More on the Right Social Conditions in a Small Town

I posted yesterday that Gentrification Requires the Right Social Conditions, contending in part that a small city like Whitewater remains divided (and by consequence limits its own attractiveness to newcomers) because it remains divided by town and gown (and divided within the town, itself, too).

Whitewater’s problem is not that different factions do not have a sense of their own interests, it’s that these factions do not see others’ interests adequately, and so both make accommodations less likely and (worse) even misperceive full measure of the very community in which they live.

It’s much easier to be a representative of a particular group (e.g., students, middle-aged non-student residents, elderly residents). (Obvious point, still worth making: I don’t claim to represent anyone else; I’m an emissary of one, so to speak.)

A few people saying they’ve solved problems of division doesn’t mean those divisions have been solved; it means a few people think (let’s assume sincerely so) that they have been, and hope to convince many others that their assurances are an adequate substitute for community harmony.

I’m increasingly convinced that the best efforts at community harmony and progress will not come from local government, or large local institutions, but from private charitable, small business, and cultural projects. Each of these has a chance of inspiring cross-cultural understanding as good or better than any factionalized political representation.

Cross-cultural understanding is a necessary condition of community progress.

Gentrification Requires the Right Social Conditions

I’ve written that Whitewater faces a choice between decisive action now (to lessen government’s role) or years of stagnation and relative decline before eventual gentrification (at which point longtime residents will have almost no say in redevelopment). See, How Big Averts Bad. As I doubt Whitewater’s local political class has the will for near-term changes, the best option during this long period will come from community-based, non-governmental initiatives and businesses. See, An Oasis Strategy.

Yet even an eventual, rejuvenating gentrification requires more than inexpensive, dilapidated properties to rehabilitate. Emily Badger makes this clear in How to Predict Gentrification: Look for Falling Crime: some minimal social conditions have to exist before risk takers are willing to commit to a community.

She writes (admittedly about cities, not towns) that

“But a huge piece of it,” she [Ingrid Gould Ellen, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University] said, “I think is crime.”

New research that she has conducted alongside Keren Mertens Horn, an economist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, and Davin Reed, a doctoral student at N.Y.U., finds that when violent crime falls sharply, wealthier and educated people are more likely to move into lower-income and predominantly minority urban neighborhoods.

Their working paper suggests that just as rising crime can drive people out of cities, falling crime has a comparable effect, spurring gentrification. And it highlights how, even if many Americans — including, by his own words, President-elect Donald Trump — inaccurately believe urban violence is soaring, the opposite long-term trend has brought wide-ranging change to cities.

Needless to say, small-town Whitewater’s problem is not urban crime (we’re not an urban area). There is, however, a level of division in the city along lines of cultural identity that is discernible to anyone observing the town with clear eyes, and that cannot be papered over with false contentions of town-gown harmony. The last thirty years have seen an increase in the size of our local campus, but city is still widely divided, and attempts at cultural harmony have gone nowhere as far as one might hope.

Lack of town-gown harmony is Whitewater’s analog to urban crime: it’s a cultural reason some people will (sadly) avoid the city.

Fixing this division will not come from public spending, nor public enforcement efforts, nor public relations. It will come, if it does, from private cultural, charitable, and business efforts.

An Oasis Strategy

There’s a wide difference between believing that we’ve difficult national or local times ahead and losing confidence. I’m as confident today as ever that Whitewater has a bright long-term future. There’s simply hard work ahead between now and then, and more hard work now than we might have hoped (national trends being what they are).

What to do? A few simple suggestions, all around the view that Whitewater can pursue an oasis strategy in which she departs from the routine and emphasizes creatively, with liveliness, the genuinely unique, apolitical accomplishments in the wider area.

Unlike a mirage, an oasis is a real place of real respite. An oasis is noticeable and desirable among its wider surroundings; it’s noticeable and desirable for what it genuinely offers. The mirage presents illusory beauty at a distance but offers nothing up close; an oasis is beautiful at a distance but even more desirable upon arrival.

