The Federalist #10 (cont): A Democracy vs. A Republic

Image: J. Crocker. Statue: Daniel Chester French (died 1931

Building on the subject of faction in federalist #10, James Madison then moves into a discussion of the differences between a pure democracy and a republic:

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. . .

A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. . .

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended. . .

In the first place, it is to be remarked that, however small the republic may be, the representatives must be raised to a certain number, in order to guard against the cabals of a few; and that, however large it may be, they must be limited to a certain number, in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude. Hence, the number of representatives in the two cases not being in proportion to that of the two constituents, and being proportionally greater in the small republic, it follows that, if the proportion of fit characters be not less in the large than in the small republic, the former will present a greater option, and consequently a greater probability of a fit choice. . .

Hence, it clearly appears, that the same advantage which a republic has over a democracy, in controlling the effects of faction, is enjoyed by a large over a small republic,—is enjoyed by the Union over the States composing it.

I found this passage interesting because we have become so accustomed to referring to our nation as a democracy that we forget that democracy can assume a variety of forms, and that we have been founded as a democratic republic. Here, Madison demonstrates a distaste for direct democracy, equating it with untrammeled faction. He posits that republicanism is the best fit for the United States, in that the larger a republic is, the more organically it will encompass, as well as focus, a diversity of perspectives, and thus reduce faction. He furthermore envisions a larger republic as a natural fire wall to the spread of corruption.

This presents us with a critical insight into how republicanism was conceived as a focusing lens for a systemic balance and regulation of conflict. This concept of representation and its relation to conflict is well-worth considering, as we need to consider whether that balance continues to be upheld in our system today.

A friend of mine informed me that the US has shifted more towards a direct democracy since its founding, and that this is problematic, given that the system was originally envisioned as Madison proposed here. I don’t know enough about such things to determine this, and would appreciate any further guidance on this from my readers.

Another point to consider is whether technology has shifted the nature of how representation should function, and whether some balance can be achieved through the use of facilitated communication and structured decision-making via online platforms and channels.

I can relate to some of this discussion at a micro-level in that much of my work within public schools has been in the role of facilitating groups, and I know that to allow unstructured conversation and debate results not in democracy, but rather in the domination of the voice of a few. I have found that to enable a more democratic dialogue, conversations must (perhaps paradoxically) be well structured, planned, and guided. Equitable conversation, in other words, requires the willingness to enforce shared rules, and such enforcement must take place through the adoption of set roles and responsibilities.

But beyond such procedural strictures, of course, comparisons are difficult to make in applying those workings to that of a large republic. However, I do posit that perhaps technology can be harnessed to change the nature of representation. One of the great deficiencies of our current system, arguably, is that we often perceive our representatives, even at the local level, as far removed from the realities of the commonweal. We also often see that the given political power of a locality can be determined by unscrupulous mapping. Remove the constraints of physical location and empower more individuals via structured online communications, and perhaps the nature of representation can be shifted to encompass a greater number of people without necessarily leading to greater faction.

Progress Towards Goals

A review of my progress towards the goals I had set out to accomplish in my school this year

In November, I posted some of the efforts and goals I was targeting within my school for the year. As promised, I will now review how I’ve done. I had a wide range of goals and they were kinda lofty. Over the course of the year, I’ve learned more about the challenges that are faced in the actual implementation of systemic changes. Some of the targets I originally began with have shifted as my school’s priorities have changed, as well as my own priorities and interests. Some goals I dropped not because I didn’t believe they were important, but because I saw that I’d be fighting a losing battle. I attempted to focus my efforts in areas where I knew I could make some headway or that I had earned enough political capital to advocate for.

As a review, here were some of the goals I’d outlined in November:

1) Begin tackling the Common Core State Standards in our school

2) Begin coordinating school-wide systems of academic interventions

3) Advocate for a PBIS system for behavior

4) Advocate for a system of referral tracking (SWIS or OORS)

5) Build emotional literacy in the building (understand student acting out behaviors, not simply punish them)

6) Implement the Response to Intervention model

7) Make the process of inquiry and using data authentic

I’ve encountered substantial frustrations in working towards my goals. These hurdles have taught me that for real change to occur, you have to spend a significant amount of time and effort working on the most basic foundations that will sustain that change. For example, one of the systems we were working to put into place in our school was structured grade level team meetings, held according to a consistent protocol. We envisioned these teams successfully performing inquiry into student work and collaboratively designing instructional units, interventions, and assessments together. And some teams did achieve this to a degree that was quite substantive in comparison to the past. However, the reality is that sustaining a focus amongst a group of teachers over the course of a school year requires some fundamental components in place that was all too often lacking. It requires a strong facilitator, consistent and frequent meetings, planning and preparation for the meetings, well established roles and responsibilities, an administration willing to hold teachers accountable for their meetings, and open channels of communication. When these components are scattered or missing, running meetings that are productive can be highly difficult. It’s also difficult when the majority of teachers view the meetings as an encroachment on their time instead of as a useful opportunity to collaborate as professionals.

Despite these challenges, however, progress was made. Some goals we’ve made substantial headway on, such as introducing the Common Core Standards and making the process of inquiry more authentic. Others, we’ve only begun to lay down the groundwork for. For example, thanks to the help of our network STOPP team, we now have an in-school team established for behavior referrals, and we have an official behavioral referral form. The fact that the groundwork has been laid is in and of itself noteworthy, because now there is a basis for renewed effort towards achieving real progress in the next year.

One of the biggest challenges I now am aware of that we face is that of the specters of external accountability, in the form of state testing and reviews of the school. In both circumstances, shit hits the fan. The administration freaks out and runs around like chickens with their heads cut off, and this induces the teachers and their students to assume an unhealthy dose of stress as well. I am not opposed to standardized testing nor to school quality reviews or state audits, but I think that the high stakes attached to them are blown far out of proportion to their actual value. All of the hard work our teams had been making fell to the wayside once we began gearing up for testing and an audit was being performed on our school (we hadn’t made AYP for some student populations). Teachers spent their time drilling in test taking skills and making sure that they had student portfolios neatly accessible for adult visitors. The administration spent its time making sure the halls were decorated and bulletin boards looked pretty. These things are perhaps a necessary evil, but I don’t think that long-term sustained efforts such as team meetings should be allowed to fizzle due to these external pressures. I am beginning to see why teachers become jaded and lambast the systems of accountability that produce this kind of short-term hysteria and frenzy, which is ultimately detrimental to real learning and progress.

One goal which I have expanded upon is the idea of making the process of inquiry more authentic. As it was rolled out to us by the DOE, inquiry was all about these rather dry and academic methods of looking at student data. Which I think can be extremely valuable–but it requires a foundation of professional teams with an established protocol, a culture of professionalism and collaboration. And building that foundation in a public school, as I mentioned above, is significantly harder than it sounds. It also requires that the school has a process of curriculum mapping in place, or at least an acknowledged and shared curriculum map in general. When this isn’t really there, inquiry work becomes hollow and useless, because here we are, looking at our students’ deficits and targeting those deficits, but we don’t have any guide to refer back to when we acknowledge that we need to collectively bolster our instruction in certain areas. Once I realized this, I focused most of my efforts towards the end of the year on building a foundation for curriculum development in our school.

I’ve written at length already about my views on the importance of curriculum, so it should be obvious that I place extreme value on it. I also place a lot of weight on the value of professional learning communities. I believe that curriculum must be developed within the forum of professional learning communities. So I focused my main efforts during the school year on promoting the structures for a professional learning community to develop and in developing the technological resources for curriculum development to occur.

Over the course of this year, we’ve been encouraging teachers to begin actively using our school’s Google account to share documents, record meeting minutes, and communicate and collaborate. Even simply getting teachers to log on has proven to be a significant hurdle, and I don’t say this merely to criticize non-technologically savvy teachers. Most of our computers are clunky and old, running Internet Explorer, which does not operate well with Google Doc functions. It makes it pretty hard for folks not accustomed to troubleshooting on computers to get a handle on. These obstacles to merely gaining access to the online resources are significant, because it reduces the efficiency of being able to simply email all the staff and know that people will respond online. Instead, in order to organize things, we’ve had to rely on a combination of word-of-mouth, printing out memos to place in mailboxes, and email. And since I and other teachers have extremely limited time, this greatly decreases the likelihood of us collaborating outside of the venue of scheduled meetings.

Anyway, I’m realizing that I could go on and on about this all day, but it’s probably pretty boring stuff to an outsider. So let me just wrap this up by stating the things that we did accomplish:

  • The Special Education Team met at least 14 times over the course of the year, and discussed issues critical to special educators in NYC, such as implementing the new IEP system (SESIS), understanding Response to Intervention, understanding Phase I special education reform, issues of compliance with state law, building communication amongst all special education service providers, and conducting Functional Behavioral Analysis
  • The Inquiry Team and corollary grade level teams met fairly regularly until state testing rolled around, and began the process of establishing a more consistent protocol
  • I introduced the concept of core domain knowledge to the school, as well as the concept of developing a structured and systematic approach to developing curriculum within the forum of a professional learning community
  • Technology was utilized more widely and some basic issues of access were addressed

Open Source as it Applies to Education: Part II

Two distinct but equally real organizational forms exist in parallel to each other. The dynamic relationship between hierarchies and networks over time determines both the nature of the transition and the endpoint. One form may defeat the other through competition. Both may coexist by settling into nearly separate niches where they are particularly advantaged. Most interesting will be the new forms of organization that emerge to manage the interface between them, and the process by which those boundary spanners influence the internal structure and function of the networks and the hierarchies that they link together.

