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: Alright, you there, Neil?
Neil Prendergast: I’m there. How are you, Aengus?
Anderson: I am still alive, ready to record another introduction. Looking forward to this. You want to tell our folks who it is?
Prendergast: Yeah, so this is Scott Douglas. And he is the Executive Director of Greater Birmingham Ministries in Birmingham, Alabama. The organization is an interfaith organization, and it brings together over twenty different faith groups. And Scott has been there for over twenty years. They do all sorts of things like provide economic relief, they do food programs. But they also do more than just that day-to-day outreach. They also pursue structural changes to the Alabama constitution and legal code and are very much involved in the legal world, and some of their projects have involved public transit, for example. And anything that really tries to see social change from the bottom up in Alabama.
Anderson: Right. And I mean, we love kind of the…what are the invisible structures? I mean that’s what we talk about in this project all the time. So that was definitely something that kind of drew us to Scott. I actually learned about him through a conversation I had with Alexa Mills at MIT’s Community Lab. They had had Scott up there as a fellow. They have a fellowship program every year and he’d been up there in 2011. And I had just been in a lunch conversation with Alexa and she was…you know, we were talking about the project. And I said, “Well who would you want to hear in a series like this?”
And she said, “Well you know, have you thought about talking to someone down south about kind of civil rights issues?” And I actually mentioned to her that at the beginning of the project Micah and I had been designing this gigantic spread sheet of what are all the fundamentally new issues we’d want to bring into a project like this. And we had a long conversation about race and gender and were those issues still fundamentally new, or are we still fighting the battle of the 60s.
And Alexa just stopped and she was like, “You know, that’s kind of a ridiculous assumption. What is a fundamentally new idea varies radically based on what part of the country you are.” She’s like, “You should just go talk to Scott and see what the status quo is in Alabama today. And think about some of the things you take for granted in other parts of the country and see what the battle is down there.”
Scott Douglas: You’re having an interview on the future with somebody who lives in a state that idolizes the past. So welcome to Alabama.
Aengus Anderson: What is…sort of what is the crisis of the present that you’re dealing with here?
Douglas: Yeah… Let me begin this way. Here at Greater Birmingham Ministries—this is kind of an example—we’ve got to follow the trail to the future by looking at what’s happened to the people we’re most concerned about. We’re a faith-based organization and so our constituency are the low-income marginalized families, communities, and neighborhoods of the Greater Birmingham area. So we have a food pantry. We always interview the people we give free food to. You’ve got to qualify, you’ve got to have a low enough income, and that kind of stuff. But we also talk to them. What brought you here? “It’s food day obviously, stupid. The food.”
And I say, “Well, what got you to the condition that you had to come here for free food?”
“Well, I had a job but I lost it.”
“Well how’d you lose your job?”
“Well, my car broke down too much. I missed too many days. I was late too many times. And I was fired. And no bus goes to my workplace. Or I caught the bus,” here’s another story. “I catch the bus and the bus was late so often I lost my job.”
So what we see as an immediate and visceral hunger issue, if you trace it back is a public transportation issue. And Alabama is a state that by constitutional amendment does not fund public transportation.
Anderson: Are you serious?
Douglas: I’m very serious. Even before Rosa Parks sat on the famous bus, public transportation desegregation movements were starting across mostly the Midwest. And as a preventive measure, they passed a constitutional amendment in the state of Alabama forbidding the use of state gas taxes for public transportation. Now, public transportation was the way that white workers got to work. You know.
So my point I’m trying to say here is what are we up against in Alabama? To make a long story short, everything that involves justice in Alabama is a state constitutional question. No state constitution is perfect. But Alabama’s state constitution is almost perfect in preventing the emergence of, the appearance of, the semblance of, a participatory democracy. No matter what we’re fighting for.
Now, you have to know that Alabama has over 800 constitutional amendments. It is the longest state constitution in the known universe.
Anderson: That’s incredible.
Douglas: Well, we think of it as an achievement. The United States has like twenty-seven, you know. So when other people think about if there’s a problem in your city, in your state, let’s bring the poor people and their allies together; let’s conduct a campaign to win; let’s have a referendum and stuff; it’s a long term struggle…it’s harder to do that here. Martin Luther King marched against it, Rosa Parks sat on it, what is it? It’s the Alabama constitution.
