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Memorial Day Reflections, 2016 Edition

Recently, I was in Indianapolis and had time to walk around downtown.  My attention was immediately drawn to the magnificent veterans’ memorial that dominates the skyline and to what it celebrates – and who celebrated them.

Indy3

These words are written in May 29th; this date is the 563rd anniversary of ‘Black Tuesday,’ when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, ending 1,962 years of continuous existence for the political entity known as Rome.  (While we, following the prejudices of the ‘Enlightenment,’ call them ‘Byzantines,’ they – and their neighbors, friend and foe alike – called them ‘Romans.’)  This comes to mind because the victors of that struggle did not honor the graves of Roman veterans who fell in battle, either against them or in other struggles.

Fast forward to the turn of the century.  James Webb’s novel Lost Soldiers recounts the search for the remains of American Vietnam war dead and how that effort evolved into a decades-old murder mystery. What moved me the most, however, in reading it was the recounting of how the cemeteries of Republic of Vietnam war dead were either unmarked or had been effaced by the victorious regime.

A similar process began occurring in 2015 with regard to Confederate war memorials in the United States.  No one, in polite society, advocates for the Confederacy as a political entity, and only someone well beyond the pale would have anything good to say about the memory of Nathaniel Bedford Forest; yet, it is unarguable that the vast majority of the men who lie beneath Confederate grave markers fought with courage and honor for whatever reasons they served – family, community, a cause that did not deserve their support but received it anyway, or even because they were conscripted.

What all three of these scenarios have in common is that the war dead in question fought for the losing side.  That is not the case with the veterans of America’s wars today, in the sense that we have not lost physical or political control of our homeland to an invader.  Yet, one can sense, as was apparent from how some of our returning veterans were treated during and after the Vietnam War, that being associated with an unpopular war, or one that the public views as a ‘loss,’ means that those who bore the brunt of battle may, and do, find some of that unpopularity attaching to themselves.

The builders of the monument in Indianapolis were doubtless patriotic Americans who believed in their country and the causes – the Union side in the Civil War prominent among them – that Indiana’s sons (and daughters) fought for.  Perhaps they had an overly idealistic notion of their nation and its history.  Perhaps the reverse is true today.  For how long will we continue to see a nation honor its war dead when the Nation itself is relentlessly attacked for every real or imagined sin in its history?  Can we really expect future generations to place bouquets at the markers of those whom they’ve been told fought on the wrong side of history?  Veterans of the army of Constantine XI who fell with him on May 29, 1453 might tell us otherwise, if we could hear their voices from beyond the grave.  The chorus would be swelled by others, too, warning us against the fate of those who do not control the narrative of their lives and the things that they died defending.

One final word.  One way of protecting the memory of our war dead is by making sure that we only commit ourselves to war when absolutely necessary, when the cause is just, the issues clear and the alternatives unacceptable, after a national debate has taken place.  (Obviously, there are exceptions, such as a response to a surprise attack, but the exceptions do not invalidate the rule.)  In an era of ‘presidential wars’ it would be good to get back to insisting that Congress, the branch of our Federal government which alone has the power to declare war, reclaim its duty to do so, as it did after Vietnam with the War Powers Act.

This would be a good first step toward ensuring that veterans, living and dead, of future wars receive the honor that they are due.  Until then, we should remember to separate our feelings about any particular war’s justness from those respecting the ones who serve in them, just as we should remember that focusing solely on our country’s past failings or giving heed to the voices of those who can only tear down and never build up dishonors the service of the warriors who answered the call without regard to personal safety, security – or the politics of those who made the fateful decision to invest their ‘lives, fortunes and sacred honor’ on the field of battle.

Do cities have to be ‘cool’ to heat up their economies?

Cool Cities‘ was the name of a talent and tourism attraction initiative of former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. It was a concept inspired by the work of a professor named Richard Florida, who claimed in The Rise of the Creative Class that the path to prosperity lies in cultivating what he calls ‘the Three T’s‘ – Technology, Talent and Tolerance.

The latter of these three metrics is often conjoined to statistics like ‘the gay index‘ hat purport to show that the hottest local economies – think Silicon Valley and North Carolina’s ‘Research Triangle’ – are also welcoming and inclusive, as measured by the presence of same-sex households.  In other words, places that make outsiders feel more welcome and that embrace all forms of diversity attract talent, and talent creates the technology that powers 21st Century economic growth.  Ergo, if same-sex couples feel welcome, a place must have the kind of atmosphere that also attracts the mobile, urban professional class who will act as the drivers of future prosperity.

