North Carolina’s HB 2: Bruce Springsteen and the Philosophy of Progress

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I grew up on Born in the USA. So many songs on that record really worked for me. It may be surprising that my favorite was actually “I’m on Fire” but there were many great songs from which to choose. Even so, I wasn’t a huge fan until I came into the adult years during which I learned to appreciate lyrics from tracks like “Human Touch”, “Jungleland” off the Born to Run record, and the entire Devils and Dust album. I absolutely love the way Springsteen captures and articulates the  human condition and spirit, not to mention the way he champions the common man. It’s a spirit he and I share. I love the way he sees the world and its inhabitants. For that matter, I love the way the more left-leaning of us see the world, too. Their perspective can at times create a much more inspiring place than what reality might otherwise suggest.

And so this brings us to Springsteen’s decision to cancel a recent Greensboro, NC concert as a way to protest the passing of North Carolina House Bill 2. I happen to support legislation like NC’s Public Facilities and Privacy Act not because I’m a conservative curmudgeon that is opposed to specific and inalienable rights as they may be defined, but because this bill would appear to be a corrective move toward recent legislation that has overreached on behalf of one group to encroach upon the rights of another group. In other words, in my opinion HB 2 and similar bills in Georgia and Tennessee represent a reaction to recent overcompensation — overcompensations, to some degree, that have admittedly prompted long overdue conversations over matters of sexuality and gender. But that’s not how such a law is portrayed in a world that runs screaming down the easiest path toward manufactured outrage. Nor in today’s world could it be.

For reference, here are a few pulled quotes from Bruce Springsteen’s official statement about the decision to cancel:

He cites HB 2 as a law that “… dictates which bathrooms transgender people are permitted to use. Just as important, the law also attacks the rights of LGBT citizens to sue when their human rights are violated in the workplace.” His use of the word “attacks” is unnecessarily strong, in my opinion. A proponent of the very same bill may say with integrity that it actually protects the rights of some.

“ …To my mind, it’s an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress.” This is the part that grabbed my attention and will drive much of this post. I’ve had trouble truly understanding notions of progress in this context for a while now.

For the sake of context, below are a few questions and answers associated with North Carolina House Bill 2. This bill does not appear to be an attack on anybody. Rather, it returns some level of decision-making to businesses and private facilities on the issue of public restrooms:

Can private businesses, if they choose, continue to allow transgender individuals to use the bathroom, locker room or other facilities of the gender they identify with, or provide other accommodations? Yes. For instance, if a privately owned sporting facility wants to allow attendees of sporting events to use the restroom of their choice, or install unisex bathrooms, they can.

Can businesses and private facilities still offer reasonable accommodations for transgender people, like single occupancy bathrooms for instance? Yes. This bill allows and does nothing to prevent businesses, and public or private facilities, from providing single use bathrooms.

Does the new bill limit or prohibit private sector companies from adopting their own nondiscrimination policies or practices? No.

Does this bill mean transgender people will always have to use the restroom of the sex of their birth, even if they have undergone a sex change? No. This law simply says people must use the bathroom of the sex listed on their birth certificate. Anyone who has undergone a sex change can change their sex on their birth certificate, apparently, which is news to me. What this does do, however, is honor a person’s commitment as opposed to allowing him or her to choose a bathroom based on momentary affinity, desire, or other motivation. Better put, you can be whatever you want, but at some point you’ve got to land the plane. Seems fair to me.

Why did NC pass this law in the first place? The bill was passed after the Charlotte City Council voted to impose a regulation requiring business to allow a man into a woman’s restroom, shower, or locker room if they choose. This ordinance would have eliminated the basic expectations of privacy people have when using the rest room by allowing people to use the restroom of their choice. This local regulation brought up serious privacy concerns by parents, businesses, and others across the state, as well as safety concerns that this new local rule could be used by people who would take advantage of this to do harm to others.

I must say that I’m not bothered at all that Springsteen would cancel his show. And it doesn’t bother me at all that he may take a position contrary to mine. I appreciate diversity, honest dialog, conviction, and passion. I do, however, take issue with the notion of progress as it relates to this topic. Here’s the question that emerges from the Boss’ decision and subsequent statement for me: Is a transgendered person’s right to use the restroom of his or her choice an indication of progress?

