Racism and Collective Memory

Grieving about the Emanuel A.M.E. Church murders

My chest literally aches for the people of Charleston, S.C. and every African-American whose fear of racially motivated violence has been affirmed, once again. I live in an integrated neighborhood–an increasingly rare place in America–and I feel like I have to tread carefully around my neighbors. In response to the “Don’t Shoot” movement, my wife and I wonder if we need to wear “Won’t Shoot” T-shirts to signal that we might be white, but we are not so frightened that we are about to open fire at random.
I was prompted to write this because of the eerie tenor of the murderer’s comments this time: declaring that black men rape white women, and that ‘black people are taking over’. Yes, this killer seems to be insane, but his rantings are consistent with not just white-supremacist ideology, but in a subtler way with general white-American prejudices. This is not news. The pervasiveness of American racism has been a dominant theme of American historiography for at least the last 50 years. But I wonder: How does this racist narrative persist? I have, unfortunately, dealt with a friend in the middle of a paranoid psychotic break. But even as his grip on reality began to slip, he was trying to work out the validity, the veracity of his own narrative. This Charleston killer may have been insane, but he had to be drawing upon a set of narratives that are considered valid by some sort of social group. Maybe that is a tiny group, and their conversation is more extremely racist than the majority of the population. But the intensity of their racism is only a matter of degree–but not different in kind–from the prejudices held by a large proportion of white Americans. If the ravings of a madman were unconnected to prevalent American attitudes, this whole incident would only be a horrible personal tragecy for the immediate families of the murdered and wounded. But it has national implications because the murderer sought to justify his actions based on a version of a conversation that is widely shared among whites.

I will call this the myth of the Threatening Black Man. What is the relationship between this myth and actual historical events? In many ways, the TBM is an inversion: whites actually did and still do perpetrate mass violence against African Americans. Today it takes the form of segregation in communities, discrimination in job and life-opportunities, police profiling, and our prison system. But the violence is not obvious to non-Black Americans, indicated by surprising tone-deafness about crime. A good example of this tone-deafness is a recent interview of Judd Apatow on NPR’s Fresh Air. Apatow marveled at the crimes he got away with as a teenager in Long Island. Every time he reflected on how he got away with something, I kept thinking “because you’re white.” Neither he nor Terry Gross mentioned how radically different the outcome would have been if he had been black. Apatow was shooting out the windows of cars and stealing radar-detectors. Trayvon Martin was coming back from buying Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea. Which one faced deadly force and died for their actions? Which one faced no consequences at all? Who is actually criminal, and what consequences do they face?

How does the myth of the Threatening Black Man persist in the face of both history and present fact? Maybe for recent white Americans the tone of gangster rap is taken as more real than actual history. But that would not explain why the promulgators of Motown were stereotyped as dangerous, 40 years ago. Maybe this inversion is some form of expression white shame? In which case the Guilty White Liberal is an inadvertent hazard, because each reminder of actual white violence may provide inversion-fodder to enhance the mythical Threat of the Black Man. I don’t know. I haven’t found a convincing answer for how, under any circumstances of ignorance or madness, a white person could somehow convince themself that the Threatening Black Man is a real and valid justification for unprovoked white-on-black violence.

In practice, African-Americans murdering whites is so rare that it hampered the identification of the two “beltway snipers” in 2002. When the actual pattern of a serial-murderer became apparent, investigators assumed there was a psychotic gunman. And, based on prior experience and actual statistical data, they assumed the killer was white. Those assumptions indicated what white police officers assume about actual psychotic killers. Yet, in the collective American psyche, the Threatening Black Man plays a huge role. Darren Wilson could describe his fear of Michael Brown, jr. as a “monster,” even though Wilson was a Peace Officer who was trained–and swore an oath–to be a public servant. The the fact that Wilson thought he could say such things and not have every interviewer, every friend, and his own mother scream at him in outrage is amazing. And yet Wilson was correct in his assumption that he could publicly get away with his self-portrayal as the frightened victim. It was not just the Grand Jury that acquitted him. Enough Americans accepted his narrative that he lives safely as a free man in America today, when so many African-American men today remain in danger of whites who murder with impunity.

Names of Americans to remember

Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, 41, pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, father of two;
Cynthia Hurd, 54, regional manager of the St. Andrews branch of the county library;
Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49, the mother of four daughters;
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, a coach of the girls’ track and field team and a speech therapist:
Tywanza Sanders, 26, who had graduated from Allen University as a business administration major last year;
Ethel Lee Lance, 70, who had worked at the church for more than three decades;
Rev. Daniel L. Simmons Sr., a retired pastor from another church in Charleston;
Myra Thompson, 59;
Susie Jackson, 87.

These people–these Americans–these human beings–should be remembered and honored. The story of black liberation continues, and I don’t want this essay to only focus (as so often happens) on the madness of whites. I also seriously doubt any white-supremacist is likely to read anything I write. So I address my fellow Californians about what we can do about the persistence of racism in our own communities. First of all, we need to keep asking those awkward, reality-based questions that unravel stereotypes. Statistically, collectively, there seems to be something psychotic and pathological happening at a collective social scale. It would be too easy to just say that ‘whites are crazy’ and stop the questioning there. George Zimmerman, John Allen Muhammad, and Seung-Hui Cho remind us that all humans are vulnerable to cowardice-based violence and psychosis. So mental health, and collective work against social phobias, are projects that we need to tackle collectively as Americans.

What we can all do, at any time an in any place, is push back against the cowardly racist narrative about whites as victims. Think of racism as a form of blood-poisoning, or a curse, that we all acquired at birth. It is a hatred and fear that enslaves us; makes us less than fully human. We need to heal this poisoning in ourselves and those we care about. We need to face it aggressively in the people closest to us as an act of love. Guilt and shame will only prolong racism; if we hide it, we will end up holding onto it. Facing it bluntly when we look in the mirror, and into the eyes of our friends–that is the path to our own emancipation.

Charlie Hebdo: an Iconoclastic Perspective

Honoring the irreverent dead

The satirists who were murdered at the comic-journal Charlie Hebdo prided themselves in being iconoclastic. The purpose of this essay is to critique the Western group-think of both political leaders and journalists, in their unified reaction against the terrorist acts in Paris last week. Critique does not mean total disagreement. I agree that the murder of people for their beliefs is a profound crime. It is an act against God in all the Abrahamic religions, and a political crime in the Western modern worldview. So if I offend readers with the rest of the content of this essay, then at least consider that I honor the spirit of the irreverent dead at Charlie Hebdo in the best way I know how: by taking an unpopular political position in the hope that it will encourage critical thinking.

Murderers in search of a cause: How to react?