Trendy ideas come and go in our society, and this one may end up being yesterday’s news sooner or later.  For the present, however, ‘Creative Class’ thinking is quite popular, and the underlying concepts are accepted and acted upon by many people in positions of power and influence.  Ideas have consequences, and those emanating from ‘Creative Class’ thinking have earned the theory its share of detractors, many of them fellow academics of Professor Florida.

(In fairness to Professor Florida, an author’s ideas and theories can be interpreted in ways never intended by their creator; Florida acknowledged as much in one of his writings when he quoted the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s summation of this phenomenon:  “The Law of Maximum Possible Misunderstanding.”  They are not alone; before his death, Karl Marx, after seeing to what uses his ideas had been put in certain instances, declared that he was not a Marxist.)

The results of some research conducted on Florida’s theory (Hoyman & Faricy, 2009) show that older measures of future growth potential, such as ‘Human Capital’ and ‘Social Capital,’ are as predictive as ‘Creative Class’ metrics, or more so.  This is especially true of ‘Human Capitol’ measures, which focus on the incidence of college degrees in a given population as a predictor of future economic growth.

This may be an example of ‘the ecological fallacy’ – the idea that what works in one instance will work in others, without sufficient regard to differences in place, time, or other factors.  Thus, what works in Silicon Valley may not be the success formula for Rustbelt towns trying to revive their economies (and vice versa).  One can see how this would be the case if we were to imagine a future researcher being impressed with the steady economic growth of Salt Lake City, the low crime rate, et cetera, and were to conclude that we need to look to the outstanding characteristics of Salt Lake City’s population and then design ‘attraction strategies’ to induce people with those characteristics to see to what lengths people can go to when they mistake coincidence with causation, imagine that the elements of success in one locale are of universal value, and so forth.

An alternative to trying to attract a share of the finite population of techno-hipsters that are supposed to be the workhorses of the New Economy might be to groom another source of talent, already in our midst.  In doing this, we can turn to Michigan Lt. Governor Calley and Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bernstein for inspiration.  They have crossed partisan lines to work together to encourage employers to hire the disabled.  Their message is that the talent we need to succeed may already be here, hiding in the shadows, waiting for an opportunity to shine.  In reaching out to ‘the poor, the blind, the halt and the lame’ they encourage us to more than a moral or religious duty; they encourage us to make good public policy.  Unlike ‘Creative Class’ thinking, which focuses on attraction of outside talent, a renewed emphasis on helping our neighbors to succeed returns our focus to a group often ignored by proponents of ‘talent attraction.’  The effect of affluent new arrivals in a locale is not always an unmixed blessing, as rising rents, clashes of culture, gentrification and displacement can all have negative impacts on those least able to recover from them.

The irony of this last set of observations is that the late Jane Jacobs, whom Professor Florida refers to from time to time, said as much in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Instead of strategies designed to ‘bring back the middle class,’ Jacobs, in 1961, suggested that municipal leaders would do better to create conditions in their cities that would induce people already living there to stay if and when they entered the middle class and would then have had the choice to leave.  (She wrote this in reference to slums and un-slumming activity in neighborhoods, and her belief was that what would help a place to rise and prosper was being able to keep those who could afford to leave –  the middle class – rather than focusing on strategies to get outsiders to move in.)

In heeding Jacobs and following the example of Calley and Bernstein, we can save ourselves the trouble of trying to turn every place into a latte-haven for itinerant hipsters and focus instead on uplifting those who already dwell amongst us.

City Council: Looking Back on Four Years’ Service

City Council: Reflections on Four Years

 

Election Day 2015 marks the end of my service over the past four years and three months on  Charlotte City Council. Looking back, what I set out to do-protect core City services – police, fire and public works-in a challenging economic environment, has been accomplished. There are some lessons that learned in dealing with the issues that arose during my term. The first of these is consensus-building. I never saw myself having a monopoly on the truth and I began each debate on public policy by assuming that people who disagreed with me had good intentions.

The first test I faced was over the ‘Chicken Ordinance.’ If I had to vote on it without having had a debate or public debate, I would have voted ‘no.’ However, the young woman who favored the ordinance did her homework, as many of us on Council did in contacting communities with similar ordinances, overcame every objection I had. To craft a majority in support required safeguards to ensure that this should pose no threat or nuisance to neighbors. We ended up agreeing to a ‘sunset’ ordinance that had to be renewed after four years, a limited 10 licenses at any time, sign-off from every neighbor annual license renewal, a 25-foot setback to all property lines, enclosed cages, no roosters, a three chicken maximum, and no poultry processing as safeguards that would gain the support of a majority. I was the deciding vote, a decision I made while sitting in Council, after I concluded that there would be more to regret from saying ‘no’ than there was to fear from saying ‘yes.’

