Sunday, October 14, 2012

Bill Ivey's new book: Handmaking America

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on.............."


A while back, Arlene Goldbard noted what we all already know - something is dreadfully wrong in America.  It goes beyond the economic crisis, beyond the gridlock in Congress and the problems of a crumbling infrastructure, deteriorating education system, suspect Supreme Court decisions, and a world constantly at war; beyond even the growing disparity in wealth and the concentration of too much in the hands of too few or the deepening divide over fundamental beliefs and civil rights. Something is wrong with us as a people.  We don’t just disagree, we are at each other’s throats. It isn’t just factions, it is an intractable dividing line between entrenched camps.  And the civil discourse that has disappeared is the result of monumental distrust and even hatred of each other.  We have somehow made each other the enemy.  We are skidding away from being a nation wherein the nation itself is more important than the well being of any one interest.

Only fifty years ago, Americans - and especially young Americans - admired and respected the Kennedys for their intelligence, commitment to education, patriotism and deep abiding passion about public service.  They added to that a sense of style and glamour - but that was a bonus.  The Kennedys have been replaced by the Kardashians.  I am sure these young women are nice people.  Certainly their business acumen is admirable.  And they have style as well.  But they are idolized because they are rich and famous - famous for being celebrities - not for some stellar achievement.  The Beatles noted the trend back in the 60s in the song Come Together -- in describing the forces that drive people to seek identity and self worth in things other than those that nourish the mind and the spirit:  “Got to be good looking cause he’s so hard to see.”   Gone from what we admire is public service, gone too are the needs of the country being more important than the needs of certain segments.  Fame trumps accomplishment; fashion trumps thought; and, of course, wealth trumps the need to give a damn about anyone else.  If John and Paul wondered in Eleanor Rigby:  “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?", the answer lies in part because we no longer have values which unite us.

In a sense we seem adrift.  We don’t know exactly where we are going, where we want to go, or how to get there.

Bill Ivey, in his new book Handmaking America (Counterpoint Press, Berkeley), starts from precisely that point.  He takes on how we have , in so short a time, moved from being a nation that worked together - despite profound differences - to be a nation, to warring factions.  In a cogent, intelligent, extended essay, Bill passionately and convincingly lays out at least some of the reasons we have strayed so far from the track.  And he offers a prescription of what needs to be done to address the challenges.  It isn’t intended to be a step-by-step blueprint for solving the problems.  It IS a vision about how to move forward to re-establish values for America -- values that can bring us a sense of worth and satisfaction, that can unite us, that can help us to repurpose life in the 21st Century to the benefit of all of us.

I admit to sharing most of Bill’s biases and prejudices, and so I find myself in agreement with virtually everything he says.  I can only give you a sense of the panorama Bill surveys in this work;  a work that does not center on the value of the arts to our future per se, though he makes a strong “stealth” kind of underlying argument for that very value.  The themes of this work are bigger.  I had a good conversation with him this morning and he expanded on some of his thoughts in this book.

Bill carefully outlines the forces that have led us to define American exceptionalism as not much more than wealth and power; how teamwork has been trumped by assembly line work and individualist thinking; how we progressives (liberals) have allowed the opposition to convince the American people that government is “bad” and business and corporations are our savior; how money and lobbying has allowed corporate America to redefine government as in its service and not the other way around.

He laments the success of the conservatives in driving home their simple message that:  “We will keep you safe, we will keep government off your back; we will keep Washington out of your wallet - with the implied commitments to defense, deregulation and low takes,” and the failure of the left to counter that vision with its own.

He breaks down his analysis into three basic parts:

I.  Work
Bill explores the causes and effects of assembly line work having replaced the job satisfaction of workers who once felt a sense of pride in their crafts and how that has led to a 24/7 work ethic that is profoundly unsatisfying. He decries the lack of personal time in our lives and the role of too much technology imprisoning us rather than freeing us. His prescription is that we “recover the satisfaction of artisanship by stepping to the side, building the kind of meaning found in craftwork outside the office, classroom or factory,” while arguing for the benefits of a four day work week to give us back some of the time we have lost.

