Seeing Through Myths and Stories

Nesrine Malik is a London-based journalist who writes for The Guardian and presents on the BBC. Born in the Sudan, Malik spent most of her early years in the mid-east before moving to the UK. She writes about contemporary politics, especially in the U.S. and England, Islam, and identity politics. Malik is very smart and unapologetic in her critiques. She provides a vital perspective, informed by her personal history.

Right before the pandemic, Malik’s book, We Need New Stories: The Myths That Subvert Freedom, was published. It is a short, accessible and thoughtful presentation of six “myths: that frame US/UK political culture. Do not think of Joseph Campbell. Instead, conjure up what everyone knows to be true but turns out is not, actually, true. Malik efficiently assesses and critiques these myths, or commonly accepted “truths”, as most definitely creative fictions. They are lies or misunderstandings with a purpose and impact. She effectively argues in the book that the myths stand in the way of human freedom.

Malik’s focus, accordingly, is not on just on using data to demonstrate what is and is not accurate. She is after something slightly different, the effect of mindset when it comes to how important big picture political issues are framed. The six myths Malik calls out are the myth of the reliable narrator, political correctness, a free speech crisis, harmful identity politics, national exceptionalism and gender equality. The terrain is all contemporary. Each chapter, though, provides some reference as each of these have lengthy and complicated historical roots. Woven throughout the exposition are examples and observations drawn from Malik’s personal history as an Islamic woman growing up in the Sudan. She sees things that many of us who have lived in the culture might not recognize.

For each of the myths, Malik presents data, resources and examples to illustrate the fundamental unsoundness of the commonly accepted story. The reliable narrators in the past two decades, for example, reliably get many things wrong and rarely apologize. She examines here the “wise leaders” who preach a particular course of action and the preeminent example is the invasion of Iraq. Untold numbers died, billions were expended, and accountability never really happened. In fact, the same leaders and leadership structures remain as influential today. Our narrators, in other words, need to be questioned. Malik’s argument is compelling. When it comes to political correctness and a crisis of free speech, Malik emphasizes that what is different today is that those with power and influence are peddling these issues for gain. Are we truly in a crisis where many are afraid to speak honestly because of the heavy weight of political correctness? Malik underscores the recurring strategy of creating a sense of victimhood to motivate identity and political action. Exactly who is being harmed and how when people celebrate their identities? Or interrogate stories of national exceptionalism?

The book is interesting, well-paced and solid. Malik delivers her claims effectively. Missing are discussions of why these myths are so prevalent and exist across countries, cultures and histories. She does not give much energy into exploring why these myths are so successful. In the marketplace of ideas and arguments, why does an imagined fear of political correctness have legs while other fears and issues do not? Malik hints at reasons, but does not travel that path. It is unfortunate, for many of her exploded myths tightly align with decades of provocative scholarship on nationalism. Stories of injustice and victim hood are effective tools at mobilizing political support and agency in some circumstances. It is key to remember, too, that victims are rarely asked to think of anything or anything other than themselves. Perhaps in another book.

I am looking forward to reading more from Nesrine Malik. We need her insights and perspective.

David Potash

Is the Meritocracy Fair of Foul?

How do you define a “meritocracy”? Editor and prolific author Adrian Wooldridge has an excellent answer. First, it is about people getting ahead because of their natural talents. Second, it is grounded in a society that provides education for all so that there is equality of opportunity. Third, it does not permit discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or similar traits. Lastly, it provides jobs through fair processes, as opposed to nepotism or patronage. Most people approve of these basic characteristics, yet the term “meritocracy” has been losing favor for decades. In a lengthy exposition, The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World, Wooldridge provides a history of meritocracy and proposes a rehabilitation of the term.

An academic with strong credentials who moved into journalism as an editor and writer, Wooldridge has the background and interests to tackle this ambitious task. Aristocracy of Talent is encyclopedic, drawing heavily upon history, philosophy and politics for centuries. Wooldridge’s comfort in bringing extensive sources into mix, as well as forging broad arguments, drives the narrative smartly. He bypasses questions and concerns. It is a book brimming with assertions and confidence, moving from Plato to the Hapsburgs, from the French Revolution to the creation and implementation of IQ tests. Wooldridge draws upon a wide swath of references. For example, his use of the the history of the development of the Chinese state bureaucracy, the mandarins, is very strong. It reminded me of Max Weber’s work on the same topic. Wooldridge’s ability to use these kinds of references in this global context makes for a very provocative read. The book is at its best when it is the most historical, threading together different culture. As it moves closer to contemporary times, the assertions in Aristocracy of Talent are less effective.