Oak Park presented a different problem. Young hooligans had taken the park over and were harassing homeowners and the patrons of an adjacent funeral home.  After a neighborhood meeting where the principal complaints were aired – foul language, loitering in the gazebo, late-night disturbances and the like, Council adopted park rules that addressed these issues and the City posted them, making proactive enforcement easier.  Now, on a sunny day, you can walk by Oak Park and see strollers – the surest sign that a public space is safe.

Not every issue can be resolved by compromise: Some are ‘either/or’ situations, such as the 4-3 vote (with me in the majority) to purchase the old National Guard armory and to use it for much-needed City storage.  You can’t buy half a building, so, after a lengthy debate, building tour and much public discussion, one has to choose, knowing that reasonable people can disagree yet still work together in the future.

Sometimes, ‘either/or’ decisions go the other way, as looks to be the case with perhaps the final vote on an ordinance that I may cast: We approved, on a 6-1 vote (mine was the sole ‘no’ vote) to approve a ‘first reading’ of an ordinance allowing Sunday morning liquor sales.  While I am not a prohibitionist by any means, I prefer to not further disestablish Sunday, and especially Sunday mornings, as being different from the rest of the week.  While some of those who spoke in favor of the measure when it was first proposed stated that ‘you can’t legislate morality,’ I disagree, more strongly with the idea than with the proposed ordinance.  Not acting in accordance with a moral code is still to act according to a moral code, namely, that which states that there are no moral guideposts.  All legislation expresses morality; it cannot be otherwise. Nonetheless, I’ll walk away knowing that reasonable people can disagree on this, too, and that I agree with Voltaire’s statement: ‘I may disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’  The Frenchman expressed what I grew up believing to be an essential part of the American Creed as well as anyone ever did, and I still base my actions in the political arena on that principle.

The lessons from these examples – find out the facts, do your own research, talk to the people involved, work to find common ground, and agree to disagree – served me well in dealing with other issues, such as our debates on enacting an ordinance mandating sidewalk snow removal.  I hope that the benefit of my relating these experiences – and the lessons to be learned from them – serve the next Council in good stead as they deal with the issues that are sure to arise during their time in office.  I wish them well and thank them in advance for their service.

 

-Lloyd A. Conway

Councilman-at-Large

Charlotte, Michigan

Labor Day Reflections

If you have read enough world literature, from Victorian-era novels to the Arabian Nights and everything in between, you may have noticed that the way to success is often to marry a prince, find hidden treasure or to obtain the favor of the powerful. America is different. Here, the road to success lies in work. On Labor Day, we celebrate a uniquely American holiday, one that honors working people. It’s a day that brings my parents to mind. My father, after he came home from the Korean War, waked in factories, usually as a janitor. My mother, before she married, was a secretary. She waited to marry and have children until she’d waked 10 years so that she was eligible for Social Security – a benefit based on work. Even when we three boys had come along, she used to practice her typing and shorthand regularly in the evenings, because, she told me, if anything happened to our father, she might have to go back to work.

My father, meanwhile, worked swing shifts at the ITW Eclipse Counterbore plant in Ferndale, and for a while had a second job, to earn extra money for his family. He was always tired and his hands, years after he’d retired, were still as hard and rough as rawhide. After the plant closed in 1980 and he was out of work at age 50, when Detroit-area unemployment was over 20%, he found ways to make money, first by working under the table, later by walking seven miles each way to a job paying a third of his former wage.  Serving overseas in the Army at this time, it was only later that I learned that Dad walked those seven miles to save on bus fare.  Neither he nor Mother ever complained; they were children of the Depression and didn’t want anybody’s sympathy or a handout; they were also schooled in the old way – they never felt sorry for themselves or blamed ‘society’ or others for their situation.  They made do and worked things out themselves, as best they could.

That’s what I think about on Labor Day:  Work, not connections, luck or get-rich-quick schemes, is the American Way, or at least that’s what we were raised to believe back when everyone else wanted to be like us.  This weekend, as we enjoy these days of summer and take time off for the holiday, let’s remember what it celebrates – and then do our best to ensure American again is a place where anyone who wants to work hard can make it on their own, and where the son of a janitor in an ITW plant can own stock in his Dad’s old company.  Happy Labor Day to all of you who work for a living, whatever the job; you’re moving society and your families forward the American way, by creating wealth, instead of just wishing for it.

