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.
Anderson: So, Henry Lewis Taylor, Jr.
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.
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—
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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—
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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—
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 27, 2012
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.