Every civil rights battle we’ve had, ultimately the structural opposition (put it that way) was the Alabama constitution. It was the constitution that had the Jim Crow laws embedded in it, not just the policy of Birmingham or the policy of Montgomery, the policy of Selma. It was the constitution that they put in the amendments after the Civil War to implement the poll tax and the grandfather clause and all those kinds of things. It’s the constitution.
So actually democracy is constitutionally denied in Alabama. And every victory, every victory that Alabama’s famous for: the Civil Rights Act, the marches in Birmingham that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, George Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door and removing him, all that resulted in very important federal intervention in the governance style of Alabama. And thus bringing victory to Alabama and those states around the country.
But it didn’t change Alabama. I mean, Alabama never voted for any of those things. Alabama never chose a future in which all people are equal. Alabama never chose a future in which all kids, all schoolchildren are equal and serve equity and funding of public education and stuff.
So when you say what are the problems you’re facing now, two of the major ones we’re dealing with now are public transportation funding; getting more of it so more people can get to where they live, work, play, and get educated. Using public transportation; you don’t have to need a car to be successful in life. And immigration justice. Which is a new issue for us, as Alabama has found a new Negro, in terms of Latino immigrants, to jump on.
So anyway, I guess what I’m trying to say here is that Alabama never really re-entered statehood right.
Anderson: Who’s this serving? Like, why is this still here?
Douglas: Yeah. I mean, we didn’t know. We got involved with public transportation and followed the city fight, and started demanding that city spend more money on transit and why won’t you do better in stuff like this. And that’s when figured and said well, the state should help. And so that when we found out about that constitutional amendment.
Around the turn of the century— Well, in 2000, right before, a movement got started here to revisit the entire Alabama constitution. And we joined that movement twelve years ago and said yeah, let’s do that. And at the moment we were exploring it we found out that following the betrayal of Reconstruction in 1877 when the federal troops pulled out, they had built up a populist movement. Now, neither white women or black women could vote, but black men and white men could vote between the late 1870s and 1890s and stuff. They were taxing the rich to pay for free public education for white kids and black kids. That made some people mad, the one percent of the day. I think they really were 1% then. Maybe .5 of a percent.
So a unique coalition came together to squash that populist movement by race-baiting. And they successfully divided what had been a unity between poor blacks and poor whites that was formed for the first time in Alabama. That unity was broken by the use of racism by the bosses, by the rich of the time. They even had black and white demonstrations in small counties, demonstrating for public education funding. In two cities, the sheriff’s officers fired on the people and killed people who were demonstrating there. When you want to know how come poor black people and poor white people don’t cooperate more, well, death has been the reward for that in our histories.
But anyway, so the future of capitalism in Alabama, of corporate power in Alabama, were the big land barons of the old plantations which had kind of regained power on the sharecropping and tenant farming. And the emerging industrial sector in Alabama, which was a big one—coal mining and steelmaking. In 1870, the big steel companies migrated here. US Steel was formed out of this. JP Morgan the banker financed most of it. So the corporate elites and the big land barons came together to construct this new constitution that protected them from being taxed.
And because the black voters had voted for these taxes, voted for public education, civic improvements (at their expense), the key thing was this disenfranchised them. And they learned the language of that from the 1890 Mississippi Plan. Because the Fourteenth Amendment of course had been passed to guarantee blacks the right to vote. At least black men.
So if we can’t use race what can we use? They used the grandfather clause. An adult male could vote if his grandfather was a property owner. Well, if you were a black man 21 years old in 1900, more than likely in Alabama your grandfather was a slave, and slaves couldn’t own property. Or the literacy test. And most importantly the poll tax. Because if you were a sharecropper, it with like $1.50 and that was like a month’s wages.
So embedded in that constitution, then, is the spirit of [breeding?] violence. Because the motivation was to capture the security of their corporate and land baron status and make it permanent. And you can’t do that without fundamentally denying humanity to all of God’s children in some very basic, fundamental ways. And we still live with it today. As we’ve said, progress in Alabama is a constitutionally-prohibited activity. You can go to jail for that.