1. Look away from local government. Common Council isn’t the Roman Senate (and then, the Roman Senate wasn’t what one often hears it was; there were very few truly noble Romans, to be clear about it). Forget the notion that local government sits at the peak of the city.  There is no peak; there are thousands of equally valuable spots.

2. Recognize the masking effect of commonplace background noise. Outside Whitewater are Fort Atkinson, Palmyra, Milton, Jefferson, etc. Saying the same things that other towns say in their schools, and at their local council meetings, only gets lost amid the background noise of daily life. Trying to leverage often momentary gains in particular metrics won’t catch anyone’s notice; leveraging selective parts of reports either goes similarly unnoticed, or – far worse – only alienates people already disillusioned with cherrypicking.

Behind tiresome, mundane presentations of school report cards, for example, are stories of genuine, specific accomplishment – what a student wrote, built, said, or discovered. That’s impressive, and compelling. Tell those stores with lively, graceful prose and add video to one’s accounts – short videos will add life to these stories.

3. Emphasize the uniquely creative and charming. We’ve nice restaurants, a charming City Market, an annual race to Discover Whitewater, a Community Foundation, and countless charitable work in the city. More good work is done there than in any conventional political meeting.

The City Market, for example, is charming, but that charm has no particular politics: a style, and a fine selection, are without partisanship.  There’s a playful style to the market, but the sensibility that produced that style transcends politics.  It’s not enjoyable for one group or demographic – it’s accessible equally to all.  When one thinks about something like Discover Whitewater, one wouldn’t think about the politics of the runners – they’re here to have a good time, and the city is here to welcome them.

4.  Whitewater’s not one community, nor need it ever be.  This city’s not of one culture or one identity; we’re not a homogeneous place. We’re a diverse and multicultural community. Revanchism on behalf of some won’t make the city great for any. On the contrary, that path will prolong present difficulties, and delay significantly (although not prevent) this city’s more prosperous future.

In even the most difficult times, of economic and political trouble, Americans have still produced great works, committed to charitable undertakings, and carried on admirably (all the while addressing national issues separately).  This city can do the same, as well as others before us did in their challenging times.

On Lake, McHenry, and Walworth Counties

In August, I wrote that dorm-construction wasn’t the big story at UW-Whitewater, but rather it was the federal lawsuit against former Chancellor Telfer and [then-current] Athletic Director Amy Edmonds.   Even in her mundane story of residence-construction, the Journal Sentinel‘s Karen Herzog got it wrong: the bigger story was an increasing number of out-of-state students (now about 1-6 of all students), including many from Lake and McHenry Counties in Illinois.

Why does that matter?  Because many of those students are coming from out-of-state counties more affluent than Walworth County.  They and their families are likely to have different expectations.

The figures on median household income and poverty are striking.

For median household income (in 2015 dollars), 2011-2015: Walworth County $53,445, United States $53,889, McHenry County $77,222, and Lake County $78,026.  For persons in poverty, percent:  McHenry County 6.9%, and Lake County 9.5%, United States 13.5%, Walworth County 13.7%.

The superficial answer (one that Whitewater has tried for a generation) would be to use public money to build more, in the (false) hope that the town will look better, and so be more attractive to outsiders.  (That’s been mostly the search for young families, but some of the same standards apply to young, non-married residents.)

That’s not, however, the solution if one wants to keep attracting this kind of student, or successful families. (One knows public-funding of construction isn’t the solution; if it were, Whitewater would already be Brentwood.)  The expectations and gap from them are cultural, and only a change in campus & community relations – especially in the attitude of those in authority – will assure Whitewater is a desirable destination for those accustomed to a different level of care and opportunity.

How Big Averts Bad

If it should be true that small-town Whitewater faces a choice between difficult times now or an extended decline before an out-of-town-led gentrification, that her decline will otherwise be slow but no less signficant as a result, that stakeholder (special interest) politics grips the city, and that this stakeholder politics is really an identity politics that offers no uplift, then what is to be done?

(On identity politics – it’s comfortable for a few, but only in the way that it’s comfortable for a pig to sit in the mud: the animal’s momentary ease won’t forestall a trip to the butcher shop.)