Wooldridge’s big picture lens is consistently focused on politics and political philosophy. It is with this priority that the example of the leadership of the Chinese emperors rings as so relevant. Absent from the book, though, is adequate examination the massive changes in western life from the late 1800s on: the development of the professions, the rise of science, and accompanying massive economic shifts. Societies may or may not seek the best trained when it comes to positions of political influence. The consequences of that may or may not be significant. However, indifference to education and talent is not possible when it comes to technological innovation, to research, or to the complexities of managing a modern business or corporation. Meritocratic paths of advancement became essential to economic effectiveness by the start of the twentieth century. That entire thread of change, the rise of professions and paths to professionalism, does not feature prominently in this book.

As many historians have studied, opportunities for wealth and career became significantly more tightly connected with education with professionalization, a process that began in the late 1800s and accelerated throughout the twentieth century. Political elites did not drive these tectonic changes. Instead, it was the demands of a new economy that sped the growth of the meritocratic ideal. Along like lines, the G.I. Bill after World War II, which Wooldridge examines in detail, did not have a profound impact simply because it put servicemen in college. College education after the war increasingly aligned itself with economic needs. College-educated veterans were able to find higher paying jobs and build long-lasting careers in fields that simply were not present decades earlier.

Challenges to points of access after WWII also impacted meritocratic practices. Advances for women and people of color was far from secure. It remains a challenging topic, particularly when supposedly “meritocractic” processes can serves as hurdles or gates to entry. Are we truly providing education for all in a society free of prejudice based on race, gender or other characteristics?

Wooldridge does not spend much time with these complaints. Instead, he asserts that more recent criticisms of meritocracy are driven by those who want society to have equality of outcomes. While that may be true for some, is it true for all? Wooldridge lumps together criticisms of meritocracy from those on the left with those coming from populists. Again, is that really the case?

Wooldridge is correct in attributing much of society’s growth to the rise of the intelligent. What are the alternatives? That said, he does not put his intellectual talents towards considerations of the distribution of wealth today and the factors that have reshaped economic equity in the past few decades. Can we confidently claim that rise in the number of billionaires and the persistence of poverty is due to intelligence and talent? Or are there other factors at play? Considering the growing inequality and the extraordinary gains of those at the top one percent of the wealthy, I would suggest looking beyond meritocracy. Unfortunately, that thread is not part of Aristocracy of Talent. Criticisms of wealth begetting privilege and data about who has and who does not are not in Wooldridge’s oeuvre.

The absence is frustrating, for Wooldridge most certainly has the skills, tools and context to appreciate arguments against meritocratic assertions that are neither grounded in idealistic liberalism nor resentful populism. Many complaints about the meritocracy, as currently practiced, are not ideological, but rather are empirical. What does the data show about access to high quality education and key jobs? Were Wooldridge to challenge himself, perhaps spending time at a public university, he might appreciate alternative viewpoints. All one has to do is listen to the millions of students who seek a fair shake at getting an excellent education and the opportunity to be hired at a top company to understand that many do not see meritocratic possibilities. They perceive unfairness. This is not about scandals or cheating, either, points that Wooldridge raises. Instead, it is about the over-representation of the wealthy in what many had hoped would be real opportunities. Declines in social mobility are not imaginary, and they are very much felt by those whose who know that there chances are slim when it comes to getting a strong education and a well-paying job.

I very much agree with Wooldridge’s initial argument regarding the value of meritocracy, especially when it comes to realizing the definition he sets out. Moreover, I agree, too, that meritocratic thinking and practice has been essential in building the modern world. Where I differ from The Aristocracy of Talent is that I do not see the evidence that we are currently living those meritocratic ideals that Wooldridge so eloquently provided. His bar is high. Let us see if it is possible for us to live it.

The comprehensive Aristocracy of Talent is a provocative book, a work that engages and requires the thoughtful reader to question assumptions and assertions. And while I believe that the book misses the mark on several key arguments, it is and will remain an important work in the field. The question of how we see more of those meritocratic ideals in our lives is the necessary next question.

