Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypoth­e­sis. There are moments in his­to­ry when the sta­tus quo fails. Political sys­tems prove insuf­fi­cient, reli­gious ideas unsat­is­fac­to­ry, social struc­tures intol­er­a­ble. These are moments of crisis. 

Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into con­ver­sa­tion and torn apart inher­it­ed ideas, dethron­ing truths, com­bin­ing old thoughts, and cre­at­ing new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours war­rant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?

Anderson: We’ll be explor­ing these sorts of ques­tions through con­ver­sa­tions with a cross-section of American thinkers, peo­ple who are cri­tiquing some aspect of nor­mal­i­ty and offer­ing an alter­na­tive vision of the future. People who might be hav­ing The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real con­ver­sa­tion, this project is going to be sub­jec­tive. It will fre­quent­ly change direc­tions, con­nect unex­pect­ed ideas, and wan­der between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract. It will leave us with far more ques­tions than answers because after all, nobody has a monop­oly on dream­ing about the future.

Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re lis­ten­ing to The Conversation.

Aengus Anderson: And here we go.

Micah Saul: Hey, we’re in the same city again.

Anderson: We are. Let’s cel­e­brate this. This may be the last one we record in the same place. 

Saul: Actually yeah, that’s true. Unless we maybe get one done ear­ly next week when I’m going to be up in Hartford vis­it­ing you.

Anderson: Yeah, that’s actu­al­ly very pos­si­ble, and if not then maybe we’ll catch one way at the end of the project.

Saul: Yeah, down in Tuscon or back in San Francisco.

Anderson: Yeah. I’m plan­ning on being back in Arizona in December, but I will be edit­ing stuff eas­i­ly through February, pos­si­bly through March. We’ve been talk­ing about maybe throw­ing in a cou­ple more inter­vie­wees. There’ve been some peo­ple who popped up in California and it might just be worth going back to get them.

Saul: It would always be cool to just keep this going and make it a one-year project [crosstalk] and fin­ish it in ear­ly May.

Anderson: There is some­thing— Yeah. I think that would be real­ly cool. So, we’ll see. So, the project is this ongo­ing, evolv­ing thing. But here we actu­al­ly are in the same place.

Saul: Yes.

Anderson: So, Henry Lewis Taylor, Jr.

Saul: Yes.

Anderson: This is just such a dif­fer­ent con­ver­sa­tion than we’ve had before. And I’m real­ly excit­ed to intro­duce it.

Saul: Yeah, I agree. There are a bunch of things here that just we’ve want­ed in the project for a long time, and we just haven’t got­ten them. Urban plan­ning, race—

Anderson: Both in a very big way. The val­ue of neigh­bor­hood, com­mu­ni­ties as an idea tack­led head-on. And then also some real­ly con­crete polit­i­cal stuff.

Saul: Exactly. We haven’t real­ly got­ten much in the way of pol­i­tics yet. Obviously every­body’s touched on pol­i­tics, because—

Anderson: Right, every­one is political.

Saul: But to have just polit­i­cal sys­tems actu­al­ly being dis­cussed is…well, sort of rare, which is surprising. 

Anderson: It is.

Saul: Which is I think a per­fect time for me to ask, why don’t you intro­duce Harry Lewis Taylor Jr.? Who is this guy?

Anderson: Wes. So, he’s the head of the Urban Studies Department at the University of Buffalo in Buffalo, New York. He has stud­ied a lot of urban plan­ning, but also urban his­to­ry and African-American urban his­to­ry. He’s also involved in the Perry Choice Neighborhood Planning Initiative, which is one of these real­ly inter­est­ing sort of, how do we take this neigh­bor­hood in Buffalo, a dis­ad­van­taged neigh­bor­hood, and real­ly reshape it to have neigh­bor­hood man­age­ment, to have a greater sense of com­mu­ni­ty, greater sense of own­er­ship? To not have the for­tunes of this neigh­bor­hood decid­ed by peo­ple elsewhere.

Saul: We’ll include a link on the site for you to go take a look at it.

Anderson: Right. But it actu­al­ly, as with so many of these con­ver­sa­tions, isn’t a big fea­ture in here. He men­tions it when he talks about design­ing mod­els for neigh­bor­hoods. The ideas that inform it come up in this con­ver­sa­tion. But well, we cov­er a lot of ground in here, and again as with Lawrence Torcello last week, there’s a lot of stuff that had to come out of this, and it is a damn shame.

Saul: Speaking of Torcello and just oth­er con­ver­sa­tions in gen­er­al, we should sort of include a dis­claimer at the begin­ning of this. This is not going to con­nect a whole lot with oth­er con­ver­sa­tions. There are con­nec­tions here and there, and cer­tain­ly there’s implic­it con­nec­tions. There’s noth­ing real­ly that explic­it in terms of it con­nect­ing up with any of the oth­er con­ver­sa­tions. There’s very lit­tle talk of tech, there’s very lit­tle talk of the envi­ron­ment, there’s very lit­tle talk of col­lapse or any of the oth­er real­ly big issues that’ve been com­ing up a lot in this con­ver­sa­tion. But, like we said he brings in race, he brings in urban plan­ning, he brings in pol­i­tics. He brings in a lot of things that haven’t been there that are also real­ly big issues.