The Success of Open Source, by Steven Weber

One of the most intriguing chapters in Weber’s book on open source is the final chapter, in which he examines the potential of generalizing the open source model to other paradigms. I found his delineation between open sourcing as “networking” and traditional, propriety methods as “hierarchies” particularly useful, especially in my considerations of applying open source to collaborative curriculum design. This interfacing by innovative “boundary spanners” between hierarchies and networks is precisely what is at issue in the field of education and so desperately needed. Schools are operated primarily in an antiquated hierarchical model in nearly all structural forms. Nearly all decisions, from curriculum to school programs to scheduling are passed top down. Some decisions must be made in such a manner, and this is why hierarchies exist, but the decisions that are similar in all schools yet exist under different conditions necessitate distributed, localized, network based decisions. Curriculum should be developed by the teachers that implement it. The knowledge and learning that is obtained from students (because learning is not a two way street–the students are teaching adults what they need) must be incorporated into whatever decisions are made that will impact a classroom or school directly. That means connecting classrooms and teachers directly to policymakers. The leveling platform of technology can enable this to happen (I’m going to discuss this more in another post soon).

I don’t know if I subscribe to such a dire black and white portrayal of networks vs. hierarchies that Weber presents above, however. I think they can and will successfully coexist in the same manner that the structure of a leaf or a body is hierarchical in coexistence with networks, such as veins. I’m not sure if that’s the best analogy to make here, but I think it conveys what I mean. Perhaps more akin to the idea of holons portrayed by Ken Wilber in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality?

The notion of open-sourcing as a strategic organizational decision can be seen as an efficiency choice around distributed innovation . . . The simple logic of open-sourcing would be a choice to pursue ad hoc distributed development of solutions for a problem that (1) exists within an organization, (2) is likely to exist elsewhere as well, and (3) is not the key source of competitive advantage or differentiation for the organization.

The reason this open source model applies to education is because education and knowledge should be considered a public good, a product of the commons. This is why it doesn’t make sense to develop curriculum within closed, proprietary means. Effective methods of teaching and learning content should not be copyrighted. As Weber effectively details in his book, the power in open source is that it turns the notion of property on its head, from that of exclusion to that of distribution. Knowledge and learning should be disseminated and shared as widely as possible, because everyone benefits from it.

Note that I am not suggesting that companies or individuals should not be able to profit from offering services to schools. They will continue to do so even when effective curriculum begins to be developed via open sourcing; it will simply be that the nature of their services will change, just as the music industry is (still) learning to shift the nature of its services to accommodate the digital information age.

The open source process is more likely to work effectively in tasks that have these characteristics:

  • Disaggregated contributions can be derived from knowledge that is accessible under clear, nondiscriminatory conditions, not proprietary or locked up.
  • The product is perceived as important and valuable to a critical mass of users.
  • The product benefits from widespread peer attention and review, and can improve through creative challenge and error correction . . .
  • There are strong positive network effects to use of the product.
  • An individual or a small group can take the lead and generate a substantive core that promises to evolve into something truly useful.
  • A voluntary community of iterated interaction can develop around the process of building the product.

All of these conditions exist for curriculum design in public education, in addition to other aspects of teacher collaboration, such as research (as I suggested in my last post on this subject) and policy.

Adventures with Sofa

My Christmas present to my fiancee consisted in a sofa. It was about time, as our hand-me-down and curbside-found futon had outlived it’s functionality and was beginning to destroy our backs. This story recounts our sofa buying experience.

The Ikea multistory car park at Ikea, Birstall...
Image via Wikipedia

My fiancee and I just went a-sofa hunting, which in our little world is a big event, indeed. It requires strategic planning, research, and collaboration and compromise. We rented a car and drove out to Jersey, wherein the malls and outlets dwell. Beginning with our rental car wobbling through Harlem over thick sheets of snow, and ending in unrelenting rush hour traffic in northern Jersey, this was a day that made me more than happy that driving out here is only a once-in-a-blue-moon kinda thing. It’s stressful and the frequency of near-death experiences is just too darned high.