David Potash

Navigating Sprawl with Pop Culture

One of the iconic figures from Paris in the 1800s is the flaneur, a man of leisure who wanders through the city, observing and writing. Flaneurs have been linked to modernism, in particular a sense of simultaneous engagement and alienation, and above all, with the city. They are our historical experts in describing the day-to-day as well as the profound, making sense of the complexities of urban life in the nineteenth century.

What does one do today with the American suburbs? Who can explain these strange spaces?

Those questions circled around my reading of Jason Diamond’s The Sprawl: Reconsidering The Weird American Suburbs. Diamond, now a denizen of Brooklyn, is a product of the Chicago suburbs. He is a journalist, critic, writer and modern day flaneur. The Sprawl is a thoroughly researched yet idiosyncratic wander through America’s suburbs, a road trip across the country as well as down memory lane. Neither history nor social science, the book is a very interesting meditation on sprawl through the eyes of a very well-informed critic.

There’s history and some facts in The Sprawl, but Diamond’s primary vehicle of understanding is popular culture. Want to understand the Chicago suburbs? He would give us the movies of John Hughes, as well as reference indie rock and Wayne’s World. While I’m reasonably up on many of his references, Diamond’s knowledge is encyclopedic and deep. He spins a network of popular culture to map the burbs. Woven throughout the book are Diamond’s personal recollections, his personal history, and his predilections. He comes across as a very interesting person, a pleasant and curious guy who writes very well.

Are American suburbs all that strange? Sprawl – America’s suburbs and exurbs – are by definition spaces defined by what they are not. They are neither rural nor urban. They are not small towns. Sprawl is the space around and in between, the plazas, roads, highways and byways between shopping plazas and housing developments. It is easy to get lost, physically and in terms of meaning, when the only available markers are negatives. Diamond’s challenge is that what he is looking at is everywhere and nowhere.

Despite the constraints, Diamond tells a good story. The Sprawl rightly received several awards. It is not a map, but this book is most certainly an entertaining and informative guide.

David Potash

Wealth, Glamour and Hollywood Sleaze

Two approaches tend to shape biographical studies. Most common, especially when it comes to figures of historical significance, is a focus on what the subject did. Be it writing, actions, discovery, crime, salvation or creative creation, these works give most of their attention to the subject’s accomplishments, good and bad. The second approach and more complicated approach is to focus on the subject as a person. Where did the come from? What were the major contours of their life? Celebrities often are treated this way, as we already know about their accomplishments. The second approach offers us a peek behind the curtain, a promise of what the subject was “really” like.

Karina Longworth’s Seduction: Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes Hollywood appears, at first glance, to fall into the latter camp, a celebrity focused tell-all. Beautiful movies stars adorn the cover and are featured in photographs. That, however, is not the case for Longworth has a much different story to tell. Her dogged research and informed eye focuses on many of the key women in Howard Hughes’ life. It is not a pretty picture, one that runs counter to glossy accounts of “womanizing” and glamour. Seduction, which is far from a simple biography, explores the practice and culture of exploitation in Hughes’ Hollywood. Howard Hughes was not alone. Though not its intent, it is easy to understand draw a line from Hughes to Harvey Weinstein and his crimes.

First, a brief refresher on Howard Hughes. The richest man in the world, or close to it, he profited from his father’s creation, Hughes Tool, and spun that into many other successful businesses. He was a record-setting aviator, the founder of Hughes Aircraft and later the primary owner of TWA, Trans World Airlines. Hughes produced movies and purchased RKO studios, as well as becoming a significant philanthropist. Eccentric, Hughes’ became increasingly psychologically disturbed after several aircraft crashes. His latter years were spent in self-imposed hermit-like isolation, afraid of human contact.

Longworth is a writer, scholar, and the creator/host of You Must Remember This, a popular podcast about early Hollywood. In Seduction, she is interested in “what it was like to be a woman in Hollywood during what historians call the Classical Hollywood Era – roughly the mid-1920s through the end of the 1950s, the exact period Hughes was active in Hollywood.” After a brief marriage, Hughes’ relationships with women were all products of Hollywood, begging the question whether his was really keen on making movies or in finding attractive women. The answer is “both.” Seduction a multi-person biography and a study of Hollywood exploitation and power.