Anderson: Which makes you think a lot about what our project has been talk­ing about thus far. And we’d both been talk­ing a lit­tle ear­li­er about, It’s weird, why does­n’t this con­ver­sa­tion con­nect to oth­er ones? Is it because I was­n’t ask­ing the right ques­tions?” And we both sort of had this real­iza­tion it’s like, oh well actu­al­ly, no one else in our project has real­ly been touch­ing these issues. We’ve sort of tossed that around, and we’ve known that to some extent, but like, this is the moment where you real­ly real­ize that no, no one’s real­ly talked about race, no one’s real­ly talked about urban plan­ning or neigh­bor­hood like this. Those con­nec­tions weren’t there to make. He’s start­ing the ball rolling on a lot of new ideas here.

Saul: Yeah.

Anderson: So, it’s going to be awe­some to bring these ideas up in lat­er con­ver­sa­tions. But it does leave this one sort of float­ing in space right now, in the same way that Max More or John Fife were float­ing in space in the begin­ning of the project.

Saul: Yup. It’s about time to let you guys hear this. One of my favorite parts of this is he starts with a story.

Anderson: And it’s a real­ly good, odd story.

Saul: Yes. He takes us through how he became politi­cized. But the way he became politi­cized is through this very inter­est­ing move­ment led by a guy named Oliver.

Henry Louis Taylor, Jr.: I met him many years ago when I was a young assis­tant pro­fes­sor at Hampton Institute. And Oliver, back at that moment in time, the late 1960s was a strik­ing fig­ure. He was very dark. And his skin was almost silky with the kind of glow that you get when you real­ly work out a lot. And he was the first per­son I ever met that had dread­locks. And his eyes were lit­er­al­ly red. 

The thing that was most impor­tant about Oliver as far as my rela­tion­ship with him was that Oliver believed that laws gov­erned all things. And he used to often talk about the fact that man must obey the laws of nature, and nature must obey the laws of the uni­verse, and the uni­verse must obey the laws of Dayo[sp?], and Dayo must obey the laws of its own nature. And he believed that this thing called the law of enough” was the prin­ci­pal law that you had to fol­low in order to main­tain bal­ances. Balances both in your life, and bal­ances betwixt and between your life and the frame­works of civilization.

So for him, the pur­pose of food was nutri­tion. He was opposed to mak­ing food look pret­ty, because he said that was dis­obey­ing the laws of nature. That you were mov­ing away from the con­cept of food for nutri­tion, and ener­gy, and every­thing else, and were intro­duc­ing oth­er ele­ments. And that once these oth­er ele­ments got intro­duced, they would take you to bad places.

He also felt that sex was only for pro­cre­ation. A lot of us said, I don’t know about, Oliver.” [laughs] But we lis­tened to many oth­er things that he had to say. And then he start­ed run­ning into con­tra­dic­tions. One of the girls in the group fell in love with Oliver. Then Oliver fell love with her. So we had an issue. Oliver had already told us that he was ster­ile and could­n’t have kids. So they start­ed hav­ing sex. So, we said, Well, what’s up with this, Oliver? If this was about chil­dren, you can’t have chil­dren, so what’s going on?” 

So then he comes up with this the­o­ry that if the moon and the stars are lined up in a cer­tain way, you can no mat­ter what. And since he did­n’t exact­ly know where that align­ment was [crosstalk] he had to keep trying.

Aengus Anderson: Just got­ta keep try­ing. [both laugh]

Taylor: So we said, I don’t know about this.” But the final piece came… He used to always say, The time time will come when we must just go away.” Go to some island and begin to put into prac­tice what we preached. So a cou­ple of peo­ple just went total­ly for that. Got rid of every­thing that they owned, and they were just ready to go with Oliver and real­ly live with nature. And at the crit­i­cal moment, Oliver broke down. I mean, he just was­n’t ready to take the next step him­self. And that was very dis­ap­point­ing. And not dis­ap­point­ing. I mean, it revealed his own lev­el of of human­i­ty. He was just a dude.

The thing about the rela­tion­ship, though, that would have such a last­ing impact on me was this notion of laws. It made me under­stand how soci­eties work and how prin­ci­ples got intro­duced with­in an insti­tu­tion­al frame­work, with rules and norms and oth­er forms of social con­struct that would not only dic­tate behav­ior but also dic­tate the ways that peo­ple thought about issues by pro­vid­ing them with cer­tain concepts.