To notions of progress. I recently stumbled onto I’ll Take My Stand as a part of a personal research project. I’ll Take My Stand is a collection of essays written by the Vanderbilt Agrarians in the late 1930s. Don’t be fooled by its dated-ness. The contributors of this collection included giants like Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate. These contributors and writers were confronted with very similar paradigms for progress as their more familiar agrarian way of life became much less commonplace. This transition necessitated that they, too, examine notions of progress and the appropriate responses to cultural winds. It prompted them to ask, So what is progress?

One of the essays, Lyle Lanier’s “The Philosophy of Progress,” begins by giving us a definition of the word itself. I love the way Lanier positions this for us: “Progress is both a slogan and a philosophy, a device for social control and a belief in the reality of a process of cosmic development toward some far-off divine event.” Thus references to progress and Lanier’s “far-off divine event” can be likened to Marx’s opiate of the people. That is, it pacifies us. It suggests that we give no more consideration to the subject at hand because change is progress and progress is good and who can be against that. By now we’re familiar with presidential hopefuls rallying us with promises of progress. We’re conditioned to understand progress as equal parts “future,” “favorable,” and “change.”

This essay also reminds us that “progress” is not the same as “change.” Just because we may experience the benefits of greater modernity, machinery, and technology, this doesn’t necessarily translate as actual progress. Referencing Wilhelm Windelband, Lanier claims that the problems of progress actually coincide with THE problem of civilization itself, which asks this question: “whether and [to what extent] … the change in human relations of human life has served to further man’s true happiness?” So, yes, there has been change, but the only indication of progress is to what extent we have developed what Windelband calls “true happiness.” Granted, this is a very subjective term. The context of the essay would suggest that “true happiness” is most notably attached to traditional social moorings. This sentiment is very closely associated with discipline and restraint as each relates to the drive for ever-increasing production and consumption and the “generally accelerated tempo of social change served to popularize the doctrine of progress.” Conceding to such a drive for technological and medical advancement may not be the best prescription for true happiness, though it does satisfy our growing need for immediate gratification. And, it must be noted, the accessibility of immediate gratification fits nicely with future favorable change. We’ve grown to expect both “more” and “easier.” Some refer to this as entitlement.

So here is what it comes down to: comfort. We all want to be comfortable. We hold it in the highest esteem. We strive for it. We seek it. We work for it and sacrifice for it. Even though Springsteen’s take on progress is manipulative, he is using a currency we have all bought into — wittingly or not. His definition and use of “progress” allows us to keep doing what we’re doing in the hopes of one day — be it retirement, the next job, the proverbial ship, a relationship, whatever — experiencing Lanier’s divine far-off event. The opposite of comfort, in this case, is to truly wrestle with the weightier matters of identity, purpose, and clemency. This forces us beyond the political conversation with its tidy categories into the messier areas of the soul. And it’s hard. Furthermore, to understand progress as the improvement of man’s material and social welfare, Lanier adds, is to lose a significant aspect of our essence. Life has to be about more than just getting what we want, yet this is the promise of Springsteen’s progress. Lanier puts it this way: “Man henceforth would be concerned not so much with saving his soul as with making himself comfortable.”

In his protest, what is Bruce Springsteen really doing. What is he communicating about his worldview and the potential for humanity to take on the noble struggle of identity and basic rights. Different from championing humanity, I think he has actually cheapened the human condition. For Springsteen this actually is about a concert and North Carolina House Bill 2. He actually believes that the well-being of these “freedom fighters” is at stake in the HB 2 decision and he mistakenly believes that the best thing that can happen is for everyone to get whatever they want. His goal is, in Lanier terms, simple social welfare. The truth is there are far greater things and ideas way beyond the typical understanding of “progress.” There is maturity in the hard “no.” The truth is that there are literal souls at stake.

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Agonistes on the Government Shut Down

Word on the street is that they’ve got a potential government shut down going on. To Agonistes it seems fairly obvious that the Dems are thwarting the process in order to vilify the GOP in an election year. Smart move given the current climate, if you ask me. I guess you got to give the democrats credit for playing to win.