Many of the women linked with Hughes were supremely talented and famous. Billie Dove, Jean Harlow, Ida Lupino, Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Jane Russell, Ava Gardner, Faith Domergue, Jean Peters and Terry Monroe all figure prominently in the book. Not all these women were in serious relationships with Hughes, though he seemed to have pressed for sex and promised marriage to nearly all. There were many other stars, too, that may or have not been in a relationship with Hughes, from Marlene Dietrich to Joan Fontaine. Hughes could be generous, and his philanthropy to the medical research, remains important to this day. He could also be extremely difficult to those around him, especially women. Hughes lied consistently and constantly. It was a function of his interpersonal behavior. He did all that he could to control many of the women in the book, from promises and bankrolling projects (or not), to hiring detectives to spy on them. Some of the relationships ended well. Others did not. After he hit Ava Gardner, she beat Hughes with a bronze bell and then a chair, splitting his forehead and knocking teeth loose. Violence like that was “fixed” by Hughes’ wealth and the culture and practice of Hollywood.

It is difficult to determine how many stars, starlets and aspiring actresses’ careers were derailed by Hughes. He certainly helped some, though there were many others who fell into semi-professional purgatory, hoping for a break that Hughes would never provide. While Howard Hughes was not alone in this kind of power game, he seems to have done it at scale for decades.

Longworth treats her women subjects as fully formed individuals, with hopes, histories and challenges. She humanizes the stars, making sure that we have an appreciation for where they had agency and where they did not. Longworth is also a film critic. Her accounts of the key films referenced in the book are very well done, giving well-known movie classics a different critical review.

Making judgements about the behavior of an historical figure is almost always fraught. Humans are complicated creatures, mixtures of conflicting impulses and characteristics that rarely add up. Moreover, our behavior is greatly determined by our circumstances. All that said, despite his many accomplishments, it is impossible to read Seduction and come away with a positive feeling about Howard Hughes. He was a damaged person, and as a colleague once reminded me, “hurt people hurt people.” Hughes hurt many of those around him. The glowing press, the womanizing, the parties and excess were products of a media machine. Longworth’s research reveals a wealthy many doing what he could when he could with little consideration for others – especially women. Take a close look at this “playboy” and it’s clear that there was very little play and a definite absence of good cheer, care or love.

Seduction is valuable contribution and corrective to our understanding of the “golden” years of Hollywood and Howard Hughes.

David Potash

Coffeeland: What’s In Your Cup Of Java?

Augustine Sedgewick is an innovative thinker, a scholar with strong research skills and the ability to tell a story with big ideas. An historian who teaches at the City University of New York, Sedgewick’s award-winning book Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug is a provocative, complex and fascinating work. It is accessible history, to be sure, and it offers more.

The book’s subtitle is “One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug.” It opens with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the inter-connectedness of the global supply chain, a tip off that this is no traditional popular history of a commodity. Sedgewick’s topic is coffee and its impact reshaping the economy, politics and social life of El Salvador. He provides a grounding in El Salvador’s history through the 1800s. The country became independent from Spain in 1821 and for centuries was a relatively quiet place, dependent upon subsistence farmers and rich natural resources. The “story” of coffee’s transformation of El Salvador begins in earnest in 1889, with the arrival of James Hill, an ambitious young Scot with tremendous business skills.

Over the decades Hill builds a coffee empire, plot by plot. Sedgewick steers us through the emergence of coffee as a popular drink, its proponents across the globe, and international forces that shaped its growing popularity. A cheap and tasty drink, it steadily replaced tea through the industrializing world of the nineteenth century. South American, Latin America, and Africa were all sources of coffee beans. How the business organized itself, adopted new technologies and developed new markets, is extremely interesting, akin to the ways that other major commodities transformed the planet. Think, for instance, of the world’s reliance on sugar or corn. These things do not happen organically or automatically; they are the outcome of many choices and actions.

Hill’s skill and business acumen led to greater production and a realignment of the coffee business, moving away from beans chosen by appearance and instead by taste. The El Salvadorean beans were not as attractive as those from Brazil, but they tasted better. Hill was a leader in the packing of coffee beans as well as securing the market on the west coast of America. It’s not part of Sedgewick’s history, but I now understand better why coffee is so important to shipping cities such as San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. Ships plied the west coast of the Americas.