For exam­ple, if you’re giv­en the con­cept of pri­vate prop­er­ty, and you’re taught to see the world that way, then that’s going to be a whole uni­verse that you see and under­stand and take for grant­ed that shapes every­thing that you do. Your reli­gion, your belief, your sens­es of right and wrong, your sense of social jus­tice, your sense of the type of soci­ety you’re going build. But it’s just a frame­work that some­one gave you. But if you change that, cre­ate new frame­works, new way[s] of think­ing about the world and the uni­verse, you can also alter and shift the direc­tion that peo­ple move, think, and believe. And so Oliver in his own way got me to mov­ing down that path­way. In an odd way, an anti­civ­i­liza­tion­ist would teach me the ways of cre­at­ing a high­er form of civilization.

Anderson: That is one of the best open­ing sto­ries. There’s so much stuff there to talk about. Something you men­tioned about Oliver was an idea of bal­ance. Do you think we live in bal­ance now?

Taylor: No. We don’t have a con­cept of bal­ance. Not only do we not have a con­cept of bal­ance, but we have a very dis­tort­ed sense of social jus­tice that has been reframed to jus­ti­fy a soci­ety that is fun­da­men­tal­ly anchored around the con­cept of imbal­ance. The resources of the world clus­ter toward a hand­ful of very very pow­er­ful coun­tries, one coun­try hav­ing an even greater share. In order to jus­ti­fy this greater share, it’s made them believe that this high­er con­cen­tra­tion of pow­er is nor­mal, and that any­body in all coun­tries can have it, and that all coun­tries should aspire for it. 

So, it’s a huge issue, because all coun­tries can’t become the United States. If every coun­try in the world found a way to reach the same American stan­dard, it would accel­er­ate a thousand-fold the destruc­tion of the plan­et. So you can’t do that. It does­n’t work. But through my con­cept of Santa Clausification, we pre­tend that it can. And so we cre­ate these myths, and there’s no great a myth than the myth of Santa Claus.

I would sus­pect that at one moment in time, pret­ty much every per­son in the United States believed the some big fat white man, once a year, is going to come to their house and leave a bunch of presents. And for many young folks, one of the more painful moments in their lives was when they found out Santa Claus was not real. But, they would con­tin­ue to pre­tend to their chil­dren, and to each oth­er, that such a per­son exist­ed. That is so pow­er­ful. It denies real­i­ty, it’s entrenched, and every­body pre­tends that it’s true even when they know it’s not.

Anderson: And what are our big cul­tur­al myths? What’s the Santa Claus that you and I are believ­ing in right now? 

Taylor: The myth is that suc­cess is what you want. That the United States has the high­est stan­dard of liv­ing and qual­i­ty of life in the words. That our sys­tem of democ­ra­cy is the finest rep­re­sen­ta­tion of democ­ra­cy that ever exist­ed. And that not only is it the finest exam­ple of democ­ra­cy that ever exist­ed, but that we have the ordained God-given right not only to defend this democ­ra­cy but to impose it on every oth­er coun­try on the plan­et Earth.

Anderson: And so that fal­si­fi­ca­tion, or Santa Clausification, is one of the great­est obsta­cles that we face toward cre­at­ing the type of future where we could achieve high­er lev­els of lives that are worth living.

Anderson: If we’ve enshrined inequal­i­ty as part of our frame­work for good, if we have a sys­tem that impos­es our vision of democ­ra­cy, if we have a sys­tem that mea­sures hap­pi­ness just in terms of stuff, where does that go? I mean…

Taylor: I think we’re going to be head­ed down the road of high lev­els of social unrest, and will even­tu­al­ly enter a very very tur­bu­lent peri­od of time that will lead toward increas­ing lev­els of oppres­sion com­bined with increas­ing lev­els of resis­tance to that oppres­sion. And there are rea­sons that I believe this to be the case. 

One is that I think that what we call an eco­nom­ic cri­sis is the new norm. Jeremy Rifkin wrote a tremen­dous book about ten or fif­teen years ago called The End of Work. Rifkin believed that we had entered an unprece­dent­ed moment of time when all seg­ments of the econ­o­my were tran­si­tion­ing into high lev­els of automa­tion at the same time. Now, we’ve had this hap­pen with one sec­tor at a time. So, when agri­cul­ture auto­mates, all of those peo­ple could end up in indus­try and oth­er places that were still requir­ing large num­bers of work­ers. But Rifkin argued that we were mov­ing into a place where all sec­tors sere simul­ta­ne­ous­ly going through high lev­els of change that would lead to mas­sive dis­place­ment of the American work­force. As a con­se­quence, we were just going to have a pret­ty sig­nif­i­cant sur­plus of workers.

Well, I think that’s where we are now. And I think it’s an issue that is being exag­ger­at­ed and will con­tin­ue to be exac­er­bat­ed by the changes in the world econ­o­my. The world’s mar­ket is being carved up in a fun­da­men­tal­ly new and dif­fer­ent way. And so the US share of that mar­ket is going to decline, and will con­tin­ue to decline in very very sig­nif­i­cant ways. And the crises will con­tin­ue to deep­en. And the US has tak­en the posi­tion that it will use lock­ing peo­ple up and send­ing them to prison as the strat­e­gy for pro­duc­ing new jobs and oppor­tu­ni­ty. And we’ve seen that occur with African-Americans, and to a less­er extent Latinos.