Killing political journalists is murder, and it is a terrorist act intended to have a specific set of impacts upon a society. That society gives a victory to the murderers right away by acting traumatized. One of the great strategic errors of the Bush Administration in mid-September 2001 was to promote Osama bin Laden to a highly prestigious position by declaring him the leader of a war against the United States. As many (unpopular) critics of the time pointed out, the 9/11 attacks could have been characterized and treated as a criminal act. Rhetorically, the treatment of attacks as criminal is a deliberate disregard of their political intent. Right away, political and cultural leaders can deny a victory to murderers through a strategic rejection of the reaction that the murderers hope for. The Bush Administration and popular American media did not have to hand al Qaeda that early victory. Nor do the French have to hand a victory to political extremists now.

There is another advantage of treating these acts as criminal, rather than as acts of war. The instrument we use to pursue crimes is law-enforcement. The instrument of war is the military. We design the institutions of law-enforcement to be perpetual. The sustained pursuit of the Italian-American Mafia by the F.B.I. is a classic example of a relentless pursuit, over many decades, that has crippled and largely dismantled a highly-organized, extremely violent organization embedded within a civilian population. Early in his tenure as Attorney General, Eric Holder tried to close Guantanamo prison by bringing al Qaeda suspects to the United States for trial. Holder was blocked by Republican politicians from bringing these prisoners into the scope of Constitutional rights and law-enforcement. One political consequence of this Republican move is to declare, very openly to the world, that the United States remains ‘terrorized.’ We are willing to openly violate our own Constitution by holding prisoners for more than a decade without due process, without accusation, without trial, and subject them to torture. In other words, more than a decade after 9/11, Americans continue to hand political victory to terrorists. I hope the French do not fall into the same trap that American political leaders fell into.

Political leaders in Boston did far better after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. The act was treated as criminal, first and foremost. Civil rights were not suspended. Political leaders in Boston portrayed the Tsarnaev brothers as humans who committed murder and mayhem, and undermined the sincerity of their supposed religious motivations. In a similar way, the Guardian undermined the ‘Islamist’ justifications for violence of two Britons who went to fight for the Islamic State. Rather than violence as a result of religious devotion, the Guardian points out that these men knew so little about Islam that they had ordered Islam for Dummies from Amazon. In other words, they are men prone to violence who adopted “jihad” after the fact in an attempt to justify their lust for violence. Undermining post-facto justifications for violence is another effective countermeasure that denies legitimacy to any political justification for violent acts.

But an insistence on never suspending civil rights is perhaps the most effective denial of terrorist demands. In fact, the Republican refusal to allow our judicial system to handle the Guantanamo prisoners expresses a lack of confidence in our police, our courts, and Constitutional due process. I accept that we have seen some dramatic failures of the American judicial system in recent years (Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown Jr., Eric Garner), but a healthier reaction would be to reform the judicial system to bring it closer to our American ideals of justice, rather than disparage it by keeping ‘enemy combatants’ outside of that system for more than a decade.

It may seem incongruous to bring controversies of American racism into this discussion. But the question, in France as in the United States, is whether the Western system is just. The many loud assertions that the attacks on Charlie Hebdo were an attack on free expression suggest that Westerners feel a need to assert a right to mock the Prophet Muhammad as part of a ‘universal’ right of free press. Western leaders—marching today with François Hollande, the president of France—insist that this right is part of a ‘universal’ set of rights and freedoms that are the basis for the credibility of Western political systems. Credibility is the central issue here for Western political leaders, just as fair treatment of black people in the U.S. and in France is a question of credibility for Western regimes. The messages sent by Western regimes is crucial in both of these issues, and it is a geopolitical message in both cases. Furthermore, it is a message that overlaps. Many of the Muslims in France and the United States are of African descent. Outside of the West, Muslims and black Africans have endured a pretty ugly history of colonization, enslavement, and occupation by Westerners that cannot be ignored in the geopolitical effort of Westerners to assert their credibility. I do not mean to imply that a Western track-record of enslavement and imperialism invalidates Western beliefs in equal treatment and freedom of expression. But we need some historical perspective to understand this present moment through the eyes and hearts of the people who are the ostensible targets of this aggressive assertion of Liberal freedoms.

Iconoclasm: a hint from the deeper past

It was horrific, sickening, and yes, an unambiguous attack on the core democratic principle: free speech. —Bob Garfield, On the Media

Normally I am extremely supportive of the critical approach of the WNYC program On the Media. But I think they missed a crucial distinction by lumping all forms of speech together. They do go back several decades to understand Charlie Hebdo in historical context. But I need to go further back, and beyond France, to explain why some distinction between different forms of Western political speech are important. During the program, Laurence Grove of the University of Glasgow called Charlie Hebdo “iconoclastic.” This term has been used by many Western media organizations (Washington Post, New York Times, BBC, National Review) to characterize Charlie Hebdo. I will use this ancient term—iconoclasm—as our guide for a more historically-informed perspective.

Iconoclasm—the opposition to icons, the movement to destroy sacred images—was a Christian movement that arose in the late Roman Empire. First it was directed against the various non-Christian images and statues of the older Roman pantheism. In the eighth and ninth century in the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire it re-emerged as Christians destroying Christian icons and statuary. Islam was founded during this era of Christian iconoclasm. Like their Jewish and Christian neighbors, Muslims condemned the visual portrayal of prophets, especially the Prophet Muhammad. That is not an absolute rule; some Shi’ites in Iran do accept respectful representations of Muhammad. There is also a Sunni tradition of veiled or allegorical representations of Muhammad.

But for the majority of Muslims today, any visual representation of Muhammad is problematic, and mocking images of the Prophet are not considered an incitement to critical thought. Instead, they are considered an attack that is part of a Western project of colonization, occupation, and a violent expression of imperial privilege. Note that a billion Muslims have not reacted violently against these images, but many are dismayed by a well-armed Western civilization that does not tolerate polite requests to distinguish irreverent political satire and deliberate acts of hate-speech. We ban the “n-word” in most of American political discourse because, when used by whites today, it still does harm; it still reaffirms white privilege in a society that remains violently racist. For most Muslims, insulting portrayals of Muhammad are an act of hate-speech. Furthermore, for whom are the cartoons actually productive, in the sense intended by sharp political satire? For Westerners who already have a negative prejudice against all Muslims, do these cartoons provoke self-questioning? Does a vigorous defense of the cartoons support political critique? Or does it conflate the hard work of self-questioning with the self-congratulation of a Liberal West that regards its policies as the exact pattern that all other societies must adopt?