Anderson: Yeah! It’s bizarre, too, because I mean the ways that all of these sort of class things are just tied in so tightly with all of the race questions.
Anderson: Can one be solved without the other? I mean, can you… I was talking to an urban historian up in Buffalo named Henry Louis Taylor. One of his concerns about the present is that we’ve lost the enemy. And there was a time when you could’ve said, “This person is the enemy. Here’s a system of institutionalized racism. And there are figureheads of it.” And he was talking about now—and this this goes for class too, I think—it’s hard to spot this stuff because it’s buried—you know, this is a constitution—
Douglas: It’s structural.
Anderson: Yeah, it is. And that was exactly what he said, it’s structural. Is the shift of these systems of inequality from people who you can recognize and an overt form of racism or classism into structure, is that a new challenge?
Douglas: It’s not a new challenge… I think what we have to come to grips with— The world really is round. I mean, we go to one horizon…and guess what? There’s another horizon. You had to get rid of the Bull Connors before you could see the structural. What do they tell you when you talk to newspaper people? They say, “Well, give me a story. My readers don’t want to hear about the narrative, about the facts. They want to hear a story,” right. Bull Connor was a story. George Wallace was a story. Structural racism in 1960? What’s the story in that? You know, are you building a house or what?
People think that the Civil Rights Movement and all big epochal movements involve conscience, and they do. They also involve consciousness. I mean, you can’t struggle against what you’re unaware off, right? The Klan as the iconic carriers of violence, the Bull Connor of the iconic southern white male resistance, George Wallace the iconic neopopulist racist. You know, these were historic figures in myth and reality. But we wouldn’t get to what they represented till much later. From Jim Crow segregation, Bull Connor should have been the target. But after Bull Connor’s gone, the Civil Rights Bill passes, we had a period of been there and done that.
Anderson: If the invisible structures of inequity, then, are kind of the the challenge to seeing them, what happens if we don’t see them? What kind of that hypothetical scenario if we go down the road, everyone’s willing to say, “Oh well this world is post-racial. It’s a level playing field and these other people just aren’t competing.” I’ve had people in this project say things similar to that. Say that view prevails, what happens to us?
Douglas: That’s a very low quality of democratic life. But it could happen. If there are powers who are protected by that kind of denial, it could happen. That’s all it takes is sufficient power to keep a certain segment of the population distracted. Racism is a good distraction. Immigrants are a good distraction. War’s always a good distraction. I mean, every time Reagan got in trouble domestically he invaded somebody. You know, when you take your grenades and your beach towels on an invasion, that’s for distraction purposes.
They aren’t distractions for those who are fighting for equity and justice. They know these things. They are distractions for those who have yet to join in the struggle for their own liberation, for their own awakening, right. But Joe the Plumber was a good example about that in the 2008 election. The guy that Obama met in the rope line someplace. And he asked Obama about taxing the rich more. And Obama shocked him by saying, “Well, I want to raise taxes on the rich.” And Obama asked him, “Are you rich?” He said, “No, but I will be one day.”
It’s not whether they could vote for Obama or not. But when will they start voting for themselves? It’s like the old cartoon, you know. I guess there was one time where you would make a horse go a certain direction by dangling a carrot in front of him. The only way to keep the horse going is to have him on a carrot that he never reaches. In this case let me be an advocate for informed selfishness. If you can’t be an enlightened communalist, informed selfishness would be a good first start.
Did you know that historically, white workers in the South thought manufacturing work was slave work? Because in the rural South the goal was to have your own farm. The people who were doing the blacksmithing, making the plows and the plowshares and stuff, were slaves. What we now call building trades, slaves in the South, right. Talented, skilled people. But they were doing the work for the master. So it was the relationship that formed this image among independent but poor dirt farmers, even some merchants, that working for somebody else was slavery. That is deep in the Southern pathos.
Anderson: There’s another amazing historical connection there.
Anderson: It makes me think of some conversations I’ve had recently—a string of them—that have sort of mentioned education. And one was with a guy named Puck Mykleby. And when I was talking to him like, what’s the crisis that we face now, he had a nice ways of saying it. He’s like, it’s our grayware. We hold our assumptions to be truths and we can’t look at them as assumptions, and so we are making decisions that are sending us down a dangerous direction. But it was interesting that he diagnosed what we were just talking about. It’s our brains. It’s what we’re willing to entertain. Are we willing to think about, are we willing to question ourselves enough, to put our own assumptions aside and see the structures?