On the eve of a national government shut down I can’t help but think back to the story of Westward Expansion long about the turn of the century and pushing through to the late 1930s. A century or so removed from the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the west was blown wide open to migration largely due to the railroad, but also the telegraph and prosperity. But the people weren’t really moving. As contributors to the lack of interest there was WW1 (and the 1920s were pretty comfortable for most).

Because the federal government had this huge investment in the west and a need to get people on the land, it launched what amounted to an enormous PR campaign created to stimulate movement into the area. The campaign included free trips to visit the Texas panhandle, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, and even Nebraska and the Dakotas.  Our US government published pamphlets that highlighted how this land could be put to agricultural use. Heretofore only used for ranching, the area that would later be known as The Dust Bowl only recorded about 16 inches of rainfall a year—not the 20 inches annually required for successful agricultural endeavors. But here’s the kicker: the promotional pamphlets led people to believe that there was enough rain to raise successful crops year after year.  At worst it was a blatant lie. At best it was misleading.

Of course the cowboys knew it. They knew that the land was only good for cattle ranching, not farming. And the US Department of Agriculture did too. But the people came. They responded to the lure of cheap land and the American Dream. And they kept coming. And they bought tractors and they turned the prairie over and grew more grain than any nation had before or since. What they didn’t know—neither the government nor the farmer nor the cowboy—was that the prairie grass was the only thing holding the dirt down. Within two decades the prairie was gone, the Great Depression had settled in like an unwelcome relative, and the Dust Bowl was beginning its long run into our history books as one of the single most traumatic events in US history.

Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time chronicles the story of the Dust Bowl with abject detail. He describes the rabbit runs and the great dust storms of the 1930s. In vivid detail he tells the stories of the families that lived in “homes” dug out of the ground with dirt floors, no roofs or windows, with cow chips their only source of fuel for the stoves. (Can you imagine the permanent smell of manure on your skin, hair, clothing.) There were so many centipedes living in the walls that you could hear them crawling around you at night and the dust so bad that people died from a malady known as dust pneumonia. There was enough static electricity in the air to short cars and knock people down with an ill-advised handshake. Food was so scarce that people canned tumbleweed to eat in the winter months.

So what relevance does this have today? Why bring these events from first half of the Twentieth Century up on the eve of a potential government shut down? Because we made it. Not only did we survive the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, but we went on to become the most powerful nation the world has ever seen. And to its credit, I think, the administration of Roosevelt knew it. That is, the government believed. It believed in the fortitude and heart of the American people. It believed—and the irony is not lost on me—that we would ultimately not just survive, but find a way to thrive. What they knew is that we were and remain a nation of cowboys, so to speak, with indomitable spirits that cannot be tamed and that do not accept defeat. Stuff like that made us tough … for a generation anyway. All the government of the day did was plant a seed and make a better life possible for us (and with a little half-truth, too, I guess), then stepped back and let us do whatever we could with what was available. To a large degree, this was noble.

So here is what I wonder. Should talk of the shut down even matter? Think about it. When the Founding Fathers were building the framework of what our nation would become, the question was not so much what the federal government should be, but if it should be. When James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were writing the Federalist Papers–the documents would ultimately contribute the most to the framing of The Constitution– the big question was associated with the power of the central government as it related to the state governments—not what it would or could do to help us. Their resolution was to let the balance of power remain ambiguous, thus creating what Joseph Ellis described as something like an on-going yet slow-moving revolution and perpetually re-create the federal government A/K/A “genius”. And so perhaps that is where we find ourselves.

The role of government—any democratic government—is really quite simple: (1) remove obstacles (2) protect the people. Any Charlie Daniels song will tell you that maybe we don’t even need that. Circumstances amidst the Great Depression were so outrageous as to lie beyond any help the federal government could possibly provide. It was overwhelming. There were programs that worked with varying degrees of success, but by and large it was the people that pulled themselves out of it. A nation of cowboys found a way. Yeah it was hard. Terribly hard. But it’s only in those situations that you can find out what you’re capable of becoming.

I love this nation and what it stands for. Here’s to hoping we haven’t lost any of that along the way.