Coffeeland’s scope, though, is much greater than a commodity specific study. As Hill’s empire expanded, along with those of other major coffee producers, so, too, did colonial policies and concerns. The Great Depression of the late 1920s and 1930s lowered coffee prices, leading to deep hardship in El Salvador. A coup in 1931, led by the armed forces, removed the left leaning elected president and put in place a military president. These changes were actively resisted by many, especially the communist party, which had a strong following among many of the poorer indigenous people. An armed revolt in the west of the country, called The Matanza, was a short-lived success and was brutally repressed by the military government. 10,000 to 40,000 people were murdered, many from the Pipil, an indigenous community. Sedgewick tells this history well, making sure that the reader appreciates the threads of power and influence that set in movement these horrific acts of violence. It took until 2010 for the El Salvadorean government to issue an apology for the genocidal violence. Coffee production, though, continued after the uprising and it remains central to El Salvador’s economy and way of life.

The latter part of Coffeeland is an exploration of the many ways that the history of coffee production and exploitation affected various individuals. Jaime Hill, a descendant of the original Hill, was kidnapped and released in the 1970s. He eventually redirected his life toward social justice. Sedgewick raises important questions about the real meaning of “fair trade” and “certified ethical” coffees. These may ease the feelings of concerned coffee drinkers, but on the plantations and farms, many of the workers struggle to have enough to eat.

Coffeeland is informative history that underscores the connection between everyday commodities and the world, while raising knotty ethical questions about global capitalism. Sedgewick does all this while keeping the reader engaged in a very interesting history. Coffeeland is a very good book.

David Potash

Gentrification 301: Beyond the Basics

“Gentrification” is a loaded term, bemoaned by most, resisted by many, and championed by more than a few – especially real estate developers. While healthy cities change all the time, the dislocation of the less fortunate and their replacement by the wealthier has become a major factor in every city over the past fifty years. The trends have reshaped neighborhoods, framed politics, and led to social and political movements. Gentrification has likewise become a focus for academic research, policy studies, and a lens through which urbanism is understood.

What does gentrification mean? For Matthew Schuerman, a journalist who recently wrote a book on the subject, gentrification is the process by which poor neighborhoods become wealthy neighborhoods. It is a useful grounding, for it bypasses loaded expectations. His work, Newcomers: Gentrification and Its Discontents, is a nuanced study of gentrification in three cities. Schuerman’s take, guided by close local research, reveals the complex factors that can lead to gentrification. It is not a simple process, as his work with primary sources and detailed investigation reveals.

Newcomers zeroes in on Brooklyn, from Brooklyn Heights through Park Slope, the Mission District of San Francisco, and to a lesser degree, Cabrini Green in Chicago. Schuerman’s historical periods starts after World War II and extends through the early 2000. This is not a study driven by tables and statistics. Instead, Schuerman works through local neighborhood groups, planned developments, and the politics of land use and government support or resistance. While broad societal and economic changes took place nationally, the particular shape, pace and feel of gentrification is affected significantly by local conditions. Schuerman offers the reader some, but not much, of those national factors.

Schuerman takes pains to avoid snap judgments or easy generalizations. He neither champions increased property values nor romanticizes less wealthy neighborhoods. What we learn about are the multiple steps, rarely in one direction, by which these neighborhoods became wealthier. He makes sure that we understand that “gentrification” has become a conduit through which other political issues and concerns gain oxygen and burn bright. Gentrification can be a fighting word.

Newcomers makes one give pause when it comes to the changes in cities. That’s a valuable gift. The book is a very welcome study shining a light on a complicated social, economic and political process. In so doing, he teases out the relationships between the local and the larger. That helps explain why policy rarely achieves its stated aims. Schuerman is to be commended for a deliberate and carefully crafted book teasing out a complex phenomenon.

David Potash

Addendum

A dear reader wrote to me about this post with a query: “But what do you really think?” It is a fair question, for while I stand by every word in the post (it is all what I think), the issue of gentrification cannot help but stir strong feelings.