Anyway, so we had a whole slew of sofa joints lined up out on Route 4: Macy’s, Jennifer Convertibles, Bob’s, and Ikea (as a last resort). Macy’s furniture outlet was a good place to start, as they had every type of sofa you could think of, so we warmed up our haunches trying out the many different styles and began to learn our own butt and back preferences, in addition to style and taste factors. We discovered that we were into “classic” or even “retro” type sofas–sofas that didn’t make a big deal about them being sofas, they just did the job well. I learned that I like rounded leather sofas and that I like them firm and with low arm rests. We almost went in for this glaring orange 70s style sofa tucked in the corner in the back on sale. We were both surprised that we liked it. If it had been a shade of darker orange and not as blinding, we might well have purchased it.

After Macy’s furniture outlet, Jennifer Convertibles felt boring. The couches look nice, but they aren’t anything amazing. They are reasonably priced, of course, but that’s about all they got going for them. None of them had quite the butt and back feel that we’d begun to ascertain as desirable in certain sofas at Macy’s. There was also this weird thing the store had with putting these fake ice cream cups with plastic spillage around them on every single couch. At first we thought they were real. Then we noticed that every single sofa had one on them. Then it was even weirder. Jennifer Convertibles are the kind of sofas that you get if you don’t really give a shit about a sofa other than just the way it looks. They look nice. They look like real sofas.

We then moved onto Bob’s, king of discounts. I have become aware that every furniture store kind of has it’s own style of sofa. Bob’s sofas are all the kind of sofa that say “Hey, look at me, I’m a sofa” and they’re all big and puffy and your feet don’t touch the ground when you sit on them. I’m not into that brand of sofa. I don’t need a sofa to hit you over the head with it’s sofa-ness, I just want it to look somewhat stylish in a classic way and support my butt and my back adequately without too much give. Bob’s didn’t do it for me at all. I didn’t find any of them comfy or appealing in style. It was at Bob’s that I struck on a rule of quality sofas: a quality sofa does not require an extra cushion in order to support your back. You should be able to sit back on a quality sofa without any extras and it should feel just right. This rule is somewhat equivalent to my rule for quality bread: a quality bread does not require any extra condiments–including butter or oil–to make it palatable. A quality bread tastes great au naturale. You can see the linkage, here.

At this point, we were getting hungry and cranky, so it was onto Ikea to discuss our options so far. We weren’t even planning on considering Ikea’s sofas, we just wanted to eat lunch, because their lunch is cheap and I’m Swedish. But as soon as we walked in, there was this corduroy sofa near the entrance that we liked right away. So we ate our meatballs and lingonberries and drank some coffee  and decided to peruse the Ikea stock.

Now let me just say something about Ikea. Let me digress for a minute on the topic of Ikea. I love Ikea. I love it because my grandma was Swedish and she made some wonderful Swedish meatballs and Ikea has meatballs for $3.99 that are reminiscent of those meatballs. I love Ikea because it is an international store that is unabashedly Swedish, from the blue-yellow signage to its practical business model of eco-industrial efficiency. It makes me proud to have some Swedish blood when I walk into an Ikea. How often do I get to celebrate my ancestry?

So we ate our fill and then commenced on the Ikea walkabout. We ended up purchasing the very same couch that we had seen upon our entrance to the joint in pursuit of meatballs. This couch was relatively cheap, it had a great ass and back feel, and it was stylish in that Ikea classic kind of way that seemed to suit our sensibilities. This was a sofa that didn’t make a big deal about the fact that it was a sofa, but it still looked good.

I won’t go into the nightmare that was trying to find the cover we had picked out in those back alleyways of boxes, and then not finding it and having to pick another one, then waiting in line to get a home delivery, as there was no way my fiancee was going to haul the giant box up 4 flights of stairs, nor would it fit in our rented Scion anyway. I almost lost some love for Ikea due to that end of purchase experience.

Anyway, the sofa was delivered unto us in a box the next day, carried up our 4 flights of stairs. I then had the pleasure of putting together our sofa over the next 2 hours. This is another reason why I love Ikea. The fact that you become intimate with your product by putting in the blood and sweat necessary to make it whole. You have to strain to make intelligible the abstract drawings that pass as instructions, as you turn pieces this way and that. You curse as you scratch your wood floor, cut your fingers, and twist little screws in with metal pieces. But you gotta hand it to Ikea. It’s ingenious because at the end of the day you can’t really blame them if a product doesn’t work out. It may just be that you didn’t put it together perfectly.