There’s the possibility of restructuring committees and city functions to assure a streamlined – and unified – direction, but the effort presents some legitimate policy questions, and more relevantly would require additional work from some who just don’t want to expend that effort. (Although I share policy doubts about the idea, if I can guess the motivation correctly – and it’s just a guess – I would say that the idea seems born of a desire to motivate the city in a positive direction. One can be opposed to an idea yet sympathetic to a perceived, underlying goal.)

Unfortunately, an alternative to streamlining is even more difficult – far more difficult – to do: the city could undertake a comprehensive review of its entire political culture, setting aside much of the last generation’s approach, in citywide meetings and supporting referendums. (Think of something like a broad-based convention and the resolutions that might come from it.)

Because this approach would require setting aside most of what has been tried ineffectually, and stubborn pride abhors a new course, the likely acceptance of this approach is about the same as convincing wolves to eat broccoli. (They might be persuaded to try some, but they’d be more likely to eat a person’s hand or arm during the effort.)

The scene: Whitewater’s local government advanced a resolution on Citizens United, but the community lacks the unity to advance a series of broad resolutions or votes on reducing local government’s size and thirst for revenue, ending government-goosed business deals, paring back even further zoning restrictions that are still too burdensome, a genuine community relations to replace adversarial enforcement, ending the transparently deceptive practice of publishing cherry-picked data and dodgy studies (a problem for the city, school district, and local campus), rather than honestly presenting the city to all the state not as a paradise but as a work-in-progress that could use every last talented newcomer we could find.

This would be a big project, but the city’s in a spot where, to avoid an extended period of relative decline, Whitewater needs big to avert bad.  The long-term future of this city will yet prove bright, but why delay for many years that better day, for the sake of a few officials’ selfish pride?

Philosophy or Identity?

Imagine a choice between living in a universally free society where one was of the racial or ethnic minority, or living as a member of the racial or ethnic majority in a universally oppressive society. Which society should one choose?

A man or woman, committed first to liberty, would choose to live in a free society, regardless of race or ethnicity. A man or woman, committed first to majoritarian identity, would choose to live in an oppressive society, for the sake of identification with the racial or ethnic majority.

It should be clear – but perhaps it’s not commonly so – that a policy of blut und boden does not bring prosperity.

A recent study finds that telling voters for whom membership in an ethnic or racial majority is important that their numbers were in decline pushed them to support an authoritarian, anti-immigrant candidate. (As is turns out, party identification didn’t change this: “Reminders of the changing racial demographics had comparable effects for Democrats and Republicans.”)

As a local equivalent of this effect, in a place like Whitewater, I’d guess that reminding some non-student residents that college students are a majority of this small town’s population rankles them similarly. Some of these non-student residents are willing to suggest that those who are different might think about moving away, or hiding away on campus, but that won’t be happening. (If an identity politics matters so much, those who are disappointed with their declining numbers may decamp at their earliest convenience.)

For the rest of us, who would choose philosophy over an identity politics, who would choose liberty over race or ethnicity, there will be neither going nor yielding, in America, Wisconsin, or Whitewater.

Anecdotes About Politics in a Small Town

I posted last week about how it’s mistaken to think that most leaders in a small town are direct, forthright (see Plain-Spoken in a Small Town? Not Most Leaders).

Here are two stories about how politics sometimes works in a small town.

At a candidates’ forum last year, I had the pleasure of seeing a few residents speaking about their candidacies for a local office. One of the questions for each candidate was what he or she thought of Act 10. (For new readers visiting from out-of state, first a welcome, and second an explanation that Act 10 is the provision of Wisconsin law by which, among other provisions, Wisconsin restricts the collective bargaining rights of most public workers.)

Act 10 has been controversial, and so there’s really no one in the state who doesn’t have an opinion, one way or the other. Among candidates for office – those who are actually thinking about politics – anyone should have a clear opinion, whether favorable or unfavorable. (I opposed Act 10 as I doubted it would save money, and more fundamentally because I believe that anyone, in any vocation, should be able to organize vigorously against government for any lawful reason. That, by the way, would be the traditional libertarian view. My opposition has been clear.)