What Schuerman’s book and other writing has convinced me that “gentrification” is probably better understood as a particular subset of economic dislocation. The Genus is expansive, from gentrification to planned communities to urban renewal, and is woven deeply into our core belief that market-driven decisions are the most effective and efficient. Most, though, believe that some countervailing forces are appropriate and needed to soften consequences. Consequently, I believe that if the massive dislocations taking place on a daily basis in our cities are to be addressed through countervailing forces, it is necessary to consider policy and practice holistically. For example, the gentrification taking place in Chicago’s northwest side is part of the same processes that have contributed to the disinvestment on Chicago’s west and south sides. A wonderful topic for more research and, one would hope, action.

Generation All: Models for Tomorrow

Mauro F. Guillen tosses of ideas like a glitter gun, shiny an in many directions. A professor, scholar, theorist and public intellectual, his most recent book is The Perennials: The Megatrends Creating a Postgenerational Society. It is chock full of observations, data, theories and provocative asides. Pitched at the level of a business executive or perhaps an aspiring entrepreneur, the book is both easy to read and difficult to digest.

Guillen’s key argument weaves together demographics, deep shifts in work, technological shifts and policy. First, he explores how people society are living longer and are enjoying healthful life longer. That shifts the way that we think about work, retirement, and many life choices. He notes that there are changes in when women decide to start a family, what sort of family structure is sought, and the growth of intergenerational households. The nuclear family is a relatively recent innovation. Add to that mix the desire of more and more people to finds to ways to balance work, family, and pleasure. These all add up to broad societal shifts, Guillen stresses. He believes that the ways in which we think of generations (Boomers, Millennials, and so on), as well as their priorities and values, are becoming obsolete.

Interesting, isn’t it?

While the broad argument Guillen posits is very general, there is much to recommend in the “megatrends” he examines. For instance, he makes a strong claim for abandoning the “four stages of life” theory. That is play, study, work, and retire. It simply does not hold true for many people. However, much of our societal structure and expectations is grounded in this concept. Educational, housing, health and retirement policies immediately come to mind. Guillen shares data which indicates that the nuclear family ideal has peaked. As for how people make money, net job growth does not align with expected mindsets, either. The fastest demographic finding employment is now for those over the age of 60. Guillen looks closely at the many shifts in the lives of women, from career trajectories to different models of family.

The Perennials is built on a consistent structure. Guillen makes a provocative big picture observation and explores the concept, mixing research and good quotes and examples. The stories stick. However, one cannot help but wonder about the many factors and complications mixed through each big idea. Is the “megatrend” sustainable? For all or for some?

Education figures prominently in the book. Guillen sees many opportunities for higher education to provide new and different types of learning opportunities. One major shift he explores are means that might match older potential students with new jobs and careers. He rightly observes that demographic changes call for new models that many institutions of higher education have not created. Guillen is correct, too, in observing that mindsets, policies, practices and even laws limit new thinking about multigenerational thinking. Everything from funding models to course and program structures have roots in generational assumptions.

Spinning this out, The Perennials is the sort of book that leads to questions and imagined future. It also makes you wonder what Guillen would be like in the classroom, at the seminar table, or at a party. I would wager that he would be memorable, the kind that would inspire challenging ideas. Smart, eloquent, and with a striking ability to weave data points into potential big-picture ideas, Guillen’s The Perennials is a welcome and creative read.

David Potash

Addressing Addresses the Illinois Way

Having moved house in Chicago recently, I decided that it would be prudent to update my address with the Department of Motor Vehicles. Neither a priority nor mandate, it was one of those tasks on the “to do” list, like vaccinations and getting the oil changed after 3,000 miles. The journey to a correct drivers license – and it most definitely was a journey – was an interesting experience in citizen-state interaction.

Updating the address for my vehicle registration was easily done, handled all on the web with a straightforward form to complete. A little more than a week later, the new registration arrived in the mail. A model of simplicity. It was a different story for the drivers license.

I prepared on the Illinois DMV website. It offers a template that illustrates the various types of acceptable documentation necessary to prove a new address for a drivers license. I printed it out, checked and rechecked, and determined that I was in good shape with my new vehicle registration and a new voter registration card. Next step was an in-person visit to a local DMV office.

A few years ago, during a financial crisis, Illinois closed several DMV offices. Accordingly, my choices of sites was somewhat limited. I found one reasonably close, though, and took a bike ride on a sunny Saturday to prove that I had a new address. Thirty minutes on the bicycle got me to the facility where I locked my bike and stood in line to talk with an official standing outside, directing people to different lines. Lots of folks were milling about, herded this way or that. The DMV official looked at me with surprise when I said that I wanted to update my address and I did not have an appointment. “You have to make an appointment! How didn’t you know this?” Somehow I missed that in my web preparations.

