The Greatness of the Past

There are several emails circulating that remember how much better things were.  They shows kids playing outdoors without cell phones.  They show dads and sons fishing, or teenagers dancing in a soda-shop, all clean, neat and protected.  They show kids riding to school on bikes without helmets and playing on equipment that would “drive safety-lawyers crazy.”

The thing is, if you look at those emails, all the people in them are white.

Sociologists started looking at the commodification of nostalgia in 1979, with Fred Davis’s piece Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia.  In it, Davis noted that nostalgia was nothing new, but creation of group nostalgia, mostly through advertising, was.  With nationwide media shared in common, regional memories became less powerful than national ones, and the national memories were being created by the advertisers of that same media.

Advertisers created a memory of a simpler past, where things made sense.  An image of Eden that we, as consumers, could buy into simply by buying their products.

It’s an easy pitch to make, most things make sense in hindsight.  To make that pitch, however, much of history needs to be omitted.  Salespeople are not hired to tell the whole truth, they are sell a product.   Frequently, they do so with allusion to a simpler past, which only works if the storybook past actually appears simpler.

So, we got a version of the past without strife.  We see middle-class kids playing, and the the kids with the luxury of being middle class in the 50’s are white.

The result of this advertising is that we now have a collective nostalgia that  merged with collective amnesia.  We look to a simpler time that we understand (in retrospect) by looking at, and idolizing, the lives of middle-classed children.  Lost in that picture is the grown up world of Mutually Assured Destruction, school de-segregation, or class and social unrest.

The ultimate nostalgia trip is the idea of the fall from Eden.  The tale predates modern media, but has similar common elements.  Art from thought Abrahamic history depicts Adam and Eve being cast out of paradise, never to return.   The sin for which they were cast out was none other than that of understanding Good and evil.  Before they knew that, things were simpler and more idealistic.  A paradise to be sure, but a paradise ultimately made possible by ignorance.  Most of the religious artwork that depicts the scene shows Adam and Eve looking back, longing for what they lost.  Like us, the garden seems ideal, but with our experience in the garden predating our understanding of good and evil, how could we know?

When we talk about making America great “again,” we are panting our own picture, with us gazing back at paradise and longing for ignorance.  We dream, not of President Eisenhower putting a Christmas message into space on the back of a modified ICBM, but of a little girl picking a daisy in a field.  When I look back, I can’t help but hear the count-down voice-over, and shudder at how complicated life really was.

I much prefer to look forward to the greatness ahead.


My cohort has reached a new milestone in life.  As I was driving home yesterday I realized that every song I heard was on the radio when I was in college.  This would not be a big deal, but I was listening to the oldies station.

Well, my friends, we’ve made it.  The nation’s advertisers have coalesced around us as a prime demographic.  They are showing us the sort of interest that we have not seen since before we got our mortgages.  We are in the sweet spot now.  Next, we will be loosing some of our stations to the younger wave of music and disk jockeys that tell the kids it’s all about them, but for now, the radio is OURS!


Apropos, disk jockey is an amazingly resilient moniker.  It worked for both acetate and vinyl disks, compact disks and hard disks.  Really, it’s only now that we are using solid state drives that DJ’s are no longer spinning disks in any way shape or forum.

Quiet urgency.

There is a certain vibe to public buildings that are mostly empty with those still left still haveing work to do.  I am sitting in a university library over spring break.  Desks are empty and computers are plentiful, but the people around me are working with a relaxed focus, much as I did through almost every “break” in college.  There is none of the frantic wasted energy of finals, just the determination of the tortoise taking advantage of a nap in the college schedule to slowly pull back into the race.

It’s the same feeling as an airport or bus station at midnight, or a shopping mall an hour after closing.  Whatever mania the day may bring is replaced with custodians trying to repair the frayed edges of the day gone by, and the occasional traveler trying to catch a nap on a bench.  Everyone trapped inside a living space as it takes the time to breathe.

Reflection is itself a reflexive action.  When running full out, if forced to slow down the mind still keeps going, keeps making connections.  So, I’m sitting at a public computer, a Foucalt Pendulum swinging in the background, the rattle of library carts as a student workers re-shelve in peace, and surrounded by tortoises.  My people.  I’ve been there often enough that it’s hard to not feel a kinship with those around me who are quietly, urgently moving forward while the library around them breathes deeply.

The works of others; the kindness of strangers.

There are bad days, days we wish to forget.  A good writer can turn a horrid day into one to remember.

Katherine Fritz is such a writer, and I would like to recommend her post about a really bad day.  It is well worth a read, but then so is the rest of her blog.

We are all reliant more than we like to admit on the kindness of strangers.  It is always worth remembering that strangers equally rely on us.

The anatomy of a disaster

Reading case studies in public policy is like watching a good thriller.  You see each decision lead down the path to disaster.  You know the disaster is coming, you see the many places where the disaster could be avoided but the characters, often for the right reason, just keep making the wrong decisions.  You just keep watching the story unfold, both helpless and fascinated.

I’ve watched the horror of the Flint water supply since April, and it did not take long to realize the residents of Flint are living through a public policy case study.  This week’s anniversary reminds me of a specific public policy case study in the lead up to the loss of the space shuttle Challenger.

The Flint water situation and the Challenger disaster is essentially the same problem manifest in two separate ways.  In both cases, the people with the authority to proceed were doing the jobs they were tasked with doing, which was not the same as fulfilling the mission of their respective organizations.

It appears that in both cases, people died as a result.

The mechanical problem that brought down Challenger was an O ring that was brittle at low temperatures.  It was a known problem, and expensive to fix correctly.  The less expensive solution to not launch in cold weather.  Despite the known risk, the launch proceeded.

The cold weather made the O ring between two sections of the solid booster rocket brittle.  The ring failed, creating what amounted to a rocket powered blow torch aimed directly at a large fuel tank.  The tank then ruptured and ignited.  The ship and crew were lost.

The political problem that brought down Challenger was that people running NASA were tasked with a priority above the good management of the organization.

Space travel was becoming routine.  NASA needed to encourage a new generation of STEM students to bring the United States into the future.  NASA was going to launch a schoolteacher into space, and the President was going to tell the world about it that night in the State of the Union.  The job of NASA was to provide the timely launch of an inspiring figure into space.

The engineers who know the risks tried to halt the launch, but lacked the authority to do so.  Those with the authority had the job of putting a teacher in space before the State of the Union.  They could not do that while still heading the engineers concerns.  The launch proceeded resulting in the disaster.

The mechanical problem with flint water supply is that treated water from Lake Huron was replaced with corrosive water from the Flint River.  The corrosion ate away at the lead pipes, causing the lead to leach into the water supply, poising the residents of Flint.  Additionally, the corrosive environment lead to a drop in the disinfectant qualities of chlorine, winch may be a contributing factor the spike in legionnaires disease from which 10 people have died.

The political problem that poisoned Flint’s water supply  was that people who were running Flint were tasked with a priority above the good management of the organization.

The city of Flint was in serious financial trouble, to the point where the State took over.  During a period of just over 4 years, the State appointed a series of 5 emergency managers with extraordinary powers to govern.  By and large, these powers are unchecked, and there is little local oversight.  The managers had one job, and that is to get the city’s finances in order.  The functioning of the city was secondary to that goal.  An old back-up plan to use water from the Flint river from was dusted off and implemented as a cost saving measure, but without the full engineering knowledge or institutional memory of a functioning city government, it was not implemented completely.  The highly corrosive water from the Flint river was not treated with an anti-corrosive agent before being fed into the water supply.

There was a rising chorus of people and institutions raising the alarm about the condition of Flint’s water supply.  Residents were complaining about the water, independent tests were finding the water not safe to use, and Ford switched away from Flint water to protect its plant from damage.  However, the people who were raising the alarm lacked the authority to fix or mitigate the problem.

Those with the authority had the sole job of putting Flint’s financial house in order, and did not feel they could do that while heading the concerns about Flint’s water.  They stayed the course, resulting in the disaster.

We don’t know yet how extensive the lead poising truly is, but it could pose a major public health challenge for decades.  We don’t know that the deaths from Legionnaires’ disease are directly attributable to the lead reducing the effectiveness of chlorine, but there is certainly a correlation worth further study.  We don’t yet know the cost of repair to the water system but estimates exceed hundreds of millions, and possibly more than a billion, dollars.

Both in Flint and at NASA those who we were paying to manage the respective organizations were doing exactly what we were paying them to do.  The problem in both cases is that we were not paying the managers to do the right thing, we were paying them to do the politically expedient thing.  In both cases doing what they were paid to do resulted in disaster.

The Work of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.
                                                                   –Howard Thurman

I’ve been quoting this on Christmas for almost two decades now.  For twenty years I have been misattributing the quote.  Every year when I post it, I find it by doing a quick web search for “Quaker Christmas Benediction.”  That is how I learned it, as attributed to the back of a Gordon Bok album.  I’ve always enjoyed the benediction as the wisdom of the ages, and it has always been a comforting way to re-center myself after the holiday rush, to look at Christmas as not a passing thing, but the beginning of a season.

Knowing where the quote comes from makes the quote so much better.

Howard Thurman does not have a national holiday.  He is not quoted often, and when he is he is often misquoted as my annual negligence shows, but he is an important theological bridge between where were and we are now and hopefully a foundation for where we are yet to go.

In the mid 30’s, Thurman met with Mahatma Gandhi, who talked about how he had found in Hinduism the seeds of nonviolent struggle, and encouraged Thurman to look to Christianity for ways of liberating his people, to counter the narrative that used Christianity to keep Black people “in their place.”

Thurman did so, developing a theology of liberation that in turn influenced James Farmer and Martin Luther King Jr.  Thurman was one of the co-founders of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, the first wholly racially and culturally integrated Christian congregation in the United States.

His work, his theology and his pacifism is written into the DNA of the nonviolent civil rights movement and American liberal Christianity as a whole.  When he writes of finding the lost, of healing the broken or of rebuilding the nations, he knows of what he speaks.