Christians resumed visual representations of Jesus in the late Middle Ages. But opposition to graven images is not culturally alien to Christian societies. The disappearance of many pre-Christian European images and statues—from Greece to Rome to Scandinavia—is a testament to the image-erasing tradition of Christendom. Rather than call Muslim iconoclasm something ‘oriental’ or ‘exotic’, a quick historical look reveals how much it is the shared tradition of the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

In the modern world, “iconoclasm” means something new. It means irreverence, and a critical view of sacred beliefs. This need for irreverence—this need for freedom from religion—arose during the Wars of Religion that defined Western civilization.

The past is never dead

“William Faulkner once wrote, ‘The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.’ We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.” –Barack Obama, “A more perfect union”, 2008.

Faulkner was arguing against political-historical amnesia. Barack Obama cited Faulkner to argue that any understanding of political injustices in the present requires an historically-informed perspective. This also pertains to Christian-Muslim relations over the last two centuries of European colonialism. And furthermore, it also pertains to the very nature of Western identity itself.

Before Wars of Religion, Europe wasn’t even called the West; it was called Christendom. But the Protestant-Catholic conflicts of 1535-1648 were so intractable, and so violent, that they threatened to destroy Christendom as a whole. Between 1600 and 1630, about one third of the population in what is now Germany was killed in religious violence between Catholics and Protestants. The Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1644 was a stark reminder that while Christians were busy butchering each other, the Muslim Turks were well-organized and ready to subject a self-destroyed Europe to Muslim rule.

In a very peculiar move, Europeans decided to save Christendom by denying its existence. In the various political and social negotiations that came to be known as the “Westphalian Settlement,” Europeans decided to ‘expel’ religion from public political life, at least in rhetorical terms. Christendom was re-branded “the West.” This did not mean that it was non-Christian or post-Christian, but rather it was the imposition of a taboo against calling it Christian. Elizabeth I of England insisted that English subjects had the private right to believe whatever they wanted, but the public obligation to worship and coexist together as Anglicans. Although one of the titles for British monarchs remains defensor fidelis—Defender of the Christian Faith—in practice the British political leadership has tolerated tremendous religious plurality, and the right of the British press to be irreverent. Americans carried forward this tradition not just through the First Amendment, but also through the awkward practice of attempting to avoid discussing religion and politics during Thanksgiving dinner.

Likewise, France is ostensibly secular, meaning that the Roman Catholic Church is not allowed any formal political role in the Republic. Most French Jews were exterminated or exiled in the Middle Ages, and French Protestants were likewise slaughtered or exiled in the 17th and 18th centuries. The French Revolution marginalized the role of the Roman Catholic Church in French politics. The right of the French press to be free from Christian censorship is vigorously defended. But there remains an assumption that being French means being Roman Catholic, or descended from Roman Catholics.

Westerners insist that this explicitly-secular-but-implicitly-Christian identity should be accepted by all other peoples of the world as not just Western, but in many ways as the universal norm for being modern. I think Talal Asad laid out the best criticism of this position. If Europeans want to be secular, that’s fine. Europeans have very good reasons to fear the entanglement of their own religion with their own political identity, because of the outrageous levels of violence between Christians during the European Wars of Religion. But that was not a universal experience, and Muslims were not participants in the Westphalian settlement. Muslims were not consulted about whether the best solution was to privatize religion and formally exile the role of religion in public politics. If Muslims had been consulted, they might have come up with very different solutions. Instead, Europeans declared their particular history and consequent political assumptions as universal history and a universal set of political values. Using modern industrial weapons, Europeans then proceeded to impose their ‘universal’ attitudes about the relationship between religion, politics, and the press on non-European peoples through colonization of Africa, Asia, and Oceania.

Political-historical amnesia

I have always been very sensitive to the long shadow that the Wars of Religion cast on Western societies because my father is Roman Catholic and my mother is Lutheran. Despite how tolerant and supposedly integrative the United States may claim to be, Protestant-Catholic marriages remain relatively rare and socially awkward. Part of my parents’ solution was to move into a predominantly Jewish suburb, where I grew up with kids whose parents were trying very hard to live quiet, suburban lives after the horrors of World War II. History was very alive to me as a child whose playmates had no uncles, aunts, or grandparents because most of their families were killed in the Holocaust.

The tension between my own parents and grandparents about a Lutheran-Catholic marriage also made the Wars of Religion hard to ignore. Even though they occurred 400 years ago, I have always been surprised by the political-historical amnesia towards the Wars of Religion and their present role in our understanding of the meaning of political liberty. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were both religious-political refugees from the conflicts in England. That brutal “state of nature” that Hobbes described in 1651 wasn’t some neolithic “cave-man” scenario. It was the brutality of a failed-state condition in England at the time—a brutality that is only possible when a civilized society tears itself to pieces. Westerners have good reasons—deep-seated, unacknowledged historical reasons—to strongly fear the intersection of religion, politics, and violence. But so long as we don’t look at the specific, European, Christian context of that brutality, we mistake that as a universal concern that ‘all civilized people’ should share. From the outside, I think that presumption of universality looks and feels imperialist, even if that was not at all the intention.

Is it the same thing for Charlie Hebdo to mock Muhammad and mock the Pope, or Jesus? Since French citizens are mostly Roman Catholic or descendants of Roman Catholics, mockery of the Pope and Christianity are forms of self-mockery and self-criticism. However, most of the colonies of the French Republic were in West Africa and the Middle East. In other words, the historical relationship of France to the Muslim world is Western-Christian-Imperialist to Muslim-colonized. Furthermore, because of that colonial history, most of the poorer, disenfranchised immigrant populations in France are Muslim or Muslim-descended. So: is there a political difference when a Parisian satirical magazine engages in self-satire of Christian symbols and icons, in contrast to mocking a Prophet revered by peoples whom the French have subjugated and colonized? Based on this very brief glimpse of history, I think there is a substantial difference.

But should immigrant populations, subjected to systematic and well-documented discrimination in France, accept French standards of freedom from religion? Should they graciously accept even mocking portrayals of Muhammad? That depends upon whose measure of ‘equal treatment’ is used as the standard. Most Muslims have opposed any visual portrayal of Muhammad for 1300 years. They do not practice a double-standard when they condemn non-Muslims for representing Muhammad. It is a policy which they equally and consistently impose upon themselves—as do Jews, regarding representation of their own prophets. It is a strict policy, but an equitable one.

Compared to that standard, the French official policy of allowing mockery of Muhammad bears an unfortunate parallel to the French colonial project: a very asymmetrical French imposition of political will on Muslims in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Syria. Furthermore, an historically-informed French policy of press freedoms would be much more particular, and not at all ‘universal’: French journalists and politicians have specific, legitimate reasons for insisting on freedom from Christian institutional domination. Beyond that, other press freedoms—which are not absolute even in France—need to be considered through the eyes of all the people who are intended as the audience. Is a cartoon critical self-satire? Or is it a ‘hellish repetition’ of French colonial domination and condescension towards peoples whom they call ‘barbarian’?

Stereoscopic critique

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” –W.E.B. duBois

It may seem that I have contradicted myself in both praising the courage of the satirists at Charlie Hebdo, and then criticizing the very cartoons that were used as a pretext by their murderers. My main critique is not of the journalists themselves, though: it is towards Western policies, and the current international reaction which asserts a very specific type of press freedom as a ‘universal’ right. But I also want to acknowledge the apparent contradiction here through a lesson I learned on Friday as I moderated a public panel discussion on justice.

One of the panelists was Jonathan Jansen, who is the Rector of the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. On his Facebook page, Jansen had already expressed similar views to those I have just argued; and he provoked a storm of criticism. But Jansen accepts that he will be considered controversial. When he became Rector, he refused to prosecute several white students in his university when they produced a video mocking some of the black staff-members of the university. Jansen sensed that the public might use its sense of righteous indignation towards these students as a way to avoid facing the larger racist context in which they had been raised. As a black South African himself, he is more committed to the long-term transformation of the cultural assumptions and structural relations of his country. So, instead of prosecuting and expelling the students, he opposed prosecution and asked them to stay at the university and engage in reconciliation with the staff. One of the students now does outreach across the region, challenging the way that white South Africans are raised as racists.

Jansen argues that, to understand why and how he made these choices, you have to ‘hold two truths in your mind at the same time.’ On the one hand, he called the boys’ actions cruel and stupid—on the other, he saw that they were behaving in a way that was consistent their upbringing. Shining a bright but narrow light of condemnation on them would have left the larger context of bigotry unchallenged. During the panel discussion, Jansen expressed concern that Americans tend to insist on ‘only one truth at a time’ in relation to both the Charlie Hebdo crisis and in terms of American policing policies over the last year. In this essay, I am echoing Jansen by analyzing these two issues together. In the case of American policing, he pointed out that Americans seem to portray police through one lens at a time: either as racist brutalizers in Ferguson, Cincinnati, and Staten Island or as victims, such as the two officers murdered in Brooklyn in an apparent revenge attack. Jansen insists that we need to understand both realities, both narratives as simultaneously true. Likewise, he argues that we need to see the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly simultaneously as disaffected youth in a society that systematically discriminates against them, and as murderers whose actions cannot and should not be justified. Jansen argued that we can only make ethical sense out of current events by holding multiple truths in our minds at the same time. His argument reminded me strongly of W.E.B. duBois’ concept of ‘double consciousness.’ But it is not just the double-consciousness of a people subject to discrimination. As a cultural leader, Jansen has to employ insight and vision in a way that sees beyond immediate acts to their longer-term structural relations. I call this ‘stereoscopic critique.’

Given what Jansen has achieved at the University of the Free State, I would go further to argue that this double-consciousness, this ‘stereoscopic critique’ of unfolding events has enabled him to enact policies that are not only ethical, but revolutionary in how he has transformed a specific incident of cruel racism into an instrument in the long fight to dismantle racism in South African society.

Likewise, an effort to see the tragedy in Paris with stereoscopic critique is a radical challenge, because it requires some degree of compassion with two profoundly different worldviews. Compassion does not mean agreement with, nor exoneration from acts of murder. But it does mean seeing beyond the glare produced by the spotlight of righteous indignation, to discern the shadowy outlines of a massive structure of violent inequality and cultural condescension that ties directly to those gruesome acts of violence.

If I have pissed off the irreverent dead—and those who only see the dead through a single lens as victims—then I have done so in an effort to honor their own example.

A Leftist pitch for competition and economic growth

A common conservative disparagement of liberals and leftists is that we are anti-business. I often use Adam Smith’s arguments to show precisely the opposite. Leftists dislike monopolies and oligopolies. Oil companies and phone companies are two examples of oligopolies: their products, services, and pricing are so similar that their collusion with each other is pretty obvious. In classical (i.e. Smith’s) economic terms, cartels dominate both markets, suppress competition, suppress innovation, and charge prices far higher than they could charge in competitive markets. In other words: like monopolies, oligopolies are market-failures.

Like Smith, I believe that competitive markets promote more innovation. I also agree with Smith’s argument that competition is a mechanism for providing strong, consistent downward pressure on prices for goods and services. And I agree with Smith’s arguments for supporting the mechanisms that maintain competition. In Wealth of Nations(1776), Smith argues for a strong system of civil courts and police enforcement of property rights, including the right to collect royalties and license-fees on intellectual property. In other words, a strong regulatory regime is necessary for competitive markets. So, in Adam Smith’s terms, deregulation is a bad economic idea because the absence of regime-enforcement re-opens markets to their natural tendency toward monopolies and oligopolies.

I use “natural tendency” with caution, because Gramsci warned that references to a ‘natural world order’ are often used to forcibly suppress the questioning of assumptions that should be questioned. Is there really something inherent in the mechanism of markets that tends toward concentrated domination, if left unchecked by the police power of regimes? I can give some empirical evidence. Where do markets operate within weak enforcement-regimes? Narcotics trade in Afghanistan. Blood diamonds in central Africa. These practices are strongly dominated by a few cartels, a few warlords, because there is no regulation of activities which are illegal in themselves. Even in legal regimes, the rich get richer because they have “discretionary wealth” (meaning something above bare livelihood) that they can risk on investments.

John Maynard Keynes (1936) and Robert Heilbroner (1953) both argued that Smith’s metaphor of the “invisible hand” was misused by neo-classical economists. Hayek and Friedman implied that the invisible hand means that markets are naturally self-regulating without government interference. Like Smith, Keynes argued that markets are not inherently self-regulating. Smith did argue for market-Liberalization: he wanted commoners to have the right to engage in private contracts that would be enforced by the public courts if something went awry between the contracting parties. Smith also argued for the removal of direct aristocratic control of small businesses. That is Liberalization in the sense meant from about 1780 to 1860. Smith’s argument for ‘removal of aristocratic control’ can also be understood as an argument that rich elites should not dictate the terms of local nor long-distance commerce. The 7th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution echoes this sentiment. Commoners–meaning people like you and me–have the right of access to courts to protect our property claims. We need that for the same reason that Keynes argued: markets are not self-equilibrating.
The application of the term “free” to markets is a beautifully deceptive piece of neoliberal propaganda. When the courts and regulatory agencies are underfunded and weakened, commoner-rights get weakened and wealthy elites are able to concentrate more wealth unto themselves. Markets are either competitive or non-competitive. If a market gets deregulated, it quickly gets dominated and therefore noncompetitive.

In search of better macro-economic metaphors

In addition to the ‘invisible hand’ metaphor, there is another metaphor (mis)used to imply that the growth of one big firm will ‘naturally’ lead to broad-based economic growth. The expression is “A rising tide lifts all boats.” In this metaphor, what does the rising water represent? Cash? Available capital? Why is that water self-leveling? Why does it self-redistribute under all boats? Does cash “naturally self-distrubte” in an even way under all the individuals in an economy? No. And not even a 21st-century Leftist would want an economic system designed to distribute wealth out to a dead-level condition. First of all, that would undermine the incentives for harder work, risk-taking, and innovation. Secondly, we have already seen the disastrous consequences of the kind of state-Communist regime that can force all the wealth in an economy to distribute in a “leveled-out” way. Totalitarian regimes like Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot are another form of market-failure, in which the oligarchy becomes the oligopoly: the political regime can impose the same sorts of marktet-domination and anti-competitive distortion as a dominant corporation, like ATT or ExxonMobil.

So: the right-wing interpretation of “rising tide” metaphor is misleading in its implication that a deregulated market is a self-equalizing market. But even a simplistic Left-wing interpretation of the metaphor would mean disaster. Furthermore, the metaphor makes too many assumptions. Rising water only self-levels because of many factors: stable temperature; the orbit of a nearby moon; the gravity that pulls the water down; and the ground underneath that holds the water up.

A better metaphor for a deregulated market would be the formation of a planetary system. Deregulation, in this metaphor, means taking away all the other factors except for gravity, which we will leave as the force that represents the profit-motive in markets. What happens? A nebula of more or less evenly-distributed resources collapses together into a single mass. Too simple? Yes; add in one more force–momentum–and observe how the nebula collapses unevenly into a spinning disk. Perhaps momentum represents the competition among elites, who secure domination in a few different economic sectors. What is the result, in planetary terms? A nebula of roughly-even distribution of resources collapses into one or two primary stars, eight or nine planets, and perhaps fifty smaller moons and outer-system dwarf planets. The uneven distribution of resources in a planetary system begins to resemble the radical inequality of a deregulated market.

So maybe we should return to the “Rising-tide” metaphor and retool it as a rhetorical weapon against deregulation. What keeps the temperature even enough to keep the water liquid? Thermal regulation represents government regulation. And let us be explicit in saying that the water represents an even distribution of opportunity: which is why all children, rich and poor, deserve excellent, well-funded universal public education, decent housing, safe neighborhoods. What does the underlying ground represent? The underlying supportive structure of the regime that prevents the water of equal-opportunity from draining away.

Let us extend this metaphor further to bring in the lifeguards and rescue-boats of a welfare system. We want to see better-performing boats (firms) designed through constant, competitive innovation. We want to ensure the freedom of the whole population to use its weird, unpredictable genius to build better boats, boats that perform in ways no-one had imagined before. But we know that in a flotation free-for-all, 80% of the boats will fail. If we simply allow innovators to drown when their boats fail, we will promote a risk-averse population that will stick with older, already-proven boat designs. If we want to promote a culture of design innovation and risk-taking, we need to have an active rescue-system that prevents failure from being fatal by ensuring the welfare of the whole population. Furthermore, a big part of this population is not gifted in boat design (business innovation), and many of the people never learn how to swim. But they do other things like row, keep the ships clean, and cook better food than the boat-designers. The welfare system of lifeguards can and should prevent them from economic drowning too; it should not assume that they can swim in the waters of opportunity. Furthermore, the same safety-net system that supports the non-swimmers is the one that protects the real risk-takers. Not only is the lifeguard system affordable by the society as a whole; but it is actually a vital component of the promotion of risk-taking, innovation, and economic growth.

(Over?)population and our urban future

Several of my students still express anxiety about “over”population as part of urbanization. This anxiety is shaped by Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book, The population bomb. The book has been highly influential ever since it was published more than 40 years ago. This is unfortunate, because it contains a glaring conceptual flaw that demographers have known about since 1929.

In 1929, Warren Thompson published “Population” in the American Journal of Sociology. In this article Thompson describes two demographic transitions:
First Demographic Transition: improvements in public health and hygiene practices drop the death rate. More children survive into adulthood, and the population grows rapidly.
Second Demographic Transition: after one or two generations, families realize that the risk of child mortality has abated, and they tend to have only two children. So the growth-rate of the population levels off.

Britain was the first country to go through both demographic transitions, and the United States had just gone through the Second Transition in the 1920s, just before Thompson published his observations. Meanwhile, as Thompson (1945) and Kingsley Davis (1965) pointed out, other countries began experiencing the two transitions after the “early-industrializers.” Starting in the 1940s, rapid population-growth had shifted to “developing” countries where new health-regimes had dropped the death rate. In the U.S. this First Transition of falling death-rates happened especially in the 1900s and 1910s due to the Progressives and their urban-hygiene movement.

Thompson’s arguments were not secret; “Population” remains a classic in the canon of demographic research. Anyone competent in population-research knew about the two-phase transition in the 1930s–and as Davis’ research shows, they remained aware of it in the mid-1960s. So Ehrlich’s scholarship, in 1968, was at best incompetent.

Were we approaching the “carrying capacity” of the Earth in 1968? Are we now? That depends upon a lot of variables other than the raw number of humans on the planet. The politics of food access plays a greater role in famines, such as the deliberate starvation if Igbo peoples by the Nigerian regime during the Biafra conflict of 1968-1971. Pictures of starving African children were misinterpreted as evidence of Ehrlich’s argument about an ‘absolute’ excess of people in Africa. Is that racist? Well, Africa actually has a startlingly low overall population density: 28 people/square kilometer. In contrast, the population density of France is 119/km2; the U.K. is 259; and the Netherlands is 495 (World Bank, 2011 data). In terms of land area alone, Africa is in fact significantly underpopulated. It has large deserts, yes; but so does the United States (34 ppl/km2) and India (411 ppl/km2). The under-population of Africa today has more to do with diseases that have co-evolved with hominids there for millions of years, and political conflict since the European slave-trade and colonization began 400 years ago. But through Western ignorance about internal (and geopolitical) particulars of the wars in Nigeria, Angola, and the Congo, a public figure such as Ehrlich could continue to imply that there were ‘too many Africans’–an argument with unpleasant connections to the eugenics movement in the United States and Germany from the 1870s to 1945.

But the highly-normative term “overpopulation” is not just used by those who think there are ‘too many colored people.’ The overpopulation-argument has gained a much wider acceptance as a ‘truth.’ The argument is assumed to be ‘self-evident,’ ‘obvious,’ and ‘natural‘ in what Gramsci would call a hegemonic level of dominance. My students at SF State often accept the “overpopulation” argument as a given. Yet most of them are working-class and nonwhite. If Ehrlich’s arguments ever gained traction as enforceable policy, my students would be likely targets of ‘fertility-restriction’ programs implemented by upper-class Americans.

The usefulness of critique: What we see with a little more clarity

One purpose of this blog-post is to debunk the “overpopulation” myth. I will refer my students to this post from now on to save time. But I have a second, very different reason for writing this post as well: I am more concerned about a demographic shrinkage than I am about a continued increase in population. We need to carefully think through the implications of a Third Demographic Transition: the decision by highly-educated families to have fewer children than the previous generation.

In the Third Demographic Transition, women (as individuals or as part of a family) choose to have fewer than two children, on average. The fertility-rate that will maintain a stable population is 2 children per woman, plus the infant/child mortality rate. In the U.S. the mortality rate of children from 0-18 years is about 0.05%, so a fertility-rate of 2.05 would maintain a stable population. But since the 1970s, two things have changed in the U.S.:
1) working-class male wages have flattened since 1973, so women have had to enter the paid workforce to supplement household incomes.
2) women have been getting advanced degrees at a far greater rate. In 2012, 68% of the admissions to SF State were women. Nationwide, the rate is about 55% women in undergraduate programs. Equal pay for equal work is still not protected in the U.S., so the two changes don’t mean that women have achieved equality. But with much higher expectations about how they want to live their lives, many women are very reluctant to take 3 to 10 years out of their career-path to bear and raise young children.

Other factors contribute: marriage is increasingly seen as a middle-class and even upper-middle-class privilege by a growing majority who know they are no longer “middle class” in the 1950s sense of the term. One indication of this change is that almost half of children are born out-of-wedlock in the U.S. today. Ironically, conservative-Americans use the ideology of “family values” as an instrument of political disparagement against liberals. Rather than a punitive bludgeon, we may need to rethink family-support as an agenda of compassion–or at the very least as a series of public policies to salvage our economy in the future.

Which brings me to the problem with the Third Demographic Transition. Our economic system is designed around the assumption of growth. For example, the largest financial asset of most American households is their house. What happens to the value of those houses when a declining population stops bidding on a large fraction of them? If investors risk money with the expectation of a growing market that will return profits on their investments, what happens when Americans start consuming less? For environmental reasons, we need Americans to consume less. I am not disputing the widespread concern over resource-depletion. But what happens when Americans really do start consuming less? The problem is, I don’t think we know how to manage this transition in an economically healthy way. Not only do we lack the theory to shape good economic policy around shrinkage; behind that under-theorization lies the fundamental problem that we have difficulty imagining it.

But we better grasp the economic-policy implications of the Third Demographic Transition pretty soon, because it is upon us. Japan has been struggling with economic stagnation since about 1990, and demographic shrinkage is a major, underlying structural factor. The fertility rate of Japan is less than 1.39, and the median age is 45. Hundreds of thousands of Philipinas have been encouraged to migrate as elder-care workers. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese work in Japan’s western cities (Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and the local governments are considering granting them the right to vote as an inducement to stay. Given the strongly ethnocentric history of Japan, that is a shocking change in policy. And yet economic growth in Japan has been anaemic, even though the same country, with the same structural political economy, succeeded in three decades of astounding economic recovery and growth from 1950-1980.

Japan’s persistent economic difficulties may be a cautionary tale of our near future. Demographically, the U.S. is maintaining its population and relatively young median age only through its relatively welcoming immigration policy. Since the Great Recession of 2008, the total fertility rate (TFR) in the U.S. has dropped to 1.89. Educated white Americans, in particular, and not replacing themselves demographically. The TFR of college-educated white women in 2012 is 1.6 (WSJ, 2013). Economically, the decline in consumption has already begun. BP’s 2013 World Energy Profile marks the fifth year in a row that energy consumption in wealthier (OECD) countries has declined. The decline is not large–only a few percent per year–and it is more than compensated for by growth in consumption in China, India, and Brazil. But what that means, in terms of policy, is that two processes are happening at the same time. The first process of demographic/economic growth is still happening in some parts of the world; however a second pattern of long-term demographic/economic shrinkage has apparently begun in North America, Europe, and Japan. Petroleum companies are still profitable because some countries are “still catching up,” but that only buys us some time before the same transitions affect their economies as well. Education among girls and women worldwide is increasing. Again this is good news, especially in the sense of ethics and justice. But it also means that the human race as a whole is moving not only towards the Second Demographic Transition (stability), but towards the Third: towards planet-wide population decline.

Drops in per capita consumption, and voluntary declines in population, may be exactly what the planet needs in terms of “sustainable development.” Sociologically, it may be a good thing if couples who don’t really want children feel no normative pressure to have children. Overall it may be a very good thing if we learn to live elegantly with less material consumption. In fact, maybe we should push for all these changes. But in that case, we need to figure out how this will work economically. “Recession” implies economic harm, even though it technically means only a shrinkage in production. Can we improve the overall wealth and welfare of Americans (and humans more generally) as both our population and economy shrink? This is one of the most urgent economic questions of our generation.

Beyond alarmism

Once we peel away Ehrlich’s anxiety about the First Demographic Transition, we see a very different problem revealed by the Third Demographic Transition. But I emphasize that it is a problem, not a catastrophe. We do need to figure out a fundamentally different macro-economic model, but not because we teeter on the edge of oblivion. Figuring out how to increase welfare for a decreasing population can be considered a marvelous, even joyous project; not one we must undertake out of fear or threat.

As we reject “overpopulation,” we also need to reconsider the very meaning of a current human population of 7 billion people. It means that parents have committed to bearing and raising all of these living humans. It is one of the most prodigious acts of labor (in all senses of this word) ever performed by the human species. It is a tremendous achievement. It could contribute to a human and environmental disaster if we fail to innovate and change; but then, that is what we can and should do. And that is what we mean by planning. We cannot control the future. We cannot even predict the future. But we can look at some hints and trends, and then apply our juicy brains towards imagining how that future can work.

Citizenship, Military Service, and College

Since I teach at a large state university, I have several veterans in my classes every semester. This is incredibly valuable for the way I teach, because veterans have direct experience of federal policies, experience of different cities and countries, and a nuanced perspective on geopolitics. So I am thankful for their presence, in addition to the risks they took in service to our country.
This makes me think a lot about the military, warfare, and our daily lives. I agree with Stephen Graham that there is no longer any significant distinction between a condition of war and a condition of peace; there is no longer such a thing as ‘civilian life’ in contrast to pitched, violent, disruptive political conflict (i.e. war). On a continuous basis, the cyber-warfare units of various national governments are trying to crank our personal electronic devices for various reasons. Since these are the same communication systems and operating systems that control weapons, surveillance, and finances, any directed action to damage these is certainly an act of war. Consider what will happen, for example, when enemies of the United States figure out how to commandeer the control-signals for weaponized American drones. Drones are not merely battlefield devices–a hint that there is no longer really a “battlefield”–because they are also used by Customs and Border Control, and by regular domestic police units. The Oakland Police Department wants to use aerial drones to pursue criminals rather than police cars, and I agree that this would be much safer. High-speed chases tend to get a lot of people killed. Likewise, the police in Aurora, Colorado used crawling drones to enter Mr. Holmes’ apartment, because they suspected that it would be booby-trapped. They were correct, and many lives were saved by using a ‘bot first. So I don’t think a categorical ethical judgment of robots is appropriate. They are our instruments. And we have changed the design of our instruments in such a way that the distinction between “exceptional conditions of battlefield warfare” and “normal conditions of daily law enforcement” have disappeared. We need to think about the use of robots, yes, but we need to think much more about the fact that the distinction between peacetime and warfare has functionally disappeared.

The veterans’ perspective

I commute to SF State via BART and the #28 Muni bus. A few weeks ago I was standing next to a young man who was wearing a Vets @ SFSU sweatshirt. I asked about the organization; how supportive it is. He said it helps to share stories with other vets because most of the students just have no sense of the shockingly different experience vets have. He is 27, and a transfer student, and it is weird for him to sit in classrooms with students who have just come from their suburban hometown to study. He understands that this is just the nature of the classroom, But it is a little eerie sometimes. I expressed my appreciation of having vets in my classes for exactly this reason: when I am teaching about cities in very different countries, and when I am teaching about the violent and adverse conditions that many people live in, the vets often help me explain this perspective to their fellow students.
I asked him where he had served: two tours in Iraq, one in Afghanistan. His third tour ended when he stepped on a landmine and lost the lower part of his left leg. I looked at him in surprise–we were standing right next to each other in the crowd waiting for bus. He said the prosthetic leg worked pretty well, and many of his classmates did not even realize he had lost a limb.
The #28 bus arrived. The driver ‘kneeled’ it down at the front and extended the wheelchair lift for a person who was boarding. In a low voice my friend said “I’m never going back to that again.”
“Were you wheelchair-bound?” I asked.
“For a year,” he replied. “The amputation and the prosthetic were not the main issue. Physical therapy was pretty good. The problem was my right leg, the one that they saved.”
“Oh,” I suddenly realized. “Tissue damage, nerve damage…”
“Everything,” he said. “It was excruciating. Took longer to get my right leg working again than to learn to use the prosthetic for my left leg.”
“Ah. I see what you mean about fellow students having a hard time understanding your perspective on life.” He said goodday, we got on the crammed bus, and went to school.

Making GIMP 2.8 useful

Good news! You can add a plugin to GIMP 2.8 that enables it to save files normally!

The issue

Months ago, the developers of the Graphic Image Manipulation Program (a.k.a. “The GIMP”) released version 2.8. Many regular users were dismayed to discover that we could no longer do the following:

  1. open a .jpg file;
  2. edit it;
  3. save it using CTRL+S;
  4. and close it. [Without a warning, since I have just saved my work]

Once I started searching the discussion boards, I discovered that several thousand users have already complained about the change from version 2.6 to version 2.8. The response of the GIMP developers has been defensive and condescending, which is unfortunate. They do have very good reasons for pushing users to adopt the .XCF file format, which is the native GIMP format. XCF saves layers and layer states; it retains editable text and paths; and it is not lossy. For each of these reasons, I do keep “working files” in XCF format. I have about 200 images that I occasionally re-work.

But I have about 22,000 images that I need to sort and organize from my field research on cities. I can organize those photos in their original JPEG format using any file manager on Linux, Mac OS, Windows, or Android, using their thumbnail-previews. So far as I know, no file-manager can view thumbnails of XCF files by default. I think there may be plug-ins for some of the file-managers that I use; but I would have to custom-modify each file-manager to keep my XCF files organized. So I have no plans to convert my collection of photos to XCF. And unless I need to keep a multi-layered, lossless working copy, I don’t have time nor need for XCF.

The GIMP developers have dismissed us protesters as low-end users who should switch to another program. That is insulting to everyone who has written a script that works in GIMP. This “low-end user” does not know of another open-source program in which I can set up a batch process to adjust the gamma of one color-layer, and then crop and resize to 1024×768 so I can show slides to my students. Furthermore, the GIMP developers point to their vision statement and–lo and behold!–it says that they want GIMP to be user-configurable! But they have steadfastly refused to put in configuration options so that end-users can re-set the Save/Save As functions to behave as they did in GIMP 2.6.

Note that the behavior of GIMP version 2.6 followed the standard procedure in GUI computing: when I open a file and change it, I will overwrite the original if I type CTRL+S and then CTRL+W. Since 1988 I have always needed to be careful about overwriting versions of files that I might want to save. So I do recommend using Save As and a filename protocol to track changes. I need to do that with text files, spreadsheets, GIS shapefiles, JPEGs, and–yes–even XCF files if I want to keep more than one draft. What I don’t need is to have one group of developers cripple their software to force me to manage my file-changes in THEIR method.

Solution: saver.py

Akkana Peck knows Python! And I do not. She has written two Python scripts which resolve the “Save/Save As” problem in GIMP 2.8! This is the link to her November 2013 version. To install:

  1. When you open the GitHub page linked above, click on the “Raw” button and you will get the raw text of the python script.
  2. Select all, copy, and paste the text into a text editor. Use an editor that does not add hidden formatting. I use Gedit in Ubuntu, or Notepad in Windows.
  3. Save the file with this name: saver.py
  4. In Ubuntu, make sure the file is set to executable. Open a terminal, change to the directory where you have placed the file, and enter:
    $ sudo chmod +x saver.py
  5. Then copy it to your GIMP plugins directory:
    $ sudo cp saver.py ~/.gimp-2.8/plug-ins/saver.py
  6. Then (re)start GIMP.

If python is installed and running, and the plugin is installed correctly, it will add two items to your File drop-down menu, below Save and Save As: “Saver as…” and “Saver.” You can invoke these new functions manually, but you can also map the shortcut keys to them:

  1. Go to Edit > Keyboard Shortcuts… this opens the ‘Configure Keyboard Shortcuts’ dialog.
  2. Open the Plugins dropdown and scroll way down for Saver and Saver As. On my system, it is the last two Python scripts before the list shifts to Script-Fu scripts.
  3. Click “Saver” and the Shortcut field will activate. Press the CTRL+S keys, and they are assigned.
  4. Click “Saver As,” and the Shortcut field for this script will activate. Press CTRL+SHIFT+S, and these keys will be assigned.