V-J Day +70 Years

For much of my life my neighbors and many of my school teachers were World War Two veterans. I thought about them, and their fellow vets who touched my life in the classroom as another autumn approaches, because this September 2nd marks the 70th anniversary of V-J Day and the end of the Second World War. Seventy years is a lifetime and World War Two veterans are virtually all over 90 years old. My current next-door neighbor is probably the last of his generation I’ll live next to and the time will come when their memories, wisdom, grit, and basic commonsense humanity will be lost to us. Their example, however, can continue to instruct and inspire in a polarized age when nothing seems to get done and crises are allowed to fester, to say nothing of the example our current generation of celebrity ‘leaders’ is setting for our children.

Looking back, I remember Mr. Taylor, who lived next to us on the Ferndale street where we lived in the 1968s and 1970s, and Mr. Laurain, next door to the first house I ever owned, who’d shared some of his 82nd Airborne lore from time to time. Then there were the teachers: Mr. Rhode, a Battle of the Bulge grunt who told our sixth grade class about the cold and the fighting; Mr. Goralczyk, who enlivened his American History classes with stories from the Pacific Theater; and Mr. Brown, another history teacher who shared some of his Army Air Corps memories.

While my own military service came too late to be in the ranks with many of them, I did serve with one; J.D. joined the National Guard in 1945, at the tail end of hostilities, and when it was all over he stayed on until age 60, retiring in 1987 after having held just about every NCO billet in Company A of the Detroit Light Guard.

Those stories won’t be re-told many more times, as the ones who came home to tell them are mostly gone now and the few we have will follow their comrades in the passage of time.  The 70th anniversary of the final victory that crowned their efforts is an appropriate time for one last thanks and maybe to hear a story or two, while they’re still here to share them.  The right-hand picture below is the famous photo, taken 70 years ago, of how it ended, on the deck of the battleship U.S.S. Missouri, six years and a day after Hitler invaded Poland.  The ceremony was solemn enough, but the joy it ignited is evident in the left-hand picture, that of the legendary ‘sailor kiss’ in Times Square.  It must have been some celebration…

 

Independence Day Reflections, 2015 Edition

Independence Day is America’s time to remember why a ‘body politic’ came into being on our shores.  Patriotism is unfashionable these days, and there is a long-running ideological hostility to the notion that anything is special about America, her history or institutions.  Too often, the obvious and acknowledged flaws in the American story become the central narrative of the story, excluding or denying the undoubted good that grew, and continues to grow, out of the American experience.

The minority of the original colonists who decided that the ‘rights of Englishmen’ were worth fighting for were not the first to do so.  The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 had ended all arguments on British soil about ‘the divine right of kings,’ and the franchise was more widely held in its’ aftermath than virtually anywhere on Earth at that time.  Before that, earlier generations had, after much struggle, preserved and passed on to their posterity the ancient freedom of the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Danes who emerged from the forests of Germania to settle in the ruins of Roman power in England.  We recently celebrated the 800th anniversary of Magna Charta, the earliest written guarantee of those ‘ancient rights of Englishmen’ on record.  Others, such as William Wallace, fought English tyranny to win freedom, and many of their descendants were found in the ranks of the Continental Army.

The march toward ‘a more perfect Union’ has been long and painful, marked by reverses, defeats and intense struggle, but it has inspired peoples around the world to emulate us, and to flee tyranny for our shores. That process continues today; unlike the Berlin Wall, which was designed to keep people from leaving the Communist Bloc, we have debates about how to deal with the flood of people who want to come here.

Our best Independence day tribute to America’s past and promise is to be active participants in public life, shunning apathy and negativity for strenuous efforts on behalf of the commonweal.

 

Bringing Our Downtowns Back

 

The Charlotte, Michigan ‘M-50 Committee’ met for the first time earlier this year to talk about ways to make M-50, also known as Cochran Avenue, more business- and pedestrian-friendly, as part of an effort, shared with several other citizens’ committees, to help revitalize Charlotte’s downtown.  In beginning this effort, this writer stopped to reflect on, in the larger scheme of things, Charlotte, and so many other cities and towns in America, found their ‘Main Streets,’ once the center of urban life, neglected and in need of help to restore some of their former vitality.

You can still see what downtown – ‘Man Street, USA’ – used to be like at Disney World.  Sadly, this is only a trip down Memory Lane in many locales, due to the unintended consequences of several developments since the heyday of the kind of thriving entrepreneurial environment that existed into the 1960s.  If you have seen ‘Cars,’ you have seen a story built around the decline and rise of the main street of Radiator Springs.  When Route 66, ‘Main Street’ in many of the cities and towns it passed through on its way from Chicago to Los Angeles, was supplanted by the interstate highway system, automobile traffic that used to flow through town now bypassed it, taking the customers who rode in those cars with it.  The unintended consequences of a highway system that President Eisenhower championed, in part, because of his many troubles in moving men and equipment by road in preparation for the ‘Louisiana Maneuvers’ in 1940 and then seeing the Autobahn in Germany at the end of World War II, as a ‘national defense’ initiative, was that many Main Streets cost their vitality, sapping the downtowns they bisected in the process.

A darker chapter in the decline of Main Street stems from the urban planning craze that swept America after World War II.  Pioneered by New York’s Robert Moses, a master builder and genius of political infighting who parlayed an unpaid position as state parks commissioner into a de facto infrastructure czar whose powers extended statewide, ‘urban renewal’ projects poured grandiose visions of how cities should look into concrete on a massive scale.  Moses’ efforts led to the erection of such landmarks as Jones Beach and the Triborough Bridge, as well as numerous ‘parkways’ – freeways ostensibly built to connect the New York park system.  The erection of so much infrastructure came at a price:  Many poor neighborhoods (and the occasional wealthy one) were seized through the power of eminent domain and their residents were displaced to make way for the new roads.  The result was that viable neighborhoods, filled with human networks of families, businesses and social institutions gave way before the bulldozer, with what remained on the periphery losing its vitality.  Despite keen criticism from thinkers like Jane Jacobs, the urban renewal trend lasted for decades and spread from New York across America, remaking the fabric of every community it touched, often at the expense of the old, unplanned jumble of human habitations that supported Main Streets in favor of newer arrangements that could be reached by car:  Suburbs and shopping malls.  (An allusion to how this played out in California found its way into ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit,’ where the villain schemes to take over Toontown and then sell it to Cloverleaf Industries, who plan to dismantle the trolley car system of ca. 1947 to make way for freeways and the ‘exit’ enterprises – gas stations, tire stores, repair shops and the like – that support car culture.)

 

New Urbanism brings us full-circle: Restoring M-50 as a vital commercial and residential mixed-use corridor through the heart of Charlotte is precisely the kind of initiative that can help revitalize an entire community by redirecting energy and activity back to where it used to flow before freeways, shopping malls and ‘big box’ stores drained it away:  Downtown.

As this and the other committees move forward from planning to action, public participation is both welcome and needed to ensure that all who want to have a voice as we work to rebuild our hometown.  Please take the opportunity to attend a meeting, join a committee or to contact them with your hopes and ideas.  They’ll be happy to hear from you. And if you’re not from Charlotte, why not see if you can find other people in your town who want to restore your Main Street and offer them a hand?

-Lloyd A. Conway

 

(For an in-depth look at the rise and fall of Robert Moses, see Robert Caro’s ‘The Power Broker.’  The classic work of his nemesis, Jane Jacobs, ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities,’ became the bible of the ‘New Urbanist’ movement, which seeks, among other things, to bring back Main Street as the locus of mixed-use urban life.)

Taking the Next Steps – Print and Radio

Over the past few years this blog has been dedicated to a teaching mission aimed at connecting classroom learning to the real world.  Social Studies are not just a group of ‘subjects’ to be examined separately and without connection to each other or our daily lives.  In the course of both teaching and taking an active part in state and local government, the next step for this writer is to take the message of why it is important to take an active part in how we are governed to new media.  The Charlotte Country Journal has graciously agreed to accept an occasional column from me on topics of local interest, and WLCM ‘Victory’ 1390 AM will also be airing five-minute public service announcements from me on politics and policy at the state and local level.  As I tell my students, the President may make the headlines every day, but he isn’t the one picking up your trash, filling in potholes or setting local speed limits on your streets.  Those and a myriad other decisions that affect our daily lives are made at a level of government within our reach, and that is why I want to reach out to more of our neighbors here in Mid-Michigan to encourage them to take part in how those decisions are made.

From time to time, as columns are published and radio broadcasts are made, links the content or postings of the transcripts will be re-published here. As always, your readership is appreciated, as is your active participation in making our world a better place to live.

From STRATFOR: The Paradox of America’s Electoral Reform

Dr. Friedman is insightful in showing how the urge to reform a system of politics dominated by that old-timers used to call ‘honest graft’ with one supposedly more democratic has, in fact, produced one that is more money-driven, ideological and less democratic, in the larger meaning of the term.  Is it time to reform the reforms of the 1968-1972 era?

 

The electoral process has strayed from the founders’ vision of the United States as a country with a dispassionate electorate.

via The Paradox of America’s Electoral Reform.

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 920 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 15 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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