So there’s a rea­son that if you look at the rise of neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism and the begin­ning of the New World eco­nom­ic cri­sis, that you also see the par­al­lel rise in black impris­on­ment and the cre­ation of the United States as the world’s great­est jail­er. And so you’ll con­tin­ued to see flare-ups like the Occupation. You’ll con­tin­ue to see anger grow­ing like that anger we see among school­teach­ers. And the angers that you see spread­ing among oth­er lev­els of the pop­u­la­tion, that’s right now below the sur­face in oth­er parts of the world like the Arab Spring, you’ll see it bub­ble up to top. And then they push it down with more Santa Clausification com­bined with oppres­sion and violence.

But, if we fast for­ward ten, twen­ty, fifty years out with­out get­ting off this high­way to nowhere, that’s where you end up. On this road, there is no hap­py ending. 

Anderson: What makes it so dif­fi­cult to sort of accept that we’re on that trajectory?

Taylor: If you go back in time and you look at this coun­try in 1970, man there were all kinds of very very pow­er­ful left-wing orga­ni­za­tions. These were orga­ni­za­tions of young peo­ple at the van­guard of what was going to be a post-civil rights move­ment. Within a decade, by 1980, they were all gone. Every sin­gle last one of them. Many of the sin­gle most impor­tant lead­ers of that movement…many of them were sent into exile. You know, some of my clos­est friends live in Cuba; they’re in exile. Many were killed. Many oth­ers were impris­oned. There were a large seg­ment of that lead­er­ship that were clin­i­cal­ly depressed, who had just been worn out by the con­stant pres­sures that they lived under.

Then, there was a con­scious and delib­er­ate process of depoliti­ciz­ing young groups, depoliti­ciz­ing the gangs. Because as you prob­a­bly know, the Crips and the Bloods, these orga­ni­za­tions evolved as anti-system pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions. Guns and drugs were intro­duced into these neigh­bor­hoods and com­mu­ni­ties through what a lot of peo­ple say either CIA com­pli­ance, or deliberateness.

Then, under the ban­ner of pover­ty, decon­cen­tra­tions. Communities were bro­ken and split up. Which meant orga­niz­ing became extra­or­di­nar­i­ly dif­fi­cult. The idea of neigh­bor­hood as a spa­tial unit got erased. I mean, if you go back and you look at that ear­li­er lit­er­a­ture, espe­cial­ly in the black and Latino com­mu­ni­ties, much of the con­ver­sa­tion cen­tered around com­mu­ni­ty con­trol. It cen­tered around spa­tial argu­ments and spa­tial dis­cus­sion, where peo­ple saw the neigh­bor­hood and the com­mu­ni­ties in which they live as cen­tral to all of these elements.

In most strug­gling, dis­tressed com­mu­ni­ties across the United States today, the most impor­tant and sig­nif­i­cant lead­ers in those orga­ni­za­tions are the heads of agen­cies. You got peo­ple to move away from this idea of community-building and insti­tu­tion­al build­ing, from the quest for social, racial, and eco­nom­ic jus­tice, to peo­ple mov­ing, buy­ing into the neolib­er­al idea of hyper­indi­vid­u­al­ism, and peo­ple going for self.

Anderson: And a lot of the left just got caught into a time warp. Many of them still are, and they have no sense and under­stand­ing of the new move­ment. Back in the day, boy­cotts, march­es, protests, occu­pa­tions, pick­et­ing… Those were the fun­da­men­tal tools. Those tools have lim­it­ed val­ue in the new struggle.

Anderson: Because the new strug­gle is one of reframing—

Taylor: —insti­tu­tions.

Anderson: And that’s huge.

Taylor: And rebuild­ing neigh­bor­hoods and com­mu­ni­ties. Yes it requires a dif­fer­ent strat­e­gy. To attack this sys­tem, you’ve got to fight to build new hous­ing. You have to alter the way gov­ern­ment oper­ates and func­tions, first at the local and then at the state lev­el. You’re talk­ing about sys­temic and insti­tu­tion­al change now.

But for the first time in American his­to­ry, the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple, includ­ing African-Americans and Latinos, don’t know who the ene­my is. If you do not know who the ene­my is, if you don’t even under­stand what the prob­lem is, then how can you attack it?

Anderson: There some­thing genius about that.

Taylor: Of course.

Anderson: Who did this?

Taylor: I think if you start to look at a lot of the poli­cies that came out of the admin­is­tra­tion of Nixon, you will begin to see it. But even Jimmy Carter and oth­ers would con­tin­ue with the devel­op­ment of a num­ber of these poli­cies. The feds were very clear about the depoliti­ciza­tion. Then there were issues… I mean, very cru­el issues of exclu­sion­ary zon­ing and a whole range of those poli­cies that were designed to keep peo­ple of col­or and low-income whites from mov­ing into more afflu­ent neigh­bor­hoods, while there were oth­er poli­cies that were imple­ment­ed that made the rede­vel­op­ment of their neigh­bor­hoods complex.