As it turns out, the oldest of the three candidates, having been in local politics for decades, couldn’t give a straight answer. Instead, he ventured that he once supported Act 10, before the felt that perhaps it might have gone a bit too far, before his voice trailed off and he had nothing more to say on the matter.

All those decades in office, so eager to be a town notable, and on one of the biggest political topics of state politics – affecting every community in Wisconsin – nothing but an ambiguous, let’s-not-make-waves answer.

That’s a scene from small-town politics.

(An aside: After the forum, this same candidate saw me in the audience, noticed that I had a notebook, and walked over to speak to me. He didn’t bother to introduce himself, but he did point to the notebook and ask, “where are you from?” One could guess his meaning, but I decided to give an unexpected answer, so I told him the name of the street on which I live, to see how he would react. He showed no sign that I was teasing him, not the slightest sense of humor or irony, and instead replied, “No, I mean what paper are you from?”

I smiled, and told him that I wasn’t from a newspaper, but was merely taking notes. He politely reassured me that it was okay to take notes during a public candidates forum. For a moment I thought that I would thank him for his gracious reassurance, but I decided against it, as he might have taken that, too, as a literal reply.)

Here’s my second anecdote, from public ceremony, a few years ago. While introducing a guest speaker, a local politician stopped to ask how long that speaker had lived in the community, and the speaker replied that he had been in Whitewater for (if I recall) about thirty years or so.  On hearing this, the politician approvingly replied that he guessed the townies (a term I don’t use) must have thought that after so much time he was one of their own.

Now I’ve lived in Whitewater for many years, have been an American all my life, from a family that was American before there was an America (so to speak), but it would never have occur to me to think what others thought on the matter should ever matter to me.

To think otherwise is to be mired in an identity politics.  Identity politics is strong in a place like Whitewater, but such strength as that only leads to a weak economy of empty streets, empty stores, low-wage jobs, and deteriorating buildings.

If someone came here a lifetime, a year, or a day ago, my first thought would be the same: what does one believe, and how will one carry on in advancement of those beliefs?  What does one think, and what will one do?

The proper question isn’t where or when, but what.   Where should be about what, about those principles that uplift and improve.

The gap between successful and unsuccessful towns is measured in the distance between where and what, each additional inch of separation being a community loss.

Plain-Spoken in a Small Town? Not Most Leaders

localThere’s a quaint – but false – notion that people in small towns are uncommonly plain-spoken, even blunt.  One sometimes sees examples of this in films or books, where residents are depicted as folksy straight-talkers (“shucks, I don’t cotton to no one abusing nobody,” etc.).  I’ve never heard anyone in Whitewater speak so colorfully, and I’ve doubts that anyone not on a Hollywood set actually speaks like this.

Most people – and certainly most leaders – in this small town don’t often speak bluntly and openly.  On the contrary, there’s bias against mentioning problems publicly, even if they stem from intentional, grievous misconduct.

Now, and in the years ahead, one can expect that a multi-ethic community such as this one will see heightened slurs and abuse, overuse of force against a few, and (much) official quiescence in the face of it. (Some will even encourage this, convinced that pressure is justified against others and feeling that it is cathartic for themselves.)

Early on, perhaps a few officials will try to stress the positive, hiding others’ wrongful conduct from view, on the theory that the worst of all this will go away.

It won’t.  Those who keep their heads down may later find that they’ve no longer the strength to lift them up again.  A difficult near-term for Whitewater is likely to get worse.  These actions will prove wrong in-and-of themselves, and secondarily will prove an effective retardant against discerning, prosperous newcomers. Such newcomers – much sought by local development officials – will go elsewhere.

No matter, sadly: most locally will carry on as they have been.

For communities choosing the quieter response, including this one, the die is cast.

Twenty-Five Years On: School Board & City

Alternative title: Culture Advances While Beyond Politics Far Lags Behind.

Over at the Banner, there’s a new feature entitled, “A mini-look at local history – a new Banner Monday project!”  The 10.10.16 entry is about two public actions from twenty-five years ago.

I’m all for history (local or otherwise), but the entry is telling coming from a publisher who’s been in office, on either the School Board or Common Council, for most of the last quarter-century.  In fact, the entry shows how ineffectual Whitewater’s local political class has been for the last generation.  We’ve had significant cultural and demographic change, but government hasn’t kept up.