Douglas: That’s a sign that evolution’s still going on. Yeah. And it is, you know. What does he say in that Jack Nicholson movie? “You can handle the truth!”
Douglas: And the way of our not handling it is not seeing it. We have to acknowledge it exists to deny it. Denial is really a statement of a level of consciousness, as much as we hate it.
Anderson: Is that a new problem?
Anderson: The fact that we can’t even see it.
Douglas: Oh, no. No. No, remember? This is the problem with history. For the current bandwidth of human beings, right, in this flesh, history is receding as fast as the future’s being revealed to us. And it’s a lot.
Anderson: It is, yeah.
Douglas: For gray matter. For grayware. And this that’s coming at us has to connect with that which is receding from us. And as we make those things fit, are we lying about our past or lying about our future? Maybe both.
Anderson: And maybe yeah, maybe that’s what’s always happened.
Douglas: That’s always happened, and some of us— Not me, of course, the other guys— You know, are doing it to distort my possibilities for equity. And when they see me, I’m destroying their possibilities for certainty. Certainty that they are being the power they’re in now. That’s why people who live at the same time in the same place in history can have wildly different views about what’s going on, looking at the same set of facts. The world’s going to hell in a handbasket. Thank God for the opportunity. Free at last, free at last, going to hell.
Anderson: So if we’ve always had this sort of… I don’t know, it’s almost like a plurality of realities. Like all these different people who all have their own realities in their their individual moments in history— But it does seem like at some moments, a lot of people agree on a problem and they make a big change, right?
Douglas: Yeah. Yeah.
Anderson: Do you think we’re at a moment where a lot of people are coming together to agree inequity is a problem? Or do you think we’re still fragmented into lots of different views of the world, where we’re not even having that conversation?
Douglas: I think it’s a combination of that plus some other things. It’s kind of like…the human project, all of the world is tension between the individual and the collective.
Anderson: My god, you just got to like the base level of this entire series.
Douglas: You know, and that’s not a bad thing. But it’s a tension. It’s the yin and yang; the plus, the minus; the matter, the antimatter. It’s the necessity of the duality. Yeah, yeah. Tension, dynamic tension that runs throughout history. And every solution that’s been imposed on it has failed. Has failed with an improvement, right.
The United States is an experiment. Anybody that tells you the experiment is over is trying to squash the results of it. Because it’s still going on. It’s still going on. And that’s what I like about it. I’m a patriot to the American experiment. To me, no one has the right to foreclose on it. I think the only thing we can approximate is are we gaining?
Anderson: In that ultimate move towards equity?
Douglas: That’s right, yes. In the move towards equity, are we gaining mass? More than numbers. There’s another quantification of things that’s not just numbers. It has to do with quality, too. You know, are we gaining qualitative and quantitative mass? So I think the struggle is for enough. Equity is wholeness for the individual, wholeness for a community individual, and enough. And the question [inaudible] what is enough? And I always ask people what’s enough for you?
But the key is the only reason enough for you works is that’s the same thing you should declare as enough for everybody else. So be careful how high you go. You have to work to make sure everybody else has that, too. And not everything. I said enough. What’s enough for you? That’s the floor for humanity.
Anderson: So it’s almost like we need to be having a conversation about the floor. We need to be working towards having a floor.
Douglas: Oh, what is it, Bono or somebody with his group talking about stupid poverty now? The world has now enough resources that all poverty is stupid. Hunger, most diseases, can be eliminated with the resources we have today, without even radical redistribution of wealth. We’ve got warehouses, we’ve got needs. So what’s messed up? The supply lines are messed up. And they’re clogged by war, borders, national rivalries, international power plays, and all kinds of crud.
Anderson: It’s easy for me to say equity, that’s a good we should be striving for. And yet when I look at that system that’s not distributing things like that I think there are a lot of people who actually don’t even see equity as necessarily a good thing. And that’s where I wonder, if you were to make the case that equity is good— You know, to someone who might not see the systems that we’ve been talking about. And they might say, “Well, equity? They can find it and make it themselves.”
Douglas: White steelworkers were made by US Steel in Alabama to feel proud they made 20% to 30% more than black steelworkers doing the same work. They didn’t pay much attention to the fact they made 4% less than white steelworkers in Pittsburgh. So, a lot of us are like the white Alabama steelworker. If I’ve got somebody to be better than, that covers me thinking about having much more than I have, right. I can be satisfied with my lot if I’m convinced I’ve got more than somebody else.
Racism works the same way. That’s what blinds us to equity and what enough is. Unions were a very good collective form for talking about what enough is. But first they had to equate themselves with being equal to the owners. The owner had the capital, we have the labor. Only by educating themselves of the equality of your gift to the equation— “I brought something to the table. So maybe equity is value in what everybody brings to the table, not valuing what I bring to the table and devaluing what you bring to the table.” There’s no way to get there. There’s no way to get there. So the way to get towards equity is not to argue for equity. It really is to argue for values.
Anderson: The very first conversation I had in this project was with Reverend John Fife in Tucson, Arizona, who was one of the cofounders of the Sanctuary Movement.
Douglas: Yeah, yeah. I read about him.
Anderson: But he got into talking about how for him there’s an interest in equity. And equity comes from people are created in God’s image, they are equal, the nation is this ridiculous little man-made contrivance and it’s splitting people up. His equity is backed up by a spirituality. And in every conversation I have in this series, whether someone is a hardcore atheist or a theist or something in between, I always try to get to that like, why is this good? In our conversation, why is equity good?
Douglas: Yeah. Without valuing equity, we’ll be (an I’ll explain what I mean) forced to to always wrestle with an aspiritual accounting, where we count stuff. We’ll be trying to determine who’s worthy and who’s not, with a starting point of now. It’s like human progress is a video, not a still shot. And nobody has the right to freeze the frame. Everybody stop in place, and now we’ll judge equity on those conditions.
If you do it that way, then the poorest of people— Then your calculus has to be everything that it takes to make them whole has to come from us who have more than enough. Then the video starts and you start saying the future then is a future of me losing and they’re winning, only at my expense. You only see it from yourself out. And if the world has resources that are neither yours or their’s, they’re still yours. Because you have the tools to access those resources.
If equity… I’m glad you mentioned it— It is spiritual because it involves an accounting that we cannot follow using the old methods. People talk about win/win. There is a possibility of win/win. Not that you’ll be astronomically richer. But you’ll be wonderfully better. You’ll be happier. You’ll feel definitely less threatened. Without anybody else doing anything else in the world, your contribution to equity, you’ll feel better. You will feel and be more secure. You will be protected. Because the defenders of equity are powerful. Because…the guy at the Defense Department…sustainment?
Douglas: Sustainment is about equity. It really incorporates many of his [inaudible]. Because in the normal balance of defense, it’s us against them. In sustainment, defense is us with us.
Douglas: Right. And there is no them.
Anderson: You know, there are huge implications, right. Because we think of everything as competitive.
Douglas: I know it, but you remember: they lied about John Kennedy. He used a trick on the United States. When he announced the moon program, everybody said we’re going to compete against the Soviet Union. I happen to believe that John Kennedy was competing against the moon. Because what really drove people to a level of discipline? Well, the clock was the Soviet Union, but the destination was the moon. It was the destination, not the clock. Because if the clock had been the one, we probably would’ve lost more people in the early testing of the stuff.
That project contributed so much to the United States. But the only way we could understand it, and probably the only way he got it through Congress quite frankly, was to compete against the Soviet Union in the race to the moon. It’s like, what is it, isometrics?
Douglas: To give us the social and political isometrics. So maybe the challenge is what are the isometrics? The only “against” we need is something to push against.
Anderson: Seems like we kind of tie a bunch of elements from our conversation together here, where you have to have the grayware to see the structures well enough to realize equity, globally, is in your self interest individually.
Anderson: So in a way what we’ve been talking about, social equity, other people would probably take exactly the same structure of our conversation—I mean I know they have, they’ve done it in this project—and sort of talked about that in an environmental way. So it’s interesting that beneath all of this stuff there is a sense that you have to acknowledge your part of being a bigger thing, right?