Later that day I logged into the DMV site and secured the next available slot at that site, only three weeks in the future. The morning of my visit, I checked out Google trips to see if it would be easier to drive or to bike. Ironically, the thirty-minute bike ride saved eleven minutes. I thought of the irony as I rode on the cloudy morning to the DMV.

When I arrived two officials were outside, directing the throng. When I stated that I had an appointment, showing the message on my phone, I was ushered in to a building. Not exactly like the VIP line at a club, but I was grateful. The first line had about eighteen people in it, all of us weaving back and forth to talk with one of several clerks at a counter. This initial function was set up to determine what task we were there to complete. Accordingly, I was next directed to the photo line, where I had but a short wait before getting an updated photo. The clerk indicated that I was looking pretty good for a cloudy morning.

From there, I was sent to a different line with but a short wait. The woman behind the desk looked at my documentation and commented that it was smart to have multiple documents. “You never know,” she opined. “It can be really difficult.”

We started talking. She’d worked for the DMV for many years. She liked the job, particularly because roles were rotated on a regular basis. Employees were cross-trained, from taking photos to doing driving tests. Most customers were well-behaved. Having the screeners out front helped, she said. That role was difficult. On the other hand, doing driving tests could be a lot of fun.

We were interrupted by a colleague. A few weeks back, an official from the Springfield Secretary of State‚Äôs Office visited. He had ideas, and the local employees were concerned. However, if you want to know why employee resignation has become a pressing issue in our workplace, it’s important to consider several factors.

A bit of background may help. For many years, Illinois’s Secretary of State was the charismatic Jesse White. He held the office for 24 years, deciding recently that seven terms was sufficient. White is a larger than life Illinois politico. A gifted athlete, White was a high-school stand out, a college phenom, and an Army veteran. He knew Martin Luther King, Jr., and in 1959 he created the Jesse White Tumblers, a group that has remained a staple at events around the state ever since. White was politically gifted, too, and he served in the state assembly and as Cook County Recorder of Deeds before becoming Secretary of State. For decades Jesse White has been a key figure in Illinois politics.

Stepping into White’s shoes has been Alexi Giannoulias. A financier with political ambitions, Giannoulias served as Illinois’s Treasurer before his election as Secretary of State. It has been clear, too, from the news that Giannoulias’s desire to advance and make a difference remains.

Back at the DMV site, employees were talking about this new initiative to dress them all in vests. The Springfield official decided that standard wear, along with name tags, would improve service and customer satisfaction. The employees on the other side of the counter were skeptical. On my side of the counter, I could not see how it would improve service. We talked a bit more about uniforms, working for larger systems, and office humor. I was sent to the next station.

The wait here was short. I presented my paperwork and was billed $5. With a little cash in my wallet, I paid and received a receipt. It was only a short step to the next station, where a clerk gathered my paperwork, reviewed it, and presented me with an updated paper drivers license. He punched a hole in my old drivers license, gave me both, and informed me that I would receive an updated license within two weeks. Six stations, many conversations, and I was on my way.

It’s been a week and I am still waiting for the updated license.

Jokes about DMV services aside, everyone I interacted with was pleasant, friendly and helpful. Fast or easy? Perhaps some room for improvement. But I have to give it to the staff – they made the visit memorable. I hope that the vests aren’t uncomfortable.

David Potash

Addendum

Recently had an opportunity to hear Secretary of State Giannoulias speak. He’s very, very impressive. Count me as a fan.

Thick Democracy: In and Out of the Light

We would be well served by reading, or re-reading, Benjamin Barber’s Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age. Yes, it is not a recent publication. That said, it’s as relevant as ever, perhaps even more so today than it was when first published nearly four decades ago.

Barber, who passed away in 2017, was a political scientist, a political theorist, and a scholar. He wrote important books, works that crossed the boundaries of academia into public discourse. Perhaps the best known is Jihad vs. McWorld, which grew out of an article for the Atlantic magazine. Barber was consistently interested in questions of democracy, human rights, and justice. No abstract idealist, Barber looked as those issues through the lens of power and economics.

