Briefly Noted — Localism

Holy Trinity held their (semi)annual Parish Retreat a couple of weeks ago, with Fr Andrew Damick. He gave several good lectures, one of which I have actually listened to, and can therefore comment on. It’s basically about being an Orthodox localist, with small town habits, like walking everywhere, getting to know the neighbors, planting gardens, sitting on front porches, forming relationships with people based on proximity, rather than shared interests, and so on. I have mixed feelings about it. Many of his recommendations are things that Peace Corps actually requires of volunteers, such as living in the community where we work, no driving, and most of us live next to rather extensive vegetable gardens and food producing animals. Which is good, and I’m glad we’re doing it.

My main question is actually practical. As someone living in a postindustrial, highly technological society. One where our rugs and clothes are woven on industrial looks, our dishes, utensils, chairs, and appliances are made in factories, and so on — what do we do all winter? This is a question in America as well. It certainly was in Tuluksak. Rural places are largely not academic — we mostly aren’t spending the winter researching. I think of George MacDonald’s wise woman, and of the beautiful and productive ladies of ancient Greece, with their spindle and loom, making textiles all winter. In my experience of villages, we generally spend a lot of time in the main room together — perhaps 5 – 10 people — and a TV on. A TV showing random annoying junk, as un-hobbit-like as that may be. Because if there are 10 people in the room, and one of them wants the TV on, it will certainly be on. So I’ve had headphones on all week. In Gori I would walk to the local expat cafe and sit there for three or four hours with a plate of fried potatoes and a computer. And I wasn’t just a particularly slothful exception, but more like the norm. And I’d like to do better, partly because that is not even enjoyable, but am really not sure how this is supposed to work in villages with wi-fi and TVs in the only warm room in the house.

Also, sitting out on the street all day, in addition to being normal for men but strange for women, is pretty boring, even if people wave and laugh every few minutes.

On the other end of the spectrum are women who feel in constant danger both from actual catcalls, and also from strangers simply greeting them in public places.  Apparently a number of women, especially in East Coast cities, have had such a wretched experience of creeps outnumbering normal friendly people, they are worried at the sound of “hi.” “It started when I was 12 and creepy old men would come up and start stroking my waist-length hair without my permission.” Seriously? More than once? How sad. Apparently the woman who made the video got unwanted attention every 6 minutes of her walk, on average. Of course, I don’t generally feel that way — I wouldn’t be volunteering to be the resident American in various places if I hated people laughing and calling as I walk past. In Eastern Europe, this is mostly children, and sometimes men. What’s interesting, both about the post and the comments, is how the experience of unwanted attention has hardened into the feeling that any acknowledgment at all is wrong, so we should just keep our heads down, our eyes front, and ignore each other completely. As one commenter says “I see cat-calling as a violation of space. By cat-calling, the man forces me (or attempts to) into an interaction with him regardless of whether or not I’m up for it.”

Speaking of people fed up with random street attention, I read The Peace Corpse, by Andy Christofferson, because even a rather poorly written e-book is easier to read than a much better written blog, of you’re going for narrative. I’m saying this as someone writing a blog and not a narrative e-book, of course. And if you want to hear my experience as a coherent story, you will probably be disappointed if you start reading blog archives to get that. Andy was a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania in the 00s, and not a very good one. Nor is he a very good writer — he’s insecure, judgmental, and likes to emphasize his juvenile sense of humor. What I thought most interesting about it is the window into the mind of such a person — since someone like that usually doesn’t say what he’s thinking to me. I wish that there were a) other characters who were actual people, and not just foils for Andy, and b) that Andy had a better character arc, and came out of his self absorption more by the end. Of course, the difficulty with non-fiction if that Andy the character won’t grow or observe much beyond Andy the person, who apparently still isn’t there yet. Also, his crush on a local girl who moved away to England was certainly important to his experience, but since he tells us precious little about her, his reader has no reason to care, and it becomes tedious.

The Soft Exile, by Eric Kiefer, is the partly fictionalized memoir of a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia at some point before the internet had reached every corner of the earth. He is  much better writer than Andy, with a wryer sense of himself, and is more aware of his isolation and quest for personal fulfillment. He declares on the first page that he “was taught to appreciate Hemmingway, Kafka, Orwell, and Kerouac,” and joined the Peace Corps after freaking out about Sausage McMuffins and the whole American industrialist machine and threatening to kill himself. So they sent him to a remote village on the edge of the Gobi, where he spent months with a used radio looking for signals, before finally finding the one hill in town that got a signal. Because he was that remote. He write about it well — the cold, the silence, the sandstorms, the loneliness, the staring. The main problem I ended up having with his story was that, after building up to a grand vision quest at the end, it just sort of puts out some vaguely zen platitudes and just stops. It sort of falls flat, like he hadn’t really found something to hold onto by the time he finished the book — and it’s possible that he couldn’t, given the kind of buildup he had about it. I would recommend this book if you want to read about life as an outsider and angsty young man in the Gobi desert.

In The Lights in the Tunnel, Martin Ford asks his readers to imagine a future where automation continues to advance and swallow up traditional work, while the new jobs we assume will replace them fail to do so at nearly the rate and accessibility needed to keep the economy going in it’s present form. The book’s title is based on his main metaphor. Imagine the modern economy as a giant tunnel, filled with floating lights. Each light represents a consumer, and glows brightly or dimly depending on the purchasing power of that person. The walls are lined with a mosaic of panels, also glowing, which represent businesses. The lights go up to the panels, and an exchange takes place, making the panel slightly brighter, and the consumer slightly dimmer. However, these corporations are also employing workers, who are consumers as well, and some of the light is returned to those employees. It’s a somewhat clumsy metaphor, but works better in the book where he has more room to explain why he’s using it this way. His main point is that at a certain level of automation the mechanism whereby the buying power of transactions is returned to employees breaks down, and there’s reason to expect that jobs that cannot be automated cannot keep up with those being automated, or that the vast majority people can continue to keep up with the entry requirements of those machine-resistant fields.

The question driving most of the book is: what if jobs are automated to the point where as much as half the population either have no work to do, or are unable to do the work that continues to need humans to do it — including that which requires a large amount of manual dexterity or creativity? He argues at some length why it’s likely that might happen, and in a system bent on maximizing the efficiency of corporations there’s no reason to employ people if they aren’t needed for the work itself.

In Eastern Europe is not an abstract question. Kosovo has a 45% unemployment rate. The only reason it isn’t even worse (my colleague estimated 60%) is because so many people are working in Germany and Switzerland. In Greece and Spain a quarter of their potential workers are unemployed. “Unemployed” in the village (like in Kosovo, Georgia, or Alaska) does not mean not doing anything at all, of course. They may be farming, fishing, hunting, and so on. Most have excellent vegetable gardens. But it does mean that there isn’t a really a way for them to participate in the larger economic system, and to the extent they do, it’s because of government programs or employed family members.

Mr Ford concedes that capitalism has worked the best of any system tried by a modern nation, and his solution looks something like capitalism on the side of the producers and socialism on the side of the consumers. Businesses are free, even encouraged to compete in the same way they do now, but would be taxed mostly on their actual cash flow, with no payroll taxes, to avoid putting labor intensive fields at a disadvantage. The various welfare and unemployment programs would be restructured into a kind of baseline sum for ordinary citizens, and then he has a scheme where people are rewarded for doing desirable things, such as furthering their education or volunteering in their communities.

Of course, this faces the normal criticisms against socialism, starting with the fact that it’s difficult to impose the requisite taxes on anyone — rich people, successful businesses, whoever — without damaging their ability and incentive to operate well. He has thoughts on that, but they mostly amount to: if the scenario plays out as he thinks it will, we either have to make something like socialism work, or live with a massive disconnect between production capacity and buying power. I appreciate about this book that Mr Ford is a thoughtful, reasonable liberal, not an angry blaming liberal, and would recommend his book.

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