Douglas: Oh yeah, yeah. That’s my big project for where I work at now. I can’t say it’s ours yet. I haven’t really articulated. We assumed that the campaigns we worked on—immigration justice, and more fund for public transportation—we assumed that our campaigns were our goals. But we said no, our goals are bigger than our campaigns. We adopt our campaigns—this is a new thing—because of our goals. The transformation I’m looking for as part of this stuff, is how do more and more people increasingly see themselves as producers of the future, not consumers of the future? Not just of stuff. But of quality of life.
We say it takes more to be poor now than it used to. It’s more expensive to be poor than it used to. And it really is. But people have been beaten up. This whole thing about takers. There are people who have been convinced that’s who they are. They’ve also be convinced that that’s the best they can hope for. People like to see themselves as making thing. They like to be producers. They hate the story of the little red hen where everybody wants to eat the bread, nobody wants to bake it, you know. But also, what is the bread. The bread is the quality of life of our our families, our communities, our neighborhoods, our cities, our states. It’s not for them, the politicians, to make it and us to consume it. As long as we’re a producer/consumer dichotomy, then there is no endgame to it, there is no winning for us. Because they will produce enough to keep us consumers. And we will consume so much they will always be producers. And I’m saying we are the producers. Equity, there is a community of brokers rather “the broker.”
Anderson: So we’ve had this conversation about equity. It seems to have left us at the point where we’re asking the question of how do we get ourselves to say, “Well, we’re part of this bigger system. We’re gonna take the responsibility for it. And we’re going to strive towards equity.” And part of that of course is seeing the bigger system.
Anderson: Or at least feeling the bigger system. Do you think we adequately feel that or see that now? new.
Douglas: No, no. I don’t know if we get there with the language we start with. And so maybe what the question is, what’s the starting language?
Anderson: Language is a huge thing.
Douglas: Language is loaded. Language is loaded. It is so loaded—maybe the solution to this is not a social analyst but a linguist. We can’t talk about the future with the language of the past. The language of the past carries with it the values, structures… It carries the baggage of the past. And we have to be careful about our language. Because unknowingly we will affect the future. This bishop said in a meeting here some years ago, he said, “Be careful who makes the definitions. Because those who made the definitions control the outcomes.” So you can really have a language set up that you can’t win. Like the Alabama state constitution. Winning is prohibited.
Anderson: Yeah. So if we’re having difficulty with the language to talk about the future now, are you optimistic that’s something that we’ll be able to change?
Douglas: Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah. I forgot who it was said it, but Cornel West talked about this. He says, “I’m not optimistic but I’m hopeful.” That’s what he said, yeah. Optimism requires evidence. Hope doesn’t.
Anderson: So you’re hopeful.
Douglas: I’m hopeful. While the jury is still out, a note will be sent to the jury room with new information that would change the liberation in ways we didn’t expect.
Anderson: Do you think the stakes are any higher now?
Douglas: Uh, I have said they’re faster-moving. I mean you look at what’s the big epochs in human—modern human development from the Renaissance. The problems they had with the Earth being round— Galileo and the church. You know, that’s pretty big. The “discovery” of the Americas. The justifications of slavery by people who were of two consciences. These debates among the Native Americans about these strangers, with their weird ways. Those are big conversations of earthshaking consequence.
I think it’s happening more quickly. The next big one. The news that’s coming out increasingly, and with Hurricane Sandy even as there was [?] saying global warning is a myth. Well, global warming’s not a myth. You could argue about the consequences of it. But you can’t argue with a thermostat. Use your thermostat. Use your survey meter at the glacial areas of the Arctic, okay? Use your time-lapse camera.
Anderson: I think when I talk to people in this project who have a real sense that the stakes are higher— Because some people argue that this is a really unique moment and other people say not so much, there are always historical big moments of change—
Douglas: Mm hm, this is the last one.
Anderson: And a lot of people who are like this is the big one, a lot of them point to sort of the environment as [crosstalk] something that we have changed.
Douglas: Oh yeah, that’s true.
Anderson: And others say well, there’s never been a bigger, complicated global economic system, so this time it’s going to be a real big fall because the house of cards is so tall.
Douglas: I agree. I agree, I agree. That’s a game-changer. That’s a game-ender. I mean—
Anderson: Do you think these are things we can anticipate, some of these problems? Like, can we intellectually get to the point where we go oh you know, we’re really part of this bigger system, or do we have to have a crisis?
Douglas: You hear about you learn from experience, right? Mine is I found out… The only experiences you learn from are the ones you learn from. The bottom line is just having an experience? don’t teach you anything. You’ve got to choose to learn. Therefore you’ve got to choose what you learn.
Aengus Anderson: I love that, you know. It’s so easy to get into platitudes and to say, “Oh, well we learn from experience. And I’m sure if we have enough of a catastrophe we’ll improve in some way.” And Scott just lets the air right out of that concept. And it’s really…it’s a nice way to leave an episode.
Neil Prendergast: Yeah I really like that comment, actually. And it’s funny because I was listening to it and I was thinking about this sort of earlier concern that you and Micah had about whether or not to even interview Scott Douglas. And I thought gosh, there’s actually really something in his last comment here that proves why it’s such a good idea to interview somebody like him. And for me it’s because his worldview is I think so wide. And so did the Civil Rights Movement, originally.
But I think oftentimes the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement are really narrow, actually, as they get depicted in popular culture. And I think often we have the assumption that the Civil Rights Movement was just about race and that’s it. And there I think we wouldn’t be learning too much from the past if that’s the only thing we thought the Civil Rights Movement was about.
But of course it was also about class, not just race. And examples would include the reason that Martin Luther King went to Memphis of course was to help out a strike. There’s also of course the 1964 March on Washington which included union workers; big intersection between the labor movement and the Civil Rights Movement. And you can see that still in what Scott Douglas is doing, this combination of race and class. So for me that last comment says, “Hey look, there’s a lot to learn about history and let’s make sure we learn it.”
Anderson: Yeah, and I think that’s really one of the the big overriding themes of this whole conversation. And I liked that for him the stuff all grows out of his practice. He’s helping people in his community. Part of that is addressing race issues, part of that is addressing class issues, part of that is addressing immigration issues. It’s kind of woven together in his interests, in his philosophy.
There’s something I kind of want to jump into here, the the individual versus the collective. I love that he just put his finger right on it, and that is something we’ve talked about in the outros of a lot of these different conversations. It is such a classic theme. The Greeks loved to write about this, we’re always trying to balance it. What do you think of how Scott does that?
Prendergast: You know, I think it’s really interesting because he doesn’t say hey look, this is only about community or only about the collective. He’s like yeah, the individual matters, right. He even kind of almost cut himself off there a little bit to make sure that we understood that about the way he thinks. But obviously he’s a thinking about community in a big important way. And as you mentioned that’s kind of where his ideas come from.
But I was kind of curious. This strikes me as dramatically different than say Oliver Porter. And I was curious how much of a response you think this is to an Oliver Porter way of thinking?
Anderson: Yeah, and there are these moments in the project where it feels like with no planning on our part we have people who really seem to speak to each other. Robert Zubrin and Wes Jackson did that earlier in the project. And in a way I feel that there are many connections between Oliver Porter and Scott Douglas.
Porter gives us a worldview that’s skewed heavily towards the individual, that’s much more competitive. Douglas talks about situations that are win/win even though he’s still very interested in individual agency, has a sense of collective responsibility. I mean, it sure made me think of Chuck Collins. It certainly made me think of Mark Mykleby. I mean a lot of that involves thinking of yourself as an us, not as a me.
So we follow that road again here with Scott. But we follow it from sort of a different direction, right. He brings in religion in the way that Fife did early on. So while Collins and Mykleby both give us these sort of really pragmatic reasons like your social-structural reasons that you should think about the collective more, Douglas says, “Well that’s true, but that sort of quantification only gets you so far.” You’ve got to have a deeper reason to care about us.
Prendergast: Right, and it kind of goes back to me to this really kind of careful distinction he made between consciousness and having a conscience. And I thought that that was a really sort of interesting turn of phrase that he used. And this sort of wide view of the world is just as important as considering yourself a moral being who makes the right choice when there’s a choice, you know, in front of yourself. And in fact kind it kinda seemed like the two were pretty well related. I don’t know. What was your thinking there?