It’s all about the design, you see. Sure, their furniture is made of particle board, pine, and little plastic pieces and whatnot. But the furniture is intelligently designed. It’s made to be assembled and disassembled by nincompoops. It gives average people like us this great feeling of accomplishment, this connection to our furnituremaking forbears. We gain insight into the process of design. We sweat and strain to get the stupid covers over the frame and then velcro all the sides on perfectly, which proves to be nigh impossible. And then once it is all complete. . . it’s truly ours.

I love our new sofa!

Making Things Happen

Can I just toot my own horn a little? Please? Sometimes, folks, the horn just needs a-tootin’. Cuz ya gotta celebrate accomplishments, especially in this day and age in which all you see on the daily nightly news is tragedy and apathy.

It’s been a while since I last posted, which is because I’ve been swamped. My life could be seen as kind of dismal, I suppose, except that I’m excited by what I’m doing right now, so all the hard work and no time to play is all right, for the time being at least. I’m starting to get a bit burnt out, which is not good, but there’s a few spots of days off this month which I think will allow me to squeeze through it.

I’ve been keeping up with my ‘barefoot’ running regimen, and it’s helping me to keep more physically in tune, and also serves as precious decompression time. My feet have fully adapted, and it feels great! It took me all summer to get broken into it, but now it’s like butter.

I’ve realized that the school where I’ve been working, for all its many problems and dysfunctions, is actually the perfect place for me to hone my skills and grow as a professional. It’s a disorganized and often chaotic school, but everyone in the building means well and tries their best. Meaning that for all its dysfunctions, the place is ripe for change. All it takes is some applied pressure.

I’ve been talking on this blog for a long time about a holistic, whole systems design approach to change, and for the first time, I’m really getting to gain practical insight into that theory. I’m discovering that true power is about seeing opportunities in problems and seizing those opportunities to advocate for greater systemic change. Furthermore, true power is working in collaboration with different types of people and harnessing their skill sets as resources.

I may only be a second year teacher, but I have skill sets from my management experience that I’m beginning to draw more upon, now that I have had some space to grow into my current role. I’ve become the go-to-guy for attending workshops (simply because I’m willing to go to them, really), and as I’ve been going to all these different workshops (Common Core State Standards, Response to Intervention, Inquiry, Quality Review, Therapeutic Crisis Intervention, just to name a few), I’ve been thinking of ways for how to synthesize and apply the information in the school.

I want to accomplish these goals this year:

1) Begin tackling the Common Core State Standards in our school

2) Begin coordinating school-wide systems of academic interventions

3) Advocate for a PBIS system for behavior

4) Advocate for a system of referral tracking (SWIS or OORS)

5) Build emotional literacy in the building (understand student acting out behaviors, not simply punish them)

6) Implement the Response to Intervention model

7) Make the process of inquiry and using data authentic

My first strategy was to create a team of special education teachers. It was something I had put on my agenda since last year, but with all the other things going on, especially with my growing awareness of the Response to Intervention model, it made sense to finally get it put into place first thing this year. In tandem with that team, I came up with a short vision proposal and presented it to the principal, which included utilizing the inquiry team and the special education team to begin implementing school-wide interventions to move the school into the Response to Intervention framework, in addition towards implementing the Common Core State Standards. She agreed, and the plan I put in place has begun picking up steam.

I feel good about what is happening, because there are many points that are currently converging in the building: 1) the Common Core State Standards, which are getting rolled out statewide this year, have been examined and discussed school-wide already in an authentic, collaborative way; 2) technology, which many teachers have been highly resistant towards using last year, is now being increasingly used, such as our Google website for inputting team meeting minutes; 3) grade level teams now have discussed and implemented a team protocol, which will help to structure and build accountability for team meetings; 4) the special education teachers are already beginning to be viewed as leaders and pioneers; 5) I have successfully advocated for an assessment for reading to be used in the building that more accurately targets foundational deficiencies, which many of our students–especially students with IEPs–lack, and I subsequently designed and implemented the headers to be used in a tracking spreadsheet that is being created for our school (I had a timeline of about a week to do all of that, from advocacy to spreadsheet!); and 6) I was able to include lexile measure correlations on the spreadsheet, which will position our school to be ready for the Common Core State Standards use of lexile measures.

And this convergence all happened practically within one week! There is a momentum in the building that is exciting to see. Obviously, I am taking some credit for it (why not, I get to celebrate myself sometimes, don’t I?), but the reality is that I simply took the first steps towards putting it together. The actual implementation only has been able to occur because there are great people in the building who want to see things get better just as much as I do and who have been willing to step up and put themselves on the line to make it happen.

It remains to be seen whether this momentum is sustainable, but it’s a great start. I’m chugging along through my graduate work and if all goes according to plan, I should only have two classes left in the Spring semester. Here’s to making things happen.