Why Strong Democracy now? I recently learned of billionaire Jeff Bezos’s challenge to the team at the Washington Post shortly after he purchased the newspaper. He asked for a phrase that would make people want to buy a subscription. After multiple efforts, the tagline “Democracy Dies in Darkness” was proposed and adopted. I like the sound of it, but is it true? Light may be necessary, but is is enough? I would argue that there are many ailments attacking democracy and the absence of light is but one. The bright and shiny are not always healthy for us or for democratic values.

Barber’s book differentiates between “thin democracy” and “strong democracy.” Thin is about personal gain and personal profit. “Because liberal democracy makes an ideology of radical individualism, it depends heavily upon the idea of private property.” In other words, in thin democracy we think about ourselves, not the collective good. This comes with significant negative consequences. “Politics, more than nature, abhors a vacuum. Where citizens will not act, judges, bureaucrats, and finally thugs rush in.” Barber does not downplay the role of individual rights. He is committed. What he asserts, rightfully, I believe is that “individualism . . . has consistently underrated the human need for association, community, and species identification.” We have been increasingly living in that space. We want connection yet our society, our structures, our politics is about the individual. Lots of individual private goods do not necessarily make for a healthy public good.

Strong democracy, Barber asserts is about talking and listening to each other. It is grounded in “reasonableness” and the awareness that one’s perspective may not be as certain as one would like. If we listen to each other – truly listen – we will find ways to solve problems, get along, and help each other. “Good listeners may turn out to be bad lawyers, but they make adept citizens and excellent neighbors.”

Barber knows how to turn a great phrase. His prose is a joy to read.

The values advanced in Strong Democracy don’t support quick decisions by catch phrase or marketing tool. “By emphasizing the politics of common will and de-emphasizing the politics of brokered interests, strong democracy makes interaction, listening and common judgment the allies of civic and psychic integration.” Barber truly believes that “talk makes and remakes the world.” He is correct, if we can get out of our phones and away from our petty priorities, and decide to engage with with each other. If we do not, instead thinking only for ourselves and paying attention solely to those whose positions we already hold, society loses.

There’s an “expansive and generous understanding of citizenship – bound together by common interest” that emerges from Barber’s thinking. That’s hard to picture today, when our many media streams consistently harp and feed on dissent. However, it is still possible – if we take the time and we take care.

An optimistic message, to be sure, but it is one whose light still shows a path.

David Potash

120 Years On – Still Gripping!

Widely considered one of the best spy novels of all time, The Riddle of the Sands remains a riveting read. I had difficulty putting it down. The book really engaged me in unexpected ways.

Penned in 1903 by Erskine Childers, The Riddle of the Sands was very popular in England before World War I. It became an international best seller and was read, too, by government officials. Some credit it with changing military strategy. The novel has remained a staple in the genre and has been made into movies and television.

The Riddle of the Sands was new to me. There are more than a few forgotten classics out there. Search those used book stores!

The story is told in the first person by a minor official in England’s foreign service office, their state department. An old friend, more acquaintance than confidant, contacts him about some duck hunting in the Baltic. Who would say no to a yachting holiday? However, it was no pleasure cruise. As truths unfold, we’re led into a complicated game of exploration, discovery and espionage. The characters are expertly drawn and there is anticipation as we all try to figure out what is and is not going on.

What sets the book apart is that it is extraordinarily grounded in detail, from the particulars of the ships to the description of places. I opened up my laptop several times to look up nautical terms and to map the action. While a work of fiction, there is nothing fantastical about it. It is still easy to trace what happens where. In all candor, though, I would need to spend significant time on a sailing ship to understand the sailing with the same degree of authenticity.

The author, Childers, is worthy of historical investigation and contemplation in his own right. A writer, soldier, explorer and lawyer, he led an extraordinary life of adventure, from work in Parliament to military service and honors. He sailed the Baltic several times. The novel was based, in part, on his direct experiences. Childers support of the British empire, strong in his early years, waned as he became an ever greater proponent of Irish nationalism. That led to his involvement in the Irish revolution and his execution. It was a hasty, brutish affair yet Childers, ever with presence, shook the hands of all of his executioners. Childers’ son, Erskine Hamilton Childers, would grow and later become president of Ireland.

Who could make this up? I certainly lack the imagination, so instead, I heartily recommend The Riddle of the Sands, a century plus page-turner.

David Potash