Anderson: Yeah, and just hearing you kind of frame it that way I can almost see conscience and consciousness as being connected to the individual and the collective, right. If you’re striving for a better world, the individual needs to have conscience, the collective needs to be something that there is consciousness of. Which I like.
And maybe that is the way where those terms are connected to the governance question. That question spiderwebs out into a lot of the other things that he chooses to bring up in this conversation. On one hand we could look at the way he talks about history and the way we conceptualize the future. I love the way he gives us his vision of the future approaching us and we can’t quite make it out. We have all these different visions and then it’s in the moment, and we all see it differently, and then it’s in the rear-view mirror and we can’t quite see it very well there, either. To some extent we’re always manufacturing these narratives about the world. As we’re manufacturing these narratives, conscience and consciousness have a huge amount of influence on what kind of narratives we’re making.
Prendergast: Yeah, and I think for me there’s a couple couple of examples that fit really nicely with that framing. When we think about this importance between the labor movement and the Civil Rights Movement and sort of having that wide consciousness of the past. But then also as he mentions there’s also that other horizon, too—the future—and how do you have as big a consciousness as you can about that?
And I think he’s really trying. He’s doing it by looking at his community, right? And he sees another important thing on the horizon, which for the American South is Hispanic immigration. And he sees that as intimately tied up with class in the United States, with race in the United States. And it seems like that’s an easy move to make about the future. It’s easy to have that wide consciousness about the future if you’ve already got that wide consciousness about past.
Anderson: Of course I mean, we’re both historians, and so we like to tell the story this way. We like to pretend that history matters and that that’s why he’s pursuing these goals. But this is a deeply historical conversation that he has.
Prendergast: Well Douglas isn’t the only person in The Conversation of course to play such a strong importance on the past. I’m thinking for example of Douglas Rushkoff; talked about present shock… And I’m curious to know what your take is on how Rushkoff might intersect with Douglas.
Anderson: Aha so we’ve got the Scott Douglas/Douglas Rushkoff connection here.
Prendergast: Right. It’s a Douglas conversation.
Anderson: I was getting confused with which which Douglas are we on? Last-name Douglas or first-name Douglas? Yeah, that’s actually a really good point, right. Because Scott Douglas is talking about we’re sort of in this present and we can’t perceive the future. Douglas Rushkoff is talking about we are in a historically unprecedented moment of being just deluged in information and having to be in multiple places at once through technology, which makes it impossible to even perceive the present, let alone dream about the future.
If we want to work towards a better future, do we need to address some of these information issues about the present so we can even get into the point of dreaming about the future?. Is Scott Douglas’ vision for the future something that has to wait until we can catch up with the present? That’s where I wonder have we really lost the present in the same way that Rushkoff claims we have?
Prendergast: So something that seems relevant here to me is the historical example that Scott Douglas gave of the moon and the need for this sort of outside motivation of competing with the Soviet Union for example, to really overcome the challenge which was really there which was landing a person on the moon. And I wonder if there’s a way in which all of this could be framed as trying to overcome some sort of national challenge.
Anderson: Right. And if Rushkoff is right with his diagnosis of present shock, does specifying an outside challenger or something to push against—a moon landing or space colonization or solving a great environmental problem—could that be enough of a unifying force to bring a coherent narrative together that it feels like maybe we can focus on the present, and work towards a future? Do we need a unifying narrative? I mean, that actually ties us back to Mykleby, too.
Anderson: It ties us back to, in a more spiritual sense, David Korten, who was talking about we need a new master narratives that tells us that we’re all part of one system. And maybe that’s kind of the ultimate takeaway from this conversation, it’s what is the challenge without that can get us away from the sort of Hobbesian world that we’ve seen elsewhere in this project?
Prendergast: And I’m sure somebody else in this project will bring up what exactly that challenge without will be.
Anderson: That was Scott Douglas recorded at Greater Birmingham Ministries in Birmingham, Alabama on the 30th of November, 2012.
Micah Saul: And you are of course listening to The Conversation. Find us on the web at findtheconversation.com.
Neil Prendergast: You can follow us on Twitter at @aengusanderson.
Saul: I’m Micah Saul.
Prendergast: I’m Neil Prendergast.
Anderson: And I’m Aengus Anderson. Thanks for listening.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.