He posits that education has become too much the handmaiden of business and that its purpose shouldn’t focus exclusively on preparing students for jobs (at least not all office jobs), but that “we must achieve a subtle, realistic balance between education for craftwork and education for citizenship.”  Sure to be attacked, if not vilified, as a heretic, he  has the courage to discuss how education has been for some time ‘wrong footed‘ in its dedication to math and science to the exclusion of other pursuits, and to question whether or not technology is all that big a boon to the quality of our lives.  (He correctly  notes that none of us are the clients of the major online social networking or search sites - rather we are the product itself.  Data on us is what they are after - to sell to companies and others who want that information - making even the semblance of privacy something that is now long gone).   If nothing else he is willing to take on the sacred cows where others fear to tread.

II.  Government
Here he observes the impact of the wholesale movement of the media away from the old understanding of the term "responsible journalism", replaced with "Hooray for Our Side" pundits.   Amplified by the drone of television and advertisting, and the negative influence of relying on decision making by “polls” and the niche opining by bloggers and spin doctors, the net result is to simply solidify already entrenched positions.  He quite deftly identifies the impact of the initiative movement in sabotaging the very foundation of representative government - arguing that we simply no longer trust those we elect to act in our stead.  But the biggest failure of the political "left" has been not to effectively counter the assertion that there is too much government, and that government itself is a bad thing - extraordinary evidence to the contrary.

III.  Consumption
Bill shows how business and advertising have accelerated the commoditization of everything - not the least of which are our very values.  He discusses the toxic effect of “envy” as the driving force behind our race for things as a means to define our worth - as individuals and as a nation.  In many respects, the heart of the matter lies in our addiction to endless spending and consuming, exacerbated by the financial system’s extolling of relentless debt assumption.  As Bill explains:   “Consumerism honors spending and buying as the surest indicators of achievement and happiness.  Comoditization and advertising encourage this comingling of spending and quality of life.”  In the age of the Kardashians, we have become obsessed with acquiring things - an obsession in part created, and continuously facilitated and nurtured by, corporate America and especially the finance industry.

He concludes with thoughts on responsibility and happiness: Responsibility of the education system to nurture our children to be informed citizens; the responsibility of parents to teach them that happiness does not lie exclusively in consumption; the responsibility of government to prevent the excesses of business; the responsibility of citizenship to understand that in the end we are all in this together.

I like this book very much.  I think everyone should read it.  For a serious work of analysis, it is written in a very easy style.  Though of an extended essay length, it is a slow read because there are so many ideas within that you want to frequently stop and savor the thinking.

Of course, the devil is always in the details, and with neither politicians nor the media even remotely interested in drilling down this far into examining what is going on, one wonders how we will ever get our citizens to slow down, to re-examine those things that are pulling us apart and weakening the fabric of our society - let alone give up addictions long in the making.  This book is really about vision - or rather a response to our lack of having any sense of where we are going and how we might get there.   One hopes it will be a springboard for a wider, serious national discussion; but it will be enough if it is read and discussed.  This is the kind of thinking I would personally like to see come from our candidates or at least the independent thinkers.   Alas, it is very likely too risky for any of them to adopt.  The media?  Not the so-called “mainstream media” - their mantra is as Don Henley of the Eagles noted twenty-five years ago:  “Get the widow on the set.”

At the end the challenge is clear, and Bill says it more eloquently than could I:
“Two obstacles stand between America today and the promise of a revitalized democracy.  First, can we envision the constellation of values that will define a high quality of life in a post consumerist society?  Second, absent out and out financial collapse, can Americans recover the resolve and commitment to self-sacrifice necessary to define and animate a progressive democracy that serves all?”  
I don’t know if we can do that, nor how we go about it. I do know that if we do not do that, if we continue down this road, we will arrive at a place not to our liking, one from which escape will be very difficult indeed.  What is worse is that our children will be right there with us - brought along, if not against their will, certainly without their consent.

I think in the final analysis we need probably to start at the beginning.  As Leo Tolstoy observed a long time ago:     “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”  

Congratulations to Bill.  I think this is a very worthy effort.

 I urge you all to read it.  There is much here to think about.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit