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.

Douglas: Yes.

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.

Douglas: Yeah.

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!” 

Anderson: Yes!

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?

Douglas: What?

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?

Anderson: Yes.

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.

Anderson: Okay.

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?

Anderson: Yes.

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.

Douglas: Yes.

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.

Douglas: Yeah.

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.

Prendergast: Right.

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 find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.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.

Further Reference

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

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