One reads that on October 10, 1991

[t]he Whitewater School Board is seeking volunteers from the community to serve on a task force charged by the board “to design and implement a student and staff training program to heighten awareness of, and skills responding to, racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in Whitewater.”

Board members are particularly interested in having strong minority representation on the task force….

These were (and are) good & fair goals, but even a generation later, Whitewater’s political class is still having trouble finding, for example, Hispanic members of the community to take part on municipal political boards.

So much so, that in 2015, twenty-four years later, Whitewater’s City Manager Clapper requested and the city’s common council “authorized forming a community taskforce to investigate possible ways for the city’s Hispanic population to become more active in civic and governmental activities and municipal committees.”  See, Whitewater to seek Hispanic involvement, August 19, 2015.

Whitewater’s Hispanic community has grown considerably during this last generation, as have other groups such as students (of diverse ethnicity), but her political institutions have not kept pace.  Whitewater’s private life during these many years – the demographics and culture of our city – have grown in ways in which a small, insular political class has failed adapt.  (Among that small class, there are some who have even been all-too-evident revanchists.)

The responsibility of successfully encouraging residents to participate rests with the leadership class that governs – especially those who have been in government for decades – in this city. There are some leaders who commendably see this, but too many who’ve not kept pace.

Whitewater is overdue for a politics that matches her community.

Origins of the ‘Comic Book Font’

Comic book culture is mass culture — even lacrosse moms and field hockey dads who’ve never been in a comic book store can recognize the “comic book font.”

But calling it a font is a misnomer — as the above video shows, this distinctive style of handwriting is an aesthetic shaped by culture, technology, and really cheap paper.

That style is just as interesting in a digital era. I spoke to the founders of Comicraft, a digital font firm that replicates the handwritten style for many major comics. It turns out that the switch from pen to pixels is an evolution — not a rejection — of a long history of lettering in comics.

If you want to learn more about comic lettering, you can explore the blog of legendary letteretime you see a comic, taker Todd Klein. Or, at the very least, next the time to mind those meticulously constructed Ps and Qs.

Via Phil Edwards of Vox.

Dorm-Construction Isn’t the Big Story

Karen Herzog of the Journal Sentinel has a story about delayed dorm construction at UW-Whitewater. At least, that’s how she’s framed the story, how many will understand the story, and how both UW-Whitewater and Herzog would, no doubt, like readers to understand the story.

Here’s what’s more significant even than the need for additional sleeping space:

This year’s freshman class is expected to be near record in size, boosted by students from nearby Illinois who have been successfully courted in part because the nonresident cost of attending UW-Whitewater is about what those students would pay to attend college in their own state.

UW-Whitewater is about 25 miles from the Illinois border as the crow flies.

Since 2009, the school has doubled admissions applications and enrollment of Illinois students. Illinois residents made up 9% of the freshman class in 2009; now they are about 16% of the freshman class, with the largest number coming from McHenry and Lake counties.

See, UW-Whitewater dorm limbo could crimp recruitment @ Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

I don’t think a large out-of-state group is intrinsically good or bad – it is, however, significant.

The composition of the class matters, and if sustained will influence the development of both the university and the city.

Culture Without Grandiosity Works Best 

Whitewater’s best accomplishments are mostly social ones, and they are most effective when they’re held simply, without grandiose local claims.  

The Independence Holiday events, City Market, Farmer’s Market, Discover Whitewater Series, semi-annual Science Fair, Make a Difference Day, art fairs, and Christmas parade, among other events, are much to Whitewater’s credit in-and-of-themselves. 

They showcase the city and university, but they do so simply, offering enjoyment or enrichment without flowery claims. 

They’re cultural events (sometimes with political or religious meaning) and they all succeed apart from local politics or grandiose local claims.

That’s the model for success: that less is more. 

Culture, Economy, Fiscal

The approximate number of working age adults, from 25-64, in the City of Whitewater proper is 4,134.

This working age population is nestled among a total, estimated population of 14,801.

