Also, Just in case you're wondering, this is what I listened to immediately after hearing that bit of brilliance:
Sorry for any whiplash...
So, I had a couple posts worked up to a nice frothy lather but decided they weren't going anywhere. That's probably for the best, I think.
Also, too, I'd decided to make a half-assed closing to my Group Dynamics series, as I just kind of ran out of steam on the idea and wasn't expressing what I wanted to express in any sort of serious way. It kept descending into polemics and the concrete, which was more-or-less the exact opposite of what I wanted to do. I mean, yes, sometimes the concrete is necessary, but oftentimes the concrete gets in the way of the things that actually matter.
And so but anyway, I've finally (FINALLY!) gotten around to reading seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees, Lawrence Weschler's luminous biography of Robert Irwin. Irwin has focused his entire career on questions of perception and presence and removing the image from art in order to leave only the interaction between the art and the self.
As it happens, sometimes I find myself reading the exact right thing for the exact right moment in time. Were I still a Christian I would call it providence. These days, though, I just call it "convergence," that wonderful term of art given me by Lawrence Weschler himself. Either way, I found myself trying to figure out if there was any way that I, as a writer, could make use of Robert Irwin's ideas and lessons. I was confounded by the question, but did realize that he provided an answer of another sort to a different question, specifically the question of why I saw such great convergence between the Christianity I'd departed and the atheism from which I am beginning my departure.
Anyway, amongst its many brilliant lines, Weschler's book contains this quote from Robert Irwin:
After the Whitney, I might have just disappeared, and in a way that would have been nice. But as it turns out, I couldn't. And maybe it's for the same reason I've never been comfortable with the argument from certain spiritual quarters about enlightenment. I don't doubt that those people devoted to Zen and yoga, the krishnas and all of them, do attain an altered state of consciousness, that they are in a different place, and in a sense a nicer place. But this is not an enlightened world. And the world always draws you back. [emphasis his]
To put it in a different way, it's easy to be a holy man on top of a mountain.
This brings me back to the old conversations we used to have on retreats and missions trips about "mountaintop experiences" and trying to bring those moments back to school and work and reality.
Somewhere in there, too, is Martin Buber and the I and Thou, the removal of the space between you and me for those transient, transcendent moments.
For a moment, though, we can unfocus, because in looking at we're really looking for. Sometimes it's best to just perceive.
And in that moment I realized what I want to say about group dynamics. Hopefully I'll be able to articulate it in a way that makes even a tiny modicum of sense.
I actually feel the need to strongly disagree with Charlie Pierce on something. Everybody write that down.
Apparently he's on the ground in Chicago, talkin' 'bout the strike. He's also registered his bias in favor of organized labor overall and the CTU in specific. It is here that I have a problem. Well, specifically, it's in this piece, wherein he makes a gigantic strawman argument and also does a fine job of poisoning the well when discussing taxpayer reaction to the strike.
As an iconic collective political entity, they fall over and over again for privatization scams and then howl when the streetlights go out or the garbage gets picked up, or some executive in a for-profit prison winds up bribing a judge to send him more inmates. Or, conversely, they want high-quality public education that doesn't cost what they perceive to be too much, as well as the right to vilify the people who provide it, whatever their salaries may be. This is the collective statement of the principle expressed often by people stopped for DUI who lecture the cop on "who it is that pays your salary." It is that attitude writ large.
That may be true, but it's really not a good idea when discussing labor strikes to confuse the average Chicago taxpayer with Cornelius Vanderbilt. Ultimately, the teachers' salaries will come out of the taxpayers' pockets. It will come in the form of raised property taxes, raised rents, and, potentially, lowered property values if enough people decide that they don't want to live in the city limits.
For some people that means less food on the table. It's an obvious, objective measure.
And this isn't some abstraction, either. The city of Chicago selling its parking meters to a private firm was supposed to be a cost-saving and income-growing method that -- as of the last time I looked -- failed on both counts. That's the sort of case where the city and/or its taxpayers might have been snookered or fallen flat-assed on the ground. Here it's a pretty straightforward case of highly paid public workers wanting more money and more concessions. What they want might be objectively valid. But what they want will also be objectively expensive.
This is where the dichotomy of the story of labor in America gets in the way. Pro-labor folks want to talk about unions as if they're still fighting for the 40 hour work week in Packingtown. Anti-labor folks want to talk about Jimmy Hoffa and corruption and entitled asshole workers.
There is a middle ground in all that, though, and to ignore it is to create convenient narratives that solve nothing. The union is, after all, neither wholly good nor wholly corrupt. It can be one or the other, but it's usually some combination of the two, in the manner of all things human.
The biggest problem with the union as an object, however, is that it eventually hits a point where its initial purpose isn't needed any longer. Conditions improve, salaries go up, the plant owner is no longer allowed to wear his workers as shoes and walk around proclaiming he's the king of all the multiverse. At that point the union purpose becomes self-perpetuation. It is in this step where a union potentially becomes a villain, because it creates work rules designed to keep everyone employed and make sure they get paid well and promoted.
Two big grievances keep coming up from the union side that just make me laugh: teacher evaluations and administrator control of which laid-off teachers get to move to other schools if a school closes. The big complaints are that teachers might lose their jobs, to which I say, "Yeah, so?" They argue that it's impossible to quantify what value a teacher adds, but their solution to that seems to be to argue that teachers shouldn't have accountability whatsoever. They also seem to think that they should have more say over what teachers work in a school than the principal. I don't actually know this for a fact, but I'd be willing to bet that teacher rehires will be on something closer to the UAW's last in, first out policy than anything that's actually merit-based.
Unions, ultimately, are just a big bureaucracy. The people in charge can decide they have their own agenda and I have little doubt that CTU President Karen Lewis has her own goals in mind. She's up against Rahm Emanuel, who I have never said anything nice about. So, basically, as I said yesterday, there are a lot of villains. Since the city (which is in a massive budget hole and has already taxed the shit out of its residents, may I remind you) had already made some pretty hefty concessions before the whole thing started it also looks like a basically unnecessary strike that will ultimately do a bit more harm to the image of public-sector unions in the United States.
To imagine that the taxpayers are potentially a whiny bunch of entitled brats who just want their cake and to eat it too is foolhardy. Not everyone complaining about the cost is a grandstanding pol or a greedy worker who might have to give up one latte a month to make up the difference. Some of them are the baristas making those lattes or the guy in the hotdog suit handing out coupons on the corner. For them an increase in taxes only makes life that much harder. And Chicago has already increased taxes quite a bit.