A Jacksonian Response To Current Affairs

Round about the time the calendar was being turned from 1829 to 1830, the issue of interior improvements broke out in Congress for the first—although not the only—time. The matter for the most part addressed the use of public funds, dollars generated through taxation, for internal improvements. At the heart of the rhetoric was the sale of public land in the west and how that money would be spent. The issue itself was big enough, but the debate in Congress took on a much broader level to include slavery, states’ rights, partisanship, and presidential power. I’ve read that one of the Founder Fathers’ greatest gifts to us was a perpetual revolution (American Creation, Joseph Ellis). That is, that our nation could continually re-invent itself—evolve as the times required, without moving too far into extremist territory. The system of checks and balances along with the bicameral legislature was enough to keep the perpetual revolution slow enough as to avoid all-out calamity. The debate of 1830 was a proper demonstration of said revolution.

But that’s more than anyone wanted to know I’m sure. I include all of this in order to setup the quote of the day. This I found in Jon Meacham’s American Lion and is attributed to President Andrew Jackson. As the debate over the use of public land continued, Jackson called upon the people to reason—and he believed they would. And I believe that the alarms that are sounding today from both the right and the left will ultimately be silenced with similar sentiment:

There is too much at stake to allow pride or passion to influence your decision. Never for a moment believe that the great body of the citizens of any State or States can deliverately intend to do wrong. They may, under the influence of temporary excitement or misguided opinions, commit mistakes; they may be misled for a time by the suggestions of self-interest; but in a community so enlightened and patriotic as the people of the United States argument will soon make them sensible of their errors, and when convinced they will be ready to repair them.”

I read this recently and thought to myself, “Yeah. That’s what I think.” (So grateful for these guys that can create my words for me.) For some crazy reason I believe in America. I believe in the American Experiment. I believe we still possess the mettle that drove prior generations to carve this nation out of the trees and the dirt. And like Jackson said, we are susceptible to being misled by the suggestions of self-interest and also vulnerable to our misguided opinions—for a time. For a generation or two. But only for a time.

The Capitalism Manifesto

The Human ConditionFareed Zakaria has an article in the June 22 issue of Newsweek on the current state of capitalism. In it he paints a picture of an economic system that has continued to evolve over time. With each twist and bend of evolution we both sense a pending doom of sorts while also learning something about ourselves, the way the world works, and the human condition. But what you begin to pick up as you read the article is not anything cyclical, rather something very linear and progressive. That is, we continue to push out into the unknown; into the unpredictable—and that is what scares us. The simple fact is that the tension we feel is the tension that results from the need to control something that lies beyond our control. Capitalism remains the best system, but we would do well to remember that it is highly dynamic with the ability to inflict great harm. There is a great line in Lawrence of Arabia when a colleague tries to duplicate Lawrence‘s “trick” of putting out a match with his bare fingertips. When the match burns the colleague’s hand, he asks Lawrence, “What’s the trick.” “The trick,” Lawrence responds, “is not minding it much.” Maybe there is no “trick” with capitalism other than expecting periodic pain and finding a way to “not mind it much.” Below are a couple of excerpts from the article:

Consider our track record over the past 20 years, starting with the stock-market crash of 1987, when on Oct. 19 the Dow Jones lost 23 percent, the largest one-day loss in its history. The legendary economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that he just hoped that the coming recession wouldn’t prove as painful as the Great Depression. It turned out to be a blip on the way to an even bigger, longer boom. Then there was the 1997 East Asian crisis, during the depths of which Paul Krugman wrote in a Fortune cover essay, “Never in the course of economic events—not even in the early years of the Depression—has so large a part of the world economy experienced so devastating a fall from grace.” He went on to argue that if Asian countries did not adopt his radical strategy—currency controls—”we could be looking at?.?.?.?the kind of slump that 60 years ago devastated societies, destabilized governments, and eventually led to war.” Only one Asian country instituted currency controls, and partial ones at that. All rebounded within two years.

Capitalism means growth, but also instability. The system is dynamic and inherently prone to crashes that cause great damage along the way. For about 90 years, we have been trying to regulate the system to stabilize it while still preserving its energy. We are at the start of another set of these efforts. In undertaking them, it is important to keep in mind what exactly went wrong. What we are experiencing is not a crisis of capitalism. It is a crisis of finance, of democracy, of globalization and ultimately of ethics.

Read the whole article by clicking here.