Thursday, October 28, 2010

Think, Choose, Vote

Comparing this week’s two guests, Mahoning County Republican Party chair Mark Munroe, to last week’s, his Democratic counterpart David Betras, may not be completely fair.  You might focus on the contrast between Betras’s passion and Munroe’s calm reserve, but that might well reflect the differences between their professions.  Lawyers do well by speaking righteously and passionately on behalf of their clients, while media producers have to speak more moderately. 

They agree on a few things, like the need to end corruption in local politics, though it’s not surprising that they offer very different solutions for that scourge of Mahoning Valley public life.  And both do the job of a party leader:  endorsing their candidates and positions, predicting success for their parties, and promising a better future for the nation.

The more important differences come out in how the parties they represent approach the problems facing our country and our community.  Democrats believe that society, in the form of government, has a responsibility to look after those who have the least power and resources.  While they recognize that the theory doesn’t always translate into practice, they believe that government can provide services more effectively than private organizations because it’s less driven by profit.  They don’t trust business or the wealthy to operate in the best interests of the society at large, and they view the recent economic crisis as evidence of how business is more likely to pursue their own profits than the good of communities or the country.  They value the idea of America as a whole rather than America as a bunch of separate interests.  Republicans take the opposite view: they believe that the free market will do a better job of generating good for all, because they think that people behave best when they act out of self-interest.  They see government as inept and inherently corrupt, and therefore not to be trusted to pursue the common good.  They place their trust in business, the wealthy, and local government.  And they view America as a loose collection of localities rather than as a unified society. 

As Betras suggests, as voters we need to make our choices based on these underlying values and ideas, not on personalities, not on old habits, not even on frustration with the current economy.  Munroe would probably agree on that.

History Face to Face

I was a fan of Jeff Steinberg’s long before I met him.  I appreciate the interactive, experiential way he approaches working with high school students.  His program, Sojourn to the Past, makes clear that we need to understand history just because things that happened in the past are important but also because we can take lessons from them as we try to make good decisions about how to respond to the contemporary world.  As he explains in this week’s interview, Sojourn is transformative, in part because it facilitates conversations between young people and those who lived through and helped shape an important part of our history. 

The best measure of Steinberg’s work might not lie in what he says about the program, but in what students say.  You can read testimonials on the website, but I also had the change a few weeks ago to hear from students who had been on the journey in previous years.  Their sense of commitment and confidence was impressive, and – as Jeff notes in our conversation – they’ve done some impressive things here in the local community

The amazing Penny Wells is organizing another group of students from Youngstown City Schools to participate this April.  If you know someone who wants to attend, she can tell you more about it.  And if you want to help make this journey possible for a local student, Penny is also raising funds.  It’s a cause worth supporting – engaging education that makes a difference for students, their peers, and our community.  You can contact Penny by e-mail or phone, 330-207-4467. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

We're doomed. Now what?

Talking with Chris Hedges can be at once inspiring and very, very depressing.  In his latest book, and one he has coming out later this year, he’s analyzed the underlying problems with contemporary American culture and identified the manifestations of those problems in everyday life and, even more important, in public life.  In Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, he explains how corporate interests contribute to the decline in our ability and willingness to think critically about our society and our selves.  Television and the internet have taught us to be more interested in shallow, immediate thrills than in thoughtful analysis or complex narratives.  Our educational institutions, which we expect to train citizens to solve problems and make intelligent decisions about voting, policies, and everyday choices, focus more on preparing students for the workplace and handing out credentials than on real learning.  And the equal opportunity, social equality, and democracy that we believe are the foundations of American society are myths with little basis in reality. 

We shouldn’t expect much help in responding to these problems from our political process.  In his forthcoming book, The Death of the Liberal Class, Hedges explains that liberal leaders have essentially been bought off by corporations.  You can get a good taste of that argument in our conversation. 

So you can see why all of this is depressing.  Where’s the inspiration?  That lies in hearing someone intelligently connect much of what we see on the surface, so to speak – bad reality TV and what seems to be a persistently, even insistently inept Democractic party – with structural forces and putting all of that into a historical context.  At its best, journalism can be an accessible form of scholarship, often focused on the present moment – something we academics sometimes have difficulty doing well.  Hedges models that kind of journalism, and while I’ve been having nightmares ever since his visit, I nonetheless appreciate both the quality of his work and the uncomfortable insights he wants us all to recognize.

That said, I wish I felt more inspiration toward a course of action.  Having the veil removed, so to speak, is just a first step.  I hope that in future projects, Hedges might look at examples of effective activism and offer some more practical inspiration.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Design for All

If I were ever to build a new home (which I have to admit isn’t likely), I’d want Patrick Manley to design it. He speaks clearly and eloquently about the importance of listening to clients, and his work with universal and sustainable design gives him a perspective that is at once practical and idealistic.  You can hear all of that as he talks about a demonstration home he designed in Columbus. 

Universal design aims to create structures, tools, and processes that can be used easily by anyone, regardless of their age, physical abilities, or size.  Its core principles focus not only on accessibility but also on ease of use and flexibility – qualities that appeal to any user.  For example, one of the principles is “simple and intuitive use,” and a handout prepared for Manley’s presentation for the Youngstown Foundation last month cited the iPhone as an example – not exactly something widely seen as created for “special needs.”  And that’s exactly the point: recognizing that the design qualities that make spaces and objects accessible often make them work well for everyone, and that in turn destigmatizes difference.  When we think about it that way, universal design is not just good physical design. It’s also good social design.