See, American Community Survey, 2010-2014, 5 year estimates

One can draw three broad but reasonable conclusions from these numbers.

Culturally, local publications present a skewed view of the city, in which one would think Whitewater is older, and more middle class, than her whole population truly is.

Residents eager to advance this impression will typically include nearby (but non-city) residents in local accounts, to fortify the impression of the city as one with a predominant, working-age middle class.

Economically, however, it’s clear that the cultural presumption of a unified community on either side of the city’s borders is false.

If there were genuine commonality between the city proper and neighboring towns, we would have a larger and more robust local economy. Instead, many of our neighbors shop and seek entertainment outside the city, and have done so for years.

So much time has been spent pushing the idea of One City, One View, One Future, so to speak, that when transactions go wrong cocooned local residents are surprised: How did this happen? Are we not huge and robust? Who knew?

We’re beautiful and precious, but we’re neither huge nor robust.

A word of support and distinction, here, meant genuinely: I’ve often been critical of much of the Community Development Authority’s work, but one can see (and hear if one listens) that some of those gentlemen have understood the challenges Whitewater faces. Their solutions are not mine, to be sure, but I’ve no doubt that some of them (including Messrs. Knight and Kachel) can and do assess accurately the difficulties Whitewater faces. Neither their intellect nor perseverance is in doubt.

It’s an ancient truism to say that men and women make history, but not in conditions of their own choosing. Community development in Whitewater – broadly understood – has been dealt a difficult hand.

By contrast, the presentation of policy (as apart from community announcements) that one reads in the Daily Union or Banner evinces scarcely even a sketchy grasp of actual, challenging conditions. It’s all deceptively comforting, but that sort of comfort is ephemeral. 

To paraphrase a line from The Usual Suspects, the greatest trick Whitewater’s Old Guard ever pulled was convincing people that local problems don’t exist.  

Time takes her toll, far more effectively than any written reply. She’s not rhetorical, but she is instead quietly, coldly unforgiving.

This leads to Whitewater’s municipal fiscal condition. The working-age base on which the city rests isn’t especially large, and the risk of significant, infrastructure capital spending is that it will produce too little in return. The risk of revenue schemes is that they will either cost too much, produce too little even if we had the initial resources, or degrade local conditions for the state of local government’s appetite for revenue. 

Shared revenue is a weak substitute for local production.

There’s a way in which excessive local spending will do to Whitewater what it has done to other, far larger places: hollow out the city and drive more people to nearby towns.

I’m sure nearby towns are nice places to live, but I would not find any of them half so desirable as living in the city. I’d not trade residency in the city for elsewhere. 

I hope we attract many more residents. Effective attraction requires more than a publisher’s optimism.

Fiscal policies that overburden residents, or revenue schemes like waste-importation that degrade conditions so that prospective residents choose other places to live will always be the wrong policies.

Four thousand one hundred and thirty-four is not a big number, but that’s what makes it a big indicator. 

Ad Hoc Policy is Debilitating 

A municipal policy of addressing problems as they crop up, principally on an ad hoc, piecemeal basis, will wear local government down, and only produce worse policies. (Ad hoc policy, that is, literally a for this [purpose] policy.)

One should begin each discussion and problem from the vantage of a fundamental philosophy of government, adjusting that vantage only occasionally after careful consideration  (as the initial, fundamental philosophy should have, itself, been the product of careful consideration). 

In good times, ad hoc policy has limitations, in hard times it’s just jumping from one problem to another, with no overarching view to guide (and steady) one’s thinking and feeling.

If policymakers all had a clear, foundational philosophy, they’d approach a series of problems with greater confidence, with an admirable sang froid. (Some few are like this, but not enough of them.)

An example of a foundational philosophy: Individual Liberty, Free Markets, and Peace.

Instead, it’s racing from one fire drill to another (e.g., revenue, Spring Splash, a grocery, etc.).

Look at the Banner or Daily Union, and on political & policy issues all you see is an ad hoc discussion of topics, with little connection between discussions (except, perhaps, a servile approach to favored authorities).  

Policymakers can live that way, if they’d like, but they’ll tire themselves doing so, and produce worse policies as a result.