Collaborative Interdependence

I’ve been undergoing a mild case of “writer’s block” lately, wherein everything that I attempt to write just comes out flat or completely uninspired. Frustrating, because then it drives me to playing mahjongg instead of articulating deeper sentiment (mahjongg here being the virtual “bottle” in which to drown my woes).

One of the things I’ve been constantly trying to write about but having trouble clearly spelling out is my perspective on enacting progressive change. I’ve discussed elsewhere my evolving views on politics and economics, and I’ve been trying to find a way to more fully explicate my new views while still embracing, intellectually speaking, the perspectives which I’ve developed out of, such radicalism, anarchism, anti-globalization, postcolonialism, etc.

Rather than present a cohesive thesis, therefore, let me just discuss what my thought process is at the moment vis-a-vis these general topics and maybe I can work my way over the obstacles I’m currently facing just by talking it through.

I think what I’m finding is that I can still relate very well to viewpoints such as socialism and anarchism because such perspectives are ultimately humanist, in that there is an idealistic attempt to extricate humanity from what are perceived as inhuman and oppressive structures. There is still a lot of misunderstanding out there about what “anarchism” really means, and you can see this quite powerfully in The Dark Knight as depicted by the Joker, as one current example. People think of chaos, terror, pimply youth in black apparel heaving Molotov cocktails as an expression of aimless hormonal angst. But anarchism is not about chaos and terrorism: it is simply a philosophical rejection of the need for institutionalized systems of governance. Extending out of this are many disparate branches of anarchist philosophy, but that is its central tenet. Contrary to being a negative and nihilistic perspective, this is in actuality an extremely positivist take on human nature, in that anarchists believe that human society will run much more efficiently and naturally when not subsumed to overarching systems.

I was drawn to anarchist philosophy because of this deep humanism, and some anarchist writing is the most well-articulated writing out there on politics. You don’t feel like you are being talked down to. Go here and browse through the library to see for yourself. It isn’t much at all about violence or chaos. It’s about believing in a world that can be better than what we are taught to accept.

However, one of the problems with this perspective is in answering the question: well, how do we get from here to there? There are many different answers to that, some of which I will agree with, but ultimately, what one comes to understand is that holding the highest of ideals makes it extremely difficult to come to terms with the existing state of the world, generating anger, bitterness, and violence and/or apathy.

I will devolve into an oblique comparison here: in a long-term relationship with another human being, you come fairly quickly to realize that compromises must be made between you and your partner’s ideals in order to live together. If your ideals are too high, it may be that instead of coming to terms with the human reality of your partner and accepting them as they are, you are rejecting parts of them in order to try to fit or mold them to your ideals. These high expectations can blind you to the beauty of the person that already exists right before you, if you could allow them to be themselves rather than what you want them to be. You both can work together on developing towards the ideals that you share and cherish.

This does not mean that you should accept a drab reality. What I am getting at is that there is a process in working towards ideals. There must be development and evolution in order for ideals to become reality. Perfect harmony does not just fall into your lap without extensive effort. So one could feasibly hold anarchist philosophy as the ideal state of human society, but still work within and around existing government and market structures in seeking to achieve that ideal.

That is fairly self-evident, I suppose, but as I talked about in my other post, it seems to me that there are a lot of idealists out there who are constricted, rather than motivated, by their ideals.

In any case, even though I sympathize with the philosophy of anarchism and of radical thought in general, I ultimately feel that it is misguided. Anarchists and other philosophies of dissent rightly perceive that there are problems with institutional and market systems, but they wrongly perceive the correct redress as being a complete rejection of these systems. To use another obtuse analogy, it is like looking at a fan which doesn’t blow air very efficiently or equitably about a room, and deciding that the solution is to throw out the fan. While such a solution might appeal to instinct, it would make much more sense to attempt to analyze the failure of the fan and seek to alter, jerryrig, or otherwise upgrade to a whole new model.

To say this, however, doesn’t mean that one couldn’t choose to live ones life according to anarchist or other radical ideals. One has that right and capability. But what I am talking about is being involved in the greater community, and subsuming some of those ideals to accepted law and policy in order to extend greater influence.

Another issue I think I see with philosophies that reject existing market and government systems is that they are often mired in a mentality of a bygone era. We have come into a time, due to the unforeseen confluence of technology and rapid information dissemination and sharing, in which civil society and individuals as a whole have a power and command that they did not once have. Civil society thus is becoming evolutionarily enabled to play the critical part in balancing and restraining and guiding the efforts of institutions and markets in providing a fairer and more sustainable society. Demonstrators and protesters, even when not covered explicitly by the big media outlets, have a strength that corporations and governments have had to pay close attention to. Anti-globalization protesters, though misguided in their conclusions (multi-national corporations and interconnected markets = evil), have had a tremendous and positive impact on drawing attention to economic inequity and iniquitous barriers to trade. Similarly, the increased influence and power of “bloggers” has given big media a run for its money. Due to this increased power of civil society and of individual citizens, people are not simply oppressed workers underneath the inhumane strictures of the one-dimensional demand of capitalism. In collaboration—not opposition—with public policy, the legal system, and economic investments and incentives, civil society, government, and the economy can work in tandem to address the problems that exist in society.

This is not an argument against dissent or protest. What I’m attempting to get at is that the process of speaking up and getting involved and asking critical and probing questions is in fact a necessary and positive aspect of well-organized and functioning social systems. It is not a movement against the “system” or against the “machine” or whatever one chooses to call government and business structures: rather, it is a movement that enhances, collaborates, and guides these systems into greater harmony.

I have argued elsewhere for the need to view these systems in the sense of design, with a holistic, whole-systems approach. This is especially apparent when it comes to entrenched issues such as the current failure of many of our public schools to adequately and equally educate all our nation’s children, irregardless of race, class, or gender. Educational policy, on both a federal and state level, often nobly, but wrongly, attempts to tackle their problems solely within the confines of the classroom by initiating misguided programs that work to increase performance on standardized tests. Obviously, there are circumstances outside of the classroom that are critical to a child’s success, such as family, friends, and wider local community support, in addition to institutional programs. It will take a multifaceted approach, addressing not only education, but furthermore socio-economic conditions, access to information and technology, not to mention access to healthy, positive, inclusive environments and public spaces for children to study and play in.

Our schools have become effectively segregated due to the seemingly innocuous effort by well-to-do parents to place their children in “successful” schools. The successful schools being the ones with money and community support. It is thus apparent that investments must be made simultaneously not only in education and the public school system in general, but furthermore broader investments must be made in low income neighborhoods, to provide access to healthy public spaces, to provide access to technology and information, to provide smart planning for a sustainable future in employment, etc. The more that the middle class divides itself from the poor, the greater problems will become.

What is evident in an issue such as this is the approach that I am talking about: a whole systems, collaborative approach. Civil society must do its part to draw attention to the problems. Government must do its part to respond with effective and unbiased policy changes. The market must do its part with directed investments and innovative micro-businesses. What is apparent, to me at least, is that we can’t rely on any one of these systems to do the job for us. The market is not going to solve any of our problems unless we direct it and harness it with policy and incentives. Government will not update its policy or open up funding unless it has its attention drawn to the problem. Civil society, NGOs, citizen organizations must agitate, petition, utilize the media, and organize to focus on the problems.

Furthermore, policy making and business governance and legal affairs cannot be over-specialized. They can’t be compartmentalized and vivisected such that they can’t work effectively across the fields of public health, education, fiscal tuning, management philosophy, environmental departments, etc. They need to be able to unite and work within these fields all at once.

This kind of approach demonstrates that no matter what ones particular ideals may be, what is the most important is a pragmatic and responsive attention to the current climate and issues in our society. Putting our heads in the sand, whether due to reactionary or radical or centrist thought, is simply unacceptable. Good management, governance, and policy practices are forged by looking ahead to the future, constantly and consistently. Our future lies in our children. Whatever our beliefs may be, we all want our children to be healthy, to be successful, to have access to the resources that will empower and enable them. We want them to be educated, to be well fed, to be well read, to be sound of body and of mind. We want them to be positioned to respond effectively to reality, to be positioned for a market that looks ahead to sustainability.

The process, therefore, in achieving an equitable and sustainable future is determined by the collaborative interdependence of differing aspects of human identity, mind, infrastructures, and society. Only when these multiple points converge and work together are effective and positive changes made. It is misguided to focus ones efforts solely in rejection and opposition to existing systems. The more positive approach is to focus on working across boundaries to enact changes beneficial to all.

Phew. You can see why I’ve had trouble laying this out. It’s kind of a big mess in my mind. I’m working on getting this out in a more concise manner.

Thoughts On Money & Poverty: Part III

I’ve had some more thoughts to add to my developing perspective on poverty that stems and evolves from my last post; there I had begun the line of thought that poverty is not an issue of charity and indifference, but rather of a systemic need to provide recourse for the poor to make their own money in a legitimate manner (duh!). Continuing this direction in thought, I would like to now confront a fundamental obstacle in the path to the poor helping themselves: those with the money and the power.

It is the onus and privilege of those with money and power to pretend that they have nothing to do with poverty. I am now going to begin speaking of these folk as “we”, in the assumption that if you are reading this post, you are probably not living in poverty. And I include these poor, destitute 20 somethings in NYC who are forced to flirt for free drinks and eat junk food while living in their loft apartments in midtown Manhattan (follow that link up there to read yet another article that demonstrates just whom the NY Times caters their news towards). At this point, you are probably throwing up your hands and backing out the door, saying, “I’m not responsible for poverty. I can barely afford my credit card bills, fill up at the pump, or pay back my student loans.” But you are. We are all responsible, because of the very reason of such a denial. We are responsible because we are complicit.

Don’t worry, this is not going to turn into one of those liberal assays of guilt and blame. I simply wanted to make my point very clear: the major obstacle in the way of the poor raising themselves out of poverty is not themselves—it is those who hold onto money and power and deny it from the poor. We are all complicit in this act because of reasons such as I had detailed in my last post on this issue: we believe that the poor are poor because they are lazy, stupid, or simply because we need poor people in order for there to be rich people. And so we either extend charity or pity, or we remain indifferent. And thus complicit.

Beyond complicity, there are those who work directly to keep the poor poor, and these are the people with the major money and power. The Bush Administration, along with groups like Enron and Halliburton, have clearly demonstrated what kind of stripes these people wear. They are greedy sons of bitches who will not hesitate to lie, cheat, and betray all of the world in order to get what they feel is their entitlement. And because we are complicit, we slap their hands, but we do nothing to stop them. Because we all want to be this powerful and have that much money. We all want to become the real life embodiment of the American Dream.

But to assume that simply because we live in a capitalistic society and that our market thrives on competition that we require for there to be have and have-nots is ridiculous, and in fact completely anti-capitalistic. The more people that we can allow onto the playing field of the economy, the more that there will be enhanced competition as well as collaborative growth, and the more the market will develop. Poor people need to be extended credit and resources to start their own businesses, fund their own developments, build their own communities, and invest back into the bigger pool. The more that micro-economies thrive and teem and interact with smaller fry, the more that the macro will be stabilized and efficient and healthy.

The fact is, there is no credible reason to keep poor people poor. The only thing that keeps poor people poor is the greed, complacency, bigotry, short sightedness, and all other forms of small mindedness from those with money and power. It is therefore only extreme indifference and cruelty that allows us to see, when taxes are cut and budgets are slashed and essential programs and social services are jettisoned, not the devastating effect on human lives, rather solely the hypothetical increase in our own coffers. We put up blinders to our own humanity to think in such a manner. The fact is that there is no excuse. There is no acceptable reason for accepting poverty.

And there is no acceptable reason, for that matter, of accepting any kind of tainted and bitter revolt against our own humanity. Compassion is much stronger than pity. Understanding is much more powerful than fear. Everyone on this earth has the potential to be beautiful. Everyone deserves to be beautiful, to shine, to be seen as the treasure and gift that they are.

We need to fight back against the ugly despair, disgust, and terror that is our nightly news. We need to fight back against the complacency and indifference that is so easy to succumb to, the avoidant eyes on the subway, the challenging aggression on the streets, the burning short fuses on the freeway.

No one said it would be easy. But there is a fundamental step within our own minds that must take place for anything good to happen: we must determine whether we will fight for joy, fight for beauty, fight for wonder, and fight for humanity, or whether we will simply step back into the shallows of our temporary alliances and turn against what we know is true. We know that the existence of poverty—ever, anywhere, but most especially now—is simply


So what do we do? Do we start throwing our pennies in the cups of homeless on the street? No, of course not. We need to start affecting change in the structures and environments of the most destitute and impoverished areas of our cities. We need healthy, beautiful, clean, and affordable living spaces. We need access to public transportation. We need the extension of credit and access to money. We need access to well-funded educational and youth development programs. We need nutritious food. We need potable water. Is any of this complicated?

Essentially, all that the problem of poverty and its related issues requires is ATTENTION. The solutions then flow from creativity, community, and collaborative dedication. And turning our attention to these matters should not be seen as charity, selflessness, and other forms of saintliness. Rather, we turn our attention to these matters because we recognize that we are enhancing our greater community—because we are removing the root source of fear, bigotry, and despair from all of our lives. Like what I was saying in another post about the need, in our personal lives, of cleaning and organizing every hidden and unattended spot in our living spaces and mind, so too in our civic spaces and minds we must focus on those areas that are ignored, have been left to fester and decay, have turned into dumping grounds. Because these are areas that are parts of ourselves.

We cannot detach ourselves from each other, except to the detriment of everyone’s humanity.