GIMP will now behave like all the other applications on your system!

In closing…

I sincerely hope that the GIMP developers re-embrace the spirit of the open-source community: sharing work, building on each other’s efforts, listening to users and responding to us, and promoting maximum configurability within the software by default. If not, I expect that a fork of the GIMP led by compassionate people will eclipse the current developer-team.

Got justice?

Tomorrow evening, Friday, November 22, there will be a candlelight vigil at 5:00 pm, 15th and Guerrero Streets in San Francisco, to protest the beating of D’Paris Williams one week earlier by plainclothes police officers of the San Francisco Police Department. D’Paris lives in Valencia Gardens, one of only a few public housing complexes in our absurdly-expensive City. It seems that he was beaten in front of his own house as he was returning home from the “Batkid” festivities.

All the evidence I can find indicates that D’Paris committed no crime before he was beaten. Witnesses of the incident immediately objected to his treatment, and three more were beaten and arrested. Now: the Chief of Police, Greg Suhr, says “the public’s trust is everything to us.” That is correct: enforcement of law and order is only feasible when the population trusts and respects the police to serve the public, abide by their oath, and act as Peace Officers. If they violate that oath by beating a man who has committed no crime, then exactly the same law should apply to them: prosecution for felony assault. If the SFPD fires these officers and prosecutes them, then some trust in the SFPD will be restored.

At the end of two of the articles I have linked to, anonymous posters have made grossly prejudiced comments about D’Paris. I am dismayed, but the cowardly honesty of such comments reveals the degree of racism that persists here in San Francisco. This bigotry is also tied directly to gentrification: only two blocks south of the site of this beating, Valencia Street is undergoing some of the most dramatic gentrification in the United States. A criminal record imposed on a young black man would be grounds for his eviction from Valencia Gardens, and from the City as a whole. It would be one more step towards making San Francisco a symbol of injustice, intolerance, and racial segregation. Is this what we want San Francisco to represent?

I am a public servant of the State of California. I teach the principles of justice to hundreds of students every year. I hope you will join me in praying for D’Paris Williams, Orlando Rodriguez, Antoine Bradford, and every other young man who had been unjustly beaten and then accused of assault by the very same officers who beat him. I hope to see you tomorrow night.

8,914 Miles

Last night we returned to Berkeley from our round-the-country road trip. We logged 8,914.3 miles on the trip odometer.

It is Sunday morning, August 25. After I post this I will put together the readings and class websites for two of the four (yikes!) courses that I will be teaching this fall at San Francisco State. This marks a major change of mode back to being an academic. Bearing-grease is still wedged in the callus-cracks on my hands; but within a few weeks the calluses will peel away from everywhere except my keyboard-tapping fingertips. Four months of intense manual labor are ended. The inflammation of my carpal tunnels has already begun to abate; I am no longer awoken at 5 AM by radiating pain along my fingers and arms. I love building, designing, and problem-solving; but I do not have the manual toughness required to make a living as a builder.

A conversation across America

At one level, I still feel like it was a foolish use of time to build the trailer rather than rent a camper. I have three journal articles I really want to finish and submit for publication. Quite obviously, that is what I need to do to advance my career. But there are two ways in which the trailer was time well spent. First of all, it feeds my design-craving. I love to prototype; and the trailer design that we needed did not exist. Felipe (named for Felipe Paris, R.I.P.) enabled the four of us to camp in all sorts of places, through four major storms. And it was light enough to be pulled by Glove–our 2.0 liter, 4-cylinder VW Golf. Felipe the Camper is 400 pounds, 9 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 4 feet high at its crown. It is a shockingly small and light camper for four people. Time permitting (hah!) I will go over the lessons we learned on the road about the design.

The second, and far more important benefit of the trailer was that it provoked conversations with the full spectrum of Americans we encountered from California to South Dakota to New Hampshire to Virginia to Louisiana, Texas, and New Mexico. In a 15-second interchange with the toll-booth attendant at the Grand Isle Bridge near Niagara Falls, she told me about a magazine retrospective on teardrop trailers. In western Virginia, to fellows in a pickup asked for a look inside to understand the design. I know the stereotype–I think they were even wearing flannel–but from their polite sophistication I came up with a new term: HillWilliams, in contrast to the pejorative HillBilly. In Euclid, Ohio, a brief discussion of the trailer with a biker led into an extended discussion about racial politics, social policy, and the declining economy and population of metropolitan Cleveland. John is an African-American, social conservative, with a strong distaste for the way that public housing policy shaped his peers while growing up in Euclid.

So many conversations, so many stories. John Steinbeck got comments on his trailer when he traveled with his dog Charlie; but the amount of attention we got with Felipe was really extraordinary. The way it gave us friendly access to sooo many people was precious beyond any monetary cost; it even justified the twelve-week time cost to build it. Now, on to my class preparations.

Guppy Trailer, Part 6: towards completion


When we returned from our 1K test, I wanted to finish out the trailer as quickly as possible so that I could do some research and writing (That has not happened yet). I immediately set to building the galley-hatch. I continue to learn how to apply greater pressure for field-bending sheets of plywood. Here I am bending a 4′ wide sheet of 1/4″ birch veneer as the back face of the hatch.


Next, I inserted insulation, just as in the roof and sidewalls.


Here is a detail-shot of the hatch where it meets the roof and sidewall. In my effort at waterproofing, I have glued a slit-open bicycle inntertube to the piano-hinge. The end-detail is messy and inelegant; hopefully it will work.


To lock the lid closed, our neighbor Keith gave me a garage-door type closer, with horizontal sliding bars. Here I am fashioning the jamb-socket for the closer.


Here you begin to see the distinctive Guppy shape of this design.


I also began fitting trim for the door and the windows.  130720_1102_LRearView

The last exterior addition was the rear “haunches,” situated over each wheel well. These side-lockers open out to provide work-surfaces for me and the children.


Here you can see the left haunch taking shape. Also note how the curve of the galley-hatch lid matches the curve of the roof; both are 10′-radius arcs, and the inflection-point is right at the hatch-hinge (see the design drawings in earlier posts). I like to say, sarcastically. ‘Oh yeah! I meant to do that!’ But sometimes, design-features are just fortuitous.

Also note that when properly varnished, the birch ply is utterly gorgeous. See how the sun refracts against the wood grain?130725_LRearWithHaunch_4797Here, the left haