Bonhoeffer and opposition to the state in justice theory

This morning in my seminar on social justice and public policy, we are finally going to tackle liberation theology. It’s taken me a good four readings of Gustavo Gutierrez’s Liberation Theology book to get to a point where I think I can say something intelligent. I’m not crazy about how I organized the last three weeks of the class, but it turns out that I needed the extra week of Thanksgiving to figure out what I wanted to say.

We land this week with Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Bonhoeffer is one of my favorite justice thinkers, actually, because he is so confounding. He was a conservative Lutheran, and he appears to have had little time for liberal modernists like Reinhold Neibuhr. This fact tends to make conservatives in the US chortle with glee that he “must have been a conservative.” But he was a conservative Lutheran, people, and a European one. Check out the social welfare regimes in Lutheran-dominated European countries if you want to know what that means.

When I say that Bonhoeffer was a conservative, I mean that his theology was informed by Biblical revelation, of course–his problem with the liberal modernists like Neibuhr concerned their willingness to rely on intuition relatively more than Bonhoeffer could stand, rather than more strict Biblical interpretation. Just because he was a conservative theologian does not mean that he would have lined along with people like Pat Robertson.

That theological conservatism led him to interesting places, including the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, which impressed him greatly. The Baptists, too, were evangelical and relied on revelation and the Bible, but there he saw the strands of political liberation even within a congregation centered on conservative doctrine. Setting themselves against the face of white domination, the leaders of the Abyssinian Baptist Church denied the notion that liberation needs necessary be “liberal” in a freedom-loving, individualistic way. Instead, it appealed to the higher social order of God’s community.

Bonhoeffer carried this understanding back to Germany where he preached against in the Nazis. I’ve been reading three key sermons: The Jewish Question; A Church of the World or a Church of the World; and The Aryan Paragraph in the Church. The Bonhoeffer revealed here shows a man who becomes progressively more convinced that the church’s work is external and possesses a duty to work against the corrupted state.

Bonhoeffer’s critics argue that for all practical purposes, he did little to help Jewish victims. He can not be used as German martyr, they argue, because there is little evidence that he worked to free them or get them out of the country. Yet he joined in a plot to assassinate Hitler and was executed for it, largely out of spite, I argue, at the end of the war. One can always criticize everybody for not doing more; I have trouble believing that a relatively famous theologian like Bonhoeffer, who had spoken out against the regime, would have been a particularly effective underground worker. I suspect he was watched and reported on closely which would have served to expose those he associated with, not hide them.

The question that sits before young students of public affairs with Guttierez, Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King (and Gandhi, of course) concerns when social movements can, and perhaps should, be justified in taking up violent opposition to the state.

(I’m going to throw this up as I have to run to class! Sorry for typos. Will proofread a bit later.)

Anand Vaida’s discussion on neoliberalism in All the Beautiful Forevers

Over at n+1, Anand Vaida has a piece worth reading on criticism of Katherine Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Here’s the set up:

The book was met with a storm of praise in both India and the United States — for the extent and depth of Boo’s research, for her empathy for her subjects, and for avoiding the trap that several recent “big India books” fell into when they took the entire country as their subject and ended up capturing nothing. An almost solitary discordant note came from Mitu Sengupta, a political science professor in Canada. In a review published on the progressive Indian blog Kafila (and later republished on the Dissent website), Sengupta charged the book with having a “subtle alignment with the neoliberal narrative”—that is, a muted but consistent anti–welfare state and pro-market agenda. The chief evidence of Boo’s neoliberalism, according to Sengupta, is the curious fact that none of Boo’s characters participate in any kind of collective activity; when someone does attempt to assert control over her life, it is always in isolation.

Vaida discussion is both helpful and reasoned, and I don’t have much to add to it. It’s long, but it’s well worth reading. I do have some confusion about the criticism and its ultimate disposition for those who write about bad conditions. I do have to admit that I have not read Boo’s book, as I am concerned about it being another version of poverty porn.

Because I tend to write about institutions and social justice, I get a lot of criticism from reviewers that I do the same thing that Boo does: that is, I don’t provide descriptions on what people experiencing injustice to fight it. As a result, the writing robs victims of the agency they demonstrate and maintains focus on the institution.

I can understand that. However, in much of my wrting, I am trying to get how institutions should fix their damn selves. While I understand the impulse to focus on how collective action affect change in institutions,  I have several concerns about making that the point of what I write about when I write about injustice and ethics.

1) Describing social movements or what people do when they respond to injustice may or may not be part of the story about why an institution should fix its damn self.

2) If there is a community response, and there often is, I don’t feel like that it’s my story to tell. Surely there are people, analogous to Derrick Bell and Julian Bond, who can and will write and speak for the movement themselves. While I am happy to be resource and support to that writing, it’s not my story and I don’t feel comfortable appropriating it for my own ends–e.g., publication and career advancement.

3) I do want to create the expectation that institutions and the planners within them should fix (did I say this?)  their damn selves without reinforcing the notion that institutional change can not happen unless oppressed people take on the burden of fixing.

4) Plenty of “Oh, lookit what those little community organizations are doing to fight the man!” narratives produced by academics strike me as patronizing, condescending, and reinforcing of the notion that democratic and advocacy coalitions are ‘handling’ the problem and thus, those of us who hold power and privilege don’t need to bother.

Other writers, like Vandana Shiva and James Scott, do an amazing job of writing about people’s movements. I rather feel like that material is covered: it’s obvious that when you treat people poorly, they find way to call you out, and that people power is actually a source of power. I don’t feel the need to echo that in my contributions, as that’s there. It’s evident.

Directions and comments on how I am wrong would be most helpful.

Some excellent advice on writing and rejection

Blake Butler over at htmlgiant has some marvelous advice on how you should approach rejection as a writer. There’s a lot of advice about rejection, and a lot of it strikes me as macho BS about powering through and whatnot, which is helpful to some degree, but also makes those of us who are hurt by rejection feel like we are doing something wrong. Yeah, shake it off is the right advice, but you do need to think about what it is you are shaking off.

Rejection does hurt, and some rejections hurt far more than others. Butler’s advice helps you think about submitting work differently–nailing outlets where you read, and picking targets according to the places where you’d like an audience. My favorite quote:

18. Want to restate: this submission/publication thing is ephemeral. Yeah it’s nice and fun that it exists, and to get somewhere you need to go hard. But keep your head on. No one on Facebook cares. Keep it yourself most of the time, the struggle. Eat the struggle. It’s meat.

Where do rights come from?

We’ve spent the last few weeks in justice class working on rights and what they are, where they come from. In particular, we posed the difficult question for secular governments of: if you don’t believe in souls or the divine aspects of man, how do you set up the theoretical precedents for humans as rights-holders? It’s a sticky problem when you start poking at the question of rights without gods: people of faith have it a bit easier by referring to a divinity who holds mankind in special regard, and from that follows that mankind has certain entitlements. Certainly secular rights theorists have their arguments, such as eudaimonism, among others. The nice thing about the secular route is that you have a opening for people like Peter Singer to come along and challenge your assumptions about pleasure- and pain-feeling for the basis for rights, largely as a means of extending those rights to animals and other species that obviously feel pain, fear death, etc.

I got rather stuck in the middle of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book, Justice: Right and Wrongs, and within his chapter on eudaimonism, where he argues that pleasure and pain principles can not, ultimately serve as a basis for rights-holding. I’m getting lost in his reasoning. Here’s Wolterstorff discussing Rawls (my approach–public reason) versus secular morality, and the paradox of the reasoning behind rights.

It strikes me that his argument that you can’t reason with some people also pokes holes in his own approach to rights; if you can’t reason with boneheads, and you can’t reconcile public moralities, you also have trouble making foundational religious claims among people like me who do not believe.

Record stores as place–the Scholarly Kitchen’s writing about the experience of vinyl from store to home

Michael Clarke over at The Scholarly Kitchen has a piece up about what publishing might learn from Indie Rock, and while I think the essay describes something that many bookstores (if not publishers, his main audience) have already learned, it’s worth a read.

It starts at the local record store, where I seem to always to find really knowledgeable people who turn me on to great music. In Chicago, I lived a few blocks down from the legendary Reckless Records on Milwaukee Avenue, the model for the record store in the movie High Fidelity. Here in Charlottesville, I am right around the corner from the fabulous Melody Supreme, whose proprietor always has a great recommendation. I realize there are services like Pandora, Spotify, iTunes Genius, and Soudhound, and I use all of these. But I continue to value the non-algorithmic connections of the human mind when it comes to music association and discovery.

The bookstores and record stores that are going to live are the ones, like my personal favorite, the Last Bookstore here in downtown Los Angeles, who understand that leaving your house to go to a store now has be experiential in and off itself. It’s too easy to order anything you want–from coffee to clothing to books to music–on Amazon. The Last Bookstore succeeds as a place because it is beautiful. It’s worth rousing yourself to go to. I hope to heaven we can keep them open.

Like Clarke, I have gotten interested in vinyl not because I can hear any really difference–I’m a post-rock, electronic, and ambient freak, and almost all those are fine in digital formats–but because it’s fun to have browsing through records be a tactile experience.

Understanding Philip Roth’s retirement: writing is hard

One of the things I dislike most about macho-man academia: the way that you are supposed to act like writing is a no-brainer and that, if you get a block when you are writing, or if you find writing difficult, you’re a sissy. There are many, many scholars who flounce around talking about how they “only took a year to write a book.”

Now, some of these scholars are, in fact, brilliant, and all of their accumulated work is great. But I can usually tell when a book only took a year to write. And I can usually tell when the writing came “easy.” I can tell because the ideas aren’t very deep and the writing isn’t all that good. But since so few people actually read anything, the lines on your CV can accumulate, and you will get raises and promotions.

Getting yourself to write can be a struggle. You have to beat your inner resistance and fear, and that’s easier for some of us than it is for others. For those who don’t have any resistance, well, that’s awesome: bully for you. But I do.

Doing what you need to do to write something as well as you possibly can–that requires real discipline. Here’s Phil Roth talking about his retirement in the New York Times:

Mr. Roth is now in excellent health, after back surgery in April, and exercises regularly. But he said: “I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” He went on: “I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.”

Anybody who doesn’t understand that sentiment has never thrown away five pages that you have killed yourself to produce.

Some artists go on and on; Woody Allen seems to be incapable of stopping, and thus he goes on, throwing spaghetti at the wall, as it were, and some of it is great, and some of it is not-so-great. What else are you going to do if creative production is still the reason you get up in the morning?

I have no idea whether I’ll go out like Roth or Allen, or whether I will be fortunate enough to age to have the quandary. All I know is that it is hard–and it probably should be.

DePillis at the TNR and Badger at TAL read urban influence over US federal politics the wrong way, as usual

Post-election, there’s the usual Monday-morning quarterbacking about the role that the US’s urban areas are playing in presidential politics. Here’s two:

Lydia DePillus over at The New Republic The GOP Can’t Afford to Ignore Cities Anymore

Emily Badger writes about the Real Reason Cities Lean Democratic in the Atlantic Cities and presents some “Density, Yay!” assertions and concludes that the GOP’s focus on individualism is killing them in cities, where people believe in public goods.

So let’s cut through some of these.

First off, if cities were as simple in their politics as Badger wants us to believe–i.e., cities force us to have collective goods/and the Dems are the ones who believe in such things and therefore the GOP loses in cities–we would never have Republican mayors. But we do. Lots of them, throughout US history. Now, Democrats do dominate in mayoral politics, but one of biggest darlings among urbanists, Mike Bloomberg, ran and won as a Republican. And Republicans tend to dominate Governor’s offices, even in states with large metro areas.

It is entirely possible to support public goods for your metro area and not assume that it’s the federal government’s job to pay for it all.

Second, the majority of the US population lives in what the Census bureau delineates as ‘urban’, but the “city” population is actually smaller than the number of people who live in suburbs that are part of metropolitan regions. Regions are the real urban story in the United States, even though some of us are in the business of highlighting “cities.” My point is that the people DePillus talked to, and the “yay, cities!” people like Emily Badger, really don’t get that urbanized suburbs are far more important in the political calculus than cities are.

To illustrate the point:

The most recent tally I found: Obama took 61 million votes. Mitt Romney took 58 million. The difference: 4 million votes. That means 61 million people thought Obama should keep his job, and 58 million people thought he should lose his job. All re-election campaigns are referendums on the incumbent.

If the Republicans had managed to run anybody less of a clueless, stiff, humorless, John Kerry clone, there’s a damn good likelihood we would be having a different conversation. And, given those numbers, people in metro regions are still voting for the GOP. Just because we have a winner-take-all system doesn’t mean one party is dead or dying even in metro areas.

Second, the margin is 4 million people. That’s a little over the number of people who live in my fair city, Los Angeles. (Did you know that? Only 4 million people live in LA zip codes.) But there are 12 million in the MSA. So what is the most important constituency? The city? Or the metro region? All those little suburbs add up to quite a majority.

New York isn’t just New York (8.2 million). It’s the New York–Northern New Jersey–Long Island, NY–NJ–PA MSA of 19.2 million.

So what’s the deal? Are cities dominating? Or are suburbs becoming more and more urbanized? I’d argue the latter. With the suburbanization of employment and retail, the suburb-city distinction that looms so large in the minds of urbanists is becoming irrelevant even as more and more people scream about the importance of “the city” as a concept, and there’s very little reason why those in highly urbanized suburbs should vote differently than those in ‘cities.’

#ACSP2012 Reflections 4: 25 years of feminism and the Faculty Women’s Interest Group

I have had the good fortune of being the president of the Faculty Women’s Interest Group since 2010. We planned a celebration this year to honor the women who held firm on forming the organization 25 years ago; there were so few at the first meeting that I extended the group to the first five years. The result was a list of around 30 women who founded a feminist organization within ACSP to address feminist issues within the planning academy.

It was a very touching celebration, with founders sharing their memories and newcomers sharing their gratitude. We also took time to remember some of the founders who are no longer with us, like Marsha Ritzdorf, and those who are struggling with illness, like Marsha Marker Feld.

The testimony to look how far we’ve come came at the lunch: this year we had close to 200 women who attended. We have certainly joined the academy in large numbers. But disparities between men and women in the academy persist, and the fight continues. The advantages and gains of white women have exceeded those of women of color.

Thus our 25 year celebration has to denote a turning point as well as a celebration: our past teaches us how difficult it is to succeed when nobody believes in you, and how important it is to join together as a means to create opportunities. Our gains in numbers have to be accompanied by the recognition that those gains include obligations to use our power to support those coming after us, and to work with people of color to make their lives and paths easier within the academy. Our students and colleagues need our support and our leadership.

We have come a long way in 25 years; I am a grateful beneficiary of it, and have blessed to have been a small part of it.