It’s a downward spiral.

We’ve several challenges ahead, and one can see the toll past & present challenges have taken, particularly on full-time staff leaders.  

They’ll likely not change, to be sure.  In not changing, however, they’ll only diminish their own prospects for success in this community.  Whatever happens, they’ll not be able to say they weren’t encouraged to adopt a better way.

We’ve already passed the point at which simply insisting on political acquiescence produces support. (Old Whitewater – a state of mind rather than a person or chronological age – very much expects, but has never deserved, this kind of falling in line.) There’s still a small group that thinks this way, but they’ve lost the present, and will fare only worse in the future.

Much of the search of full-time officials for the support of a ‘silent majority’ (the use of the term is problematic and oddly ironic) is evidence of how little support the full-time administration really has.  

Broader reach comes from a broader, articulated, clear political or policy philosophy. 

Piecemeal isn’t enough to weather consecutive challenges successfully. 

Words of Advice from One of Britain’s Finest Philosophers

Someone mentioned to me today that she would like to play Pokémon Go, but that she was worried that she’d seem silly to others. I replied that as long as she enjoyed the game, and walked about safely, others’ views of silliness shouldn’t matter.  

She needn’t have accepted my word for it, however.  Noted British philosopher Adam Ant has already dispositively addressed questions of fashion in Goody Two Shoes (from his magnum opus, Friend or Foe, Columbia Records, 1982):

We don’t follow fashion
That’d be a joke
You know we’re going to set them, set them
So everyone can take note, take note

There will always be those who say it should be this style, but never that style; it should be this way, but never that way.

One should set one’s own fashion, and follow one’s harmless enjoyments. 

It shouldn’t be hard, let alone discouraged, to exhibit a range, from lighter to darker, from the playful to the serious, depending on the occasion.

Gotta catch ’em all.

The Art Market (in Four Parts): Patrons

The Art Market (in Four Parts): Patrons from Artsy on Vimeo.

What motivates patrons to fund artists’ wildest dreams? How has the concept of art patronage changed over time? And what’s behind the dramatic rise of private art museums? In the third installment of “The Art Market (in Four Parts),” we explore how and why patrons support artists and their careers, from the Medici family’s backing of Michelangelo’s work during the Renaissance to today’s most influential collectors, museum donors, and behind-the-scenes benefactors. Patrons and art-world influencers like Eli Broad, Maja Hoffmann, Josh Baer, and Sarah Thornton provide their insights.

Patrons is the third installment of a four-part documentary series, preceded by Auctions and Galleries and followed by Art Fairs, released weekly through mid-June. Together, the four segments tell a comprehensive story about the art market’s history and cultural influence. Visit to watch all the films.

This series is directed by Oscar Boyson and produced in collaboration with UBS.

See also, previously, The Art Market (in Four Parts): Auctions and The Art Market (in Four Parts): Galleries.

Do you remember when Gen. MacArthur called for dedication to ‘Duty, Honor, Country, and Local Government’?

Do you remember when Gen. MacArthur called for dedication to ‘Duty, Honor, Country, and Local Government’?

Neither do I.

He called, of course, for dedication to Duty, Honor, Country.

It wouldn’t have occured to him to exhort a commitment to municipal government. America speaks – when she speaks most movingly – in the language of broad, often universal concepts.

Therein lies the insurmountable problem of local government’s recent call to reach a supposed ‘silent majority’ (to “benefit the silent majority instead of the vocal few.”): (1) Whitewater doesn’t have a stable, silent majority, (2) the kind of majorities that might form would not look like most people in government (proving disappointing to those who wrongly seek demographic homogeneity), and (3) majorities that form will do so around big issues, and won’t involve blanket support for local government.

See, along these lines, The Search for a Majority in Whitewater and The Search for a Majority in Whitewater (Identity Politics Won’t Get You There).

This recent call is telling, however, as an honest admission that local government does not have such a majority, and that even now (after decades of insistence that Whitewater was something like One City, One Culture, One View) local government and its cultural champions still seek the means even to discern a true majority.

(I’ve said before that it would be a bad bargain to trade an independent position for an alignment with most local insiders and their media boosters. Honest to goodness, this becomes more true each day.  Far from helping each other, the poor work of a few is simply pulling the others down.)

Majorities will form around deep convictions, but tens of millions for waste treatment upgrades, waste importation, or pricey street projects instead of simple repairs just won’t inspire (let alone uplift) this community. 

There’s the important point, however, to be made: the search for a majority will prove in vain if one does not present a worthy view, well and compellingly reasoned.

If one has such a view, then no number in initial opposition will prove insurmountable; if one lacks such a view, then no number in initial support will prove retainable.

The Colors of a Rubik’s Cube


Imagine that one sees a Rubik’s Cube for the first time, on a table nearby.  Three sides of that six-sided object are visible, displaying small squares of red, blue, and white.

Consider this initial puzzle: What colors are the other three sides?  How would one determine, with confidence, the colors on those sides obscured from view?

There’s more than one possibility. 

One could simply deny that there are three other sides: acknowledging what one sees, while simultaneously denying the existence of the unseen.

One could, instead, acknowledge that there are other sides, but that those sides must be the same as the ones on the three visible sides: if one sees red, blue, and white, then that’s all there is (or could be) on the cube.

A third option would be to form a committee, charged with developing an algorithm, by which one could predict what colors the other sides might be, based on what one sees now on the visible sides. The committee would meet dozens of times, to develop a scheme by which cube colors might be predicted. 

A fourth option would be to scour bookstores and toy shops for manuals on Rubik’s Cubes, to see if those publications described the colors of the puzzle.

Alternatively, one might reach out one’s hand, pick up the cube from the table, and rotate it to examine each of its sides.  Doing so would reveal that, for a regular Rubik’s Cube, the six sides showed six colors, one color per side: red, blue, white, green, orange, and yellow. 

The policymakers of Old Whitewater (a state of mind, rather than a person or chronological age) will typically settle on one of the first three merhods: deny it’s a cube, assume that the colors on the unseen sides must be the same as the visible sides, or form a committee to study what the unseen sides’ colors might be.

A few relatively adventuresome people from among this clique would perhaps  go off looking for a manual.

A few others would want to manipulate the cube to learn about its unseen sides, to be sure, but they would be rebuked by a greater number of policymakers, lest the few impermissibly deviate from conventional, collective thinking. 

The overwhelming majority of the city’s residents, however, would likely turn the cube over and around to see all its sides.

Two States of Mind in Whitewater

There’s an easy way to see two different states of mind in Whitewater. 

Draft a list of eleven people for an athletic honor.  Make nine of the honorees athletes or coaches, and two of them an administrator and his spouse. 

Now, watch and see which people receive the most prominent attention. 
Some will pick one of the athletes or coaches, on the theory that it’s an athletic award.

By contrast, some will pick the administrator and his spouse, on the theory that a well-placed bureaucrat will always matter more than those who actually competed.

(In any event, whatever this second option may be, as an exercise in political rehabilitation it’s an impossibility.)

There we have the choices and states of mind in present-day Whitewater, although I’d doubt that some would even guess that choosing was possible.

The City Never Sleeps

In the broadest, figurative sense, Whitewater never sleeps.  Like any other place, she’s constantly changing, either to her benefit or detriment, but changing nonetheless.  (It’s only the parochial myth that she’s already achieved a level of perfection that obscures the obvious truth of constant flux.)

Glance away, for one day or forty, and when one looks back there’s something new.  That is, all in all, a good thing: stagnation would be a worse condition. Change offers hope for better.

So much lies ahead: a school district’s search for an administrator, its funding of construction and operational expenses, a university’s budget and her cultural relations on and off campus, and a municipal government where the budgetary is too easily  (and unwisely) conflated with the community’s economy, as though they were the same things.

All these topics, of course, are few and slight compared with the full measure of conditions within the city; what passes for principal concerns is only a fraction of what truly matters.

Nonetheless, even these few topics offer much to consider.  They are an invitation to do one’s best, impartially, approaching them with the perspective of distance, detachment, and diligence they deserve.

There’s much ahead, waiting to be done.