry, it’s not a matter of forming Christian political parties or assuming Christianity should somehow be favored in a diverse society, much less forcing nominally “Christian” policies on an unwilling or uninformed electorate. Instead, it’s a matter of individuals aiming to live out their faith–from examining their own motivations for being involved, to supporting particular policies, to treating other people as they would be treated, including their political opponents.

So far, so good. But consider this: When Terry wrote and self-published his first book about the relationship between faith and politics, he called it Onward Christian Socialist (1995). He wrote a follow-up book 11 years later, Where Are the Prophets?

Terry knows that many Christians on both sides of the Atlantic–especially in the U.S.–will choke on the S-word: socialist. Can “Christian” and “socialist” co-exist? He thinks so. Strongly.

He’s not alone. When the British Labour movement took root in the early 20th century, it grew fast and strong among working-class Christians in “nonconformist” churches, Baptists and Methodists and others. They were concerned about poor people who were stranded in a rigid economic and class system (often represented by the Church of England), about human dignity and human rights–and they found support in the Bible. Even as atheists and agnostics swelled the party’s ranks (many of them disenchanted with Communism) and sometimes dominated it, Labour retained its strong Christian base.

Yes, this is a church building: Hindley Green Methodist Church, near Wigan.

Terry knows the history, but he’s more concerned with the theology. Democratic socialism is a political outworking of a Christian point of view, he believes. The words “Christian” and “socialist” are inextricably linked for Terry. (He might say they’re joined at the hip.)

“My political beliefs are firmly rooted in the concepts of equality, fraternity and liberty and I could never agree to support the policies of a Thatcherite Government that has wreaked havoc on the weakest of our society,” he wrote in Onward Christian Socialist. “My politics and faith are inseparable: for me socialism and Christianity go hand in hand, from Christ’s teachings to the Apostles’ distribution of wealth where they gave ‘to each one according to his need’ (Acts 4:35).”

Food for thought. Something to chew on. Maybe even fodder for discussion.

More to come in Terry’s own words. Next post.

England, religion and Thatcherism, 30 years later

6 Mar

Trencherfield Mill in Wigan, a former cotton mill, now a museum.

I observed an anniversary last week: March 1 marked 30 years since my wife, Melissa, and I arrived in England to work with a small church in Platt Bridge, just outside Wigan. This was the industrial North, an old town known for coal mines, cotton mills, rugby league, an ironic joke about piers, and as George Orwell’s icon for depressed, working-class England in the 1930s.

Melissa and I were in our 20s and lived there only five years, but it was pivotal time for us. Our daughters were born there. We gained several lifelong friends. And we came away, as does anyone who lives in a different culture, with a changed view of the world.

We arrived only three years after Margaret Thatcher became prime minister. The British economy she inherited was a mess—bloated, inefficient, stagnant, over committed to labor unions—and she intended to deliver a “short, sharp shock” (I’ll never forget her memorable phrase) to put things right.

The Wigan area was especially blighted then. The district, wedged between Manchester and Liverpool, hummed with scores of cotton mills and hundreds of coal mines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but by 1982 all the mills and all but one of the collieries were shut. Platt Bridge, three miles from town centre, was dominated by two massive “housing estates,” government housing projects, with an official unemployment rate hovering around 25 percent, about twice the national average at the time.

Wigan politics leaned left in those days, a stronghold for the Labour Party. When we arrived, Thatcherism was starting to take hold, particularly with its austere budgets and push toward privatization of major industries and transportation systems. The changes, of course, caused strife throughout the nation: rallies and demonstrations, even riots in a few places. She issued her “shocks,” and people reacted.

TIME magazine featured Thatcher's 1979 election as prime minister. She held the office until 1990.

“Thatcherism” changed the country, eventually forcing Labour rightward before it could win the 1997 general election that made Tony Blair prime minister. There’s little doubt that Thatcher’s policies resuscitated the economy by the 1990s and ushered in new prosperity that would have been unthinkable 20 years earlier. Even Wigan flourished.

We still hear echoes of Thatcherism. In the U.S. we call it Reaganomics and it’s a reliable touchstone for GOP politicos, but Maggie started it. (Pop culture has awakened some fresh interest in Thatcher, thanks to Meryl Streep’s portrayal of her in The Iron Lady.)

But at what cost to the society? That’s a question debated for the last 30 years. Not surprisingly, Maggie Thatcher and her policies turned into an issue for Christians, including a good friend of mine who was not only a Methodist lay preacher but also a leader in the Labour Party. I checked in with him last week as part of my personal anniversary celebration.

But more about that in my next post.

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