Then bril­liant­ly, the gov­ern­ment sold the idea and notion that the the real cul­prit was pover­ty. And that’s just not true. And they still have peo­ple talk­ing about pover­ty. Poverty does­n’t mean that you can’t have a great school. Poverty does­n’t mean that you can’t have high-quality recre­ation. It’s noth­ing to do with pover­ty. It has every­thing to do with the con­struc­tion of a neigh­bor­hood and a set of poli­cies that make that possible.

Anderson: So, a lot of this was car­ried out through actu­al phys­i­cal space, it seems like.

Taylor: It’s every­thing, because every prob­lem in the United States that you can define, every one, is relat­ed to neigh­bor­hood. Every one.

Anderson: For a reg­u­lar per­son try­ing to live a nor­mal life, to see these invis­i­ble frame­works and sys­tems, you have to know a lot of stuff. I mean, you’ve got to real­ly keep up with the world in a way that it almost feels like it’s becom­ing hard­er and hard­er for any­one, in any brack­et of pow­er, to do.

Taylor: Well, we also con­fuse infor­ma­tion with knowl­edge. I mean, they’re not the same thing. We have unprece­dent­ed access to infor­ma­tion, but we don’t have unprece­dent­ed access to knowl­edge. But I’m say­ing that you have all of this infor­ma­tion, but all of this infor­ma­tion is pre­sent­ed in ways that are delib­er­ate­ly designed to con­fuse. So the more you read, the more you study, the more fuck­ing con­fused and baf­fled you will be.

Anderson: Do you think that makes this moment his­tor­i­cal­ly unique?

Taylor: I think it makes the moment his­tor­i­cal­ly unique. Because I think this is the first time in his­to­ry where the vast major­i­ty of oppressed peo­ple in the United States have absolute­ly no idea what’s wrong, and who as a con­se­quence tend to blame them­selves for that. It’s a fright­en­ing, fright­en­ing moment.

Anderson: If the frame­works that are cre­at­ing our nor­mal­i­ty… If they’re that invis­i­ble, and if peo­ple who are los­ing in the sys­tem can’t even fig­ure out who the ene­my is, how the hell do we get out of this? 

Taylor: Well, on the flip­side of that, you’ve got some of us who who real­ly do under­stand the role of insti­tu­tion­al shifts and change. And that’s a large num­ber of peo­ple. We’re run­ning a huge project right now that’s look­ing at that issue. We’re doing what we call the Choice Neighborhood Project, which is a broad neigh­bor­hood rede­vel­op­ment project. And there’s sim­i­lar types of efforts and activ­i­ties that are going on around the coun­try. These are impor­tant and sig­nif­i­cant move­ments. The irony is the new left, they don’t even see them as movements.

Anderson: Does this have to come from the ground up?

Taylor: It’s com­ing from all over, because there are lots of col­lege pres­i­dents and heads of impor­tant insti­tu­tions that are a part of this effort. They get it. And so on the school front, on the neigh­bor­hood front, the infil­tra­tion of gov­ern­ment, where very pro­gres­sive peo­ple [are] alter­ing and chang­ing that… A lot of that work is going for­ward. The protest side of that move­ment pro­ceeds at a slow­er pace. As the protest move­ment occurs, then you’ll get the yin and the yang that you need so that those of us who are work­ing on the hard­er, more resis­tant insti­tu­tion­al restruc­tur­ing can then tap into the protests. It means that that’ll push out­ward, for­ward, because they can begin to demand the things that we’re doing occur. And they can begin to demand that these things occur at a faster and a swifter rate. 

So, um…we’re okay. For every move­ment everywhere, those moments come, inde­pen­dent of our will. Because the con­tra­dic­tions that cre­ate the pain, agony, mis­ery, and suf­fer­ing will con­tin­ue to grow. They’re not going to go away.

Anderson: Do you think your frame­work could be wrong?

Taylor: No. Is my frame­work com­plete­ly right? Of course not, because there’s so much that I don’t under­stand. And there’s so much that I’m still learn­ing. But there is zero ques­tion in my mind that the frame­work that I have is a frame­work that places us on the road to somewhere. 

Anderson: We’ve talked about a lot of ideas in here, and there’s a deep sense of good under­neath them. There’s a sense of equal­i­ty. There’s a sense of bal­ance. And when I think of his­to­ry, I think of a lot of time peri­ods that maybe haven’t had…they haven’t been very ide­al. Do you think that we’re kind of up against what we are as a bio­log­i­cal crea­ture? Or is soci­ety some­thing we can per­fect more?

Taylor: I look at the work dif­fer­ent­ly. I don’t use that frame­work. That’s the pes­simistic frame­work. I use a dif­fer­ent framework.

Anderson: Does that seem too determinist?

Taylor: No, I just, I don’t think it’s accu­rate. If you look at the his­to­ry of human­i­ty, human­i­ty has always walked toward the light, not the darkness.

Anderson: Why do you think there is a light?

Taylor: Because I think that with­in the human spir­it there is this quest to cre­ate Utopia, and that we will fight and we will bat­tle for that, so that as we look at the con­tin­u­ing evo­lu­tion of ide­ol­o­gy and thought, we see the con­tin­ued pro­gres­sion of that. I mean, that’s why the social­ist project is so crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant. Because it says we can do bet­ter than these hier­ar­chi­cal struc­tures that make it pos­si­ble for some to live at the expense of others. 

So the very idea that we could cre­ate some­thing that was fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent, that we could gen­er­ate a world with a very dif­fer­ent set of out­comes, is a pro­found step for­ward in human his­to­ry, and has pro­vid­ed a frame­work of a dif­fer­ent type of soci­ety that we can try to build.

Anderson: The very con­cep­tion of equal­i­ty, in a way.

Taylor: The very con­cep­tion of equal­i­ty. So, I see that progression.

Anderson: So, the con­ver­sa­tion, then, is in how we… When that moment arrives [crosstalk]

Taylor: Will we be ready to take full—

Anderson: —where are we mentally? 

Taylor: Well, not only that, orga­ni­za­tion­al­ly. So, as far as I’m con­cerned, and many oth­er peo­ple in the coun­try, we don’t get caught up in opti­mism or pes­simism. I believe that America, a new and bet­ter America, will be built, because we’re not going to con­tin­ue down the road to nowhere until we reach self-destruction. At some point, the American peo­ple will take an exit.

Anderson: nd so our job is not to wor­ry about when. Our job is to build the mod­els. That’s what we do. We build mod­els. We’re not going to change Buffalo. But we can build a mod­el on how we can change Buffalo and all of those neigh­bor­hoods and the com­mu­ni­ties. So that when that time comes, and sure­ly it will, as sure­ly as we’re sit­ting here that time will come, that a gen­er­a­tion may…probably won’t be me, it’ll be some­body, will dis­cov­er that work and will be able to use it as a guide.

Somewhere along the way, some­body will hear one of your con­ver­sa­tions, and that’ll trig­ger some­thing. Just as when Oliver, years ago, talked to this young black pro­fes­sor, clin­i­cal audi­ol­o­gist, about the laws of enough. That he plant­ed seeds, cre­at­ed a deep­er under­stand­ing that would play the lead in the trans­for­ma­tion of my life, and all of the good and pos­i­tive things that I’ve been asso­ci­at­ed with ever since that moment in time.

Micah Saul: So, Lawrence Torcello told us that we were sol­diers in a three thousand-year war.

Aengus Anderson: In the long bat­tle against the Sophists.

Saul: Right. Henry Lewis Taylor, instead has us pro­vid­ing the weapons and tools that the sol­diers of the future will use in this war.

Anderson: Man, does he ever. I mean, there there is a lot of stuff in here that’s real­ly telling you here’s the prob­lem, here’s how you attack it… Attack.”

Saul: Right.

Anderson: We are in the world of the abstract so often, and we cer­tain­ly are in this con­ver­sa­tion quite a bit, but we’re also real­ly into tan­gi­ble stuff. It feels like, while the cri­sis may be that a lot of peo­ple don’t know who the ene­my is, in this con­ver­sa­tion, we know who the ene­my is.

Saul: Yes.

Anderson: For sure.

Saul: So let’s define the war as he sees it. And I think fun­da­men­tal­ly it’s one of sys­tems reform.

Anderson: Yeah, and that’s some­thing we’ve talked about ways of think­ing and a lot of sit­u­a­tions, and again, ways of think­ing he calls them frame­works. They’re a big fea­ture in here in terms of blind­ing us, but when you get past the frame­works, you get to…where you get to? You get to gov­ern­ment, you get to law, you get to these real­ly— I mean, also social and cul­tur­al sys­tems. But we’re real­ly look­ing at legal and struc­tur­al insti­tu­tions here that are per­pet­u­at­ing divides or encour­ag­ing divides, that are encour­ag­ing inequal­i­ty. It’s built into the sys­tem. It’s a pow­er struc­ture. It’s a social fight. It’s ugly.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: And it’s part of a long social fight that goes back as far back as you can go. We are fight­ing the bat­tle against hier­ar­chy here.

Saul: Yeah. Exactly. So, what are the bat­tle­grounds? What are the front lines of this?

Anderson: Right. So, we see it man­i­fest­ed… I love his line, There is no prob­lem in America that does­n’t some­how trace back to neigh­bor­hood.” And whether or not I believe that, I think there’s some­thing real­ly cool there that I’m still sort of analyzing.

Saul: I’m def­i­nite­ly still pro­cess­ing it. 

Anderson: Because we don’t think like urban plan­ners. And I think that’s one of the oth­er fun things about this con­ver­sa­tion. It’s so root­ed in phys­i­cal space. But in terms of of oth­er things, how about the need to export democ­ra­cy? When we’re talk­ing about frame­works and we’re talk­ing about blind­ness to things, Taylor real­ly gets us into some­thing I’m sur­prised that has­n’t been in this project more, the idea that we have a sense of American excep­tion­al­ism and we export that through mil­i­tary force. This is some­thing that we read in sort of the left wing press much more often but actu­al­ly has not appeared in this project.

Saul: Right. We’ve seen it man­i­fest but we haven’t seen it men­tioned.

Anderson: Right.

Saul: Certainly I think Robert Zubrin is very much in the camp that Taylor’s cri­tiquing here.

Anderson: The idea that we are bring­ing every­body up to our…

Saul: The ris­ing tide rais­es all ships. 

Anderson: Yes. And that at the peak of that tide is [crosstalk] us. 

Saul: Us.

Anderson: And Taylor says that’s just not pos­si­ble. Environmentally, that’s not possible.

Saul: Right. Here’s the one sort of con­nec­tion we got with envi­ron­men­tal­ism and sus­tain­abil­i­ty, that he very explic­it­ly says, No. We can’t all live like that.” And we’ve heard that before as well. I mean, we heard that from Wes Jackson.

Anderson: And in all of those cas­es, when you say, You can­not sup­port this much,” then you have to rethink the idea of progress. Or you have to say we’re not going for progress.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: Some peo­ple, like Timothy Morton are hap­py to throw out the idea of progress and say, Look, we just are, and we do dif­fer­ent things.” But Taylor has a real­ly strong sense of progress in a way that like…you know, we just talked about a con­trast with Zubrin, but here is some­thing that res­onates with Zubrin a lit­tle bit. He has a sense that we are get­ting incre­men­tal­ly bet­ter and bet­ter, that there’s sort of this Hegelian notion like our tra­jec­to­ry as a species is climb­ing up the stair­case towards…

Saul: We’re march­ing towards the light.

Anderson: Another great phrase.

Saul: Yeah.

Anderson: So, there’s that notion of progress, but it’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly mate­r­i­al for him. There is a sense that okay, every­one should have a base­line lev­el of mate­r­i­al com­fort. But, if we’re not defined in terms of our prod­ucts, what is his alter­nate def­i­n­i­tion of progress?

Saul: It’s equal­i­ty. Similar I think in some ways to Jenny Lee’s idea of progress. And also sim­i­lar to Jenny Lee, there’s a strong sense of inevitabil­i­ty here.

Anderson: There cer­tain­ly is. And that I think brings up the same ques­tion that we had with Jenny Lee. If it’s inevitable, why care?

Saul: Is it a cop out? Right.

Anderson: Yeah.

Saul: Is inevitabil­i­ty a cop out?

Anderson: That’s kind of the inevitabil­i­ty I was think­ing of with Tim Cannon. Framing it as inevitable sort of takes some­thing off the table. But with Jenny Lee, when we were talk­ing about inevitabil­i­ty I was think­ing, does that actu­al­ly dis­em­pow­er peo­ple because they see progress as inevitable? Someone else will take care of this. This greater sense of equal­i­ty is just in the his­tor­i­cal works. If it’s inevitable, then we could prob­a­bly just stop this project right how.

Saul: Fortunately, I think… Or rather. Unfortunately, or… 

Anderson: God, this is tricky.

Saul: This is tricky.

Anderson: Well, you know what, we’re not stop­ping the project [crosstalk] right now, whether it’s inevitable or not.

Saul: We’re not stop­ping the project. You know, I’d love to believe that it’s inevitable.

Anderson: Yeah

Saul: But…well, I can’t. Call me a pes­simist, call me a real­ist. Pessimism with a smat­ter­ing of quixot­ic madness. 

Anderson: We’ve been get­ting a lot of good quotes lately.

Saul: We real­ly have. So, here’s some­thing I want­ed to bring up. It was it was one of the first things that popped out at me. He talks about the ene­my. And if we’re talk­ing about this as a war, we’re talk­ing about this as a bat­tle that has­n’t been won yet—

Anderson: Right.

Saul: There is this idea that we need an enemy.

Anderson: Right, and—

Saul: We’ve lost our def­i­n­i­tion of who the ene­my is. 

Anderson: And he gives us the old enemy.

Saul: And in some ways he talks about the ene­my now as just being the pro­gres­sion from that, right?

Anderson: Right, like that ene­my became cloaked.

Saul: Right. I’m not con­vinced about this idea of need­ing an ene­my that you can point at. This feels to me like anoth­er Santa Clausification.

Anderson: Ooh. Ooh, you’re using Santa Clausification on the man who orig­i­nat­ed the term itself. You’re gonna have to explain this to me.

Saul: So, yes. I agree that with­out an ene­my it’s easy to look at your­self and say, I am at fault.”

Anderson: Right.

Saul: But to point at an ene­my and say that is it, or point at one thing and say that is the ene­my, that means that it’s some­thing that you can wrap your brain around, right. That is a dis­crete enti­ty that you can say, This is it.” And as we’re see­ing with a lot of our big sys­tems thinkers in this project, you can’t wrap your brain around the larg­er sys­tem. You can’t point at it and say, These are the bound­aries of this thing.”

Anderson: Right.

Saul: It’s more of like Morton’s mesh. It’s more of, its just this big amor­phous thing made up of many many deeply inter­con­nect­ed systems.

Anderson: Let’s make this less abstract here and let’s say okay, so the ene­my I think implic­it­ly in this case is social insti­tu­tions and kind of a polit­i­cal pow­er struc­ture that we’ve inherited.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: Right. That’s the ene­my. It’s become invis­i­ble and con­vinced us, say through the red her­ring of pover­ty and a vari­ety of oth­er things, that these are oth­er prob­lems and that they’re yours. But basi­cal­ly this is a polit­i­cal prob­lem and that we can attack it polit­i­cal­ly through reform.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: So let’s say we take this more Timothy Morton approach, or a Wes Jackson approach. How do we com­pli­cate this issue? If we’re look­ing as they would look at the sys­tem, they would prob­a­bly say, Well, you are par­tic­i­pants in this. You’re embedded.”

Saul: Additionally, it is not some­thing that you can address mere­ly polit­i­cal­ly. Economics plays a major role here. Technology plays a major role here. 

Anderson: Your own expec­ta­tions of a good life—

Saul: Play a major role here. Exactly. So, you have to point at every­thing around you, includ­ing your­self. This whole inter­con­nect­ed mess.

Anderson: Right.

Saul: Of course, this all makes things real­ly difficult.

Anderson: I mean, that ener­vates your will to go out and fight the ene­my, right? Because when the ene­my— I mean, this gets into sort of the prob­lem of peo­ple like Foucault who talk about a per­va­sive dis­course of soci­ety, which is this gigan­tic sort of col­lec­tive cul­tur­al mess that’s going in one direc­tion, and you can’t get out of it. You can’t even see your place in it. And then think­ing about well, how the hell do you achieve social change once you’re think­ing that way. I mean, that’s some­thing that is a real prob­lem with post­mod­ern thought. So we’ve just thrown sort of a post­mod­ern cri­tique at some­one who I gen­er­al­ly think of a sort of a mod­ernist thinker. And I’m not sure that… I’m not sure that mod­ernism is actu­al­ly a worse worse approach than any­thing else. Even if it is Santa Clausifying us.

Saul: Sure. I…yes.

Anderson: Necessary Santa Clausification?

Saul: It’s a daunt­ing ques­tion, actually.

Anderson: It is a daunt­ing ques­tion, yeah.

Saul: So I think there’s just one more thing I want­ed to to bring up. You know, in our orig­i­nal for­mu­la­tion of the project we, main­ly for eco­nom­ic and time rea­sons, decid­ed to focus just on the US

Anderson: Right.

Saul: —in terms of where we were going to draw our thinkers from. However, obvi­ous­ly through­out the project we’ve been talk­ing about glob­al issues. Here, how­ev­er, is a con­ver­sa­tion that is very specif­i­cal­ly focused on the US, and in fact it’s inter­est­ing to me because there are some real­ly big impor­tant ideas here, and I’m try­ing to fig­ure out how we can… As we con­tin­ue on with The Conversation, how we apply these on a more glob­al scale. 

Anderson: And maybe this is just sort of one of the many new chal­lenges that are pop­ping up now that we’re real­ly get­ting deep­er into pol­i­tics and race? But like, our oth­er issues you have to talk about glob­al­ly a lot of the time. These ones it seems like it’s real­ly hard to talk about— Like, they’re much more nation-specific. And maybe that’s part of our dilem­ma here. Maybe when you’re talk­ing pol­i­tics, you just have to sort of talk America. Especially if you reject the idea of med­dling in oth­er countries. 

I think the ques­tion there is, how can you have that domes­tic con­ver­sa­tion about pol­i­tics and equal­i­ty and fair­ness and race, and not lose sight of the glob­al con­ver­sa­tion? You know, where in every­one of those oth­er coun­tries that’s hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about equal­i­ty, they’ve got to go about it in such dif­fer­ent ways, based on their own his­to­ries. But like, we still have to be talk­ing about that togeth­er, and then we still have to be talk­ing about these oth­er issues that affect all of us.

Saul: That’s going to be a strug­gle for us, to just make sure that that we lose sight nei­ther of the glob­al nor the domes­tic. This new chal­lenge is a good one for us, because now here’s a curve ball of new themes that we need to bring in.

Anderson: So with that let’s move on to the next con­ver­sa­tion, or leave it here until next week when I’ll be talk­ing to Claire Evans of YACHT. And we will be get­ting all synthpop.

That was Henry Louis Taylor, Jr., record­ed at the University of Buffalo in Buffalo, New York on September 272012

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This inter­view at the Conversation web site, with project notes, com­ments, and tax­o­nom­ic orga­ni­za­tion spe­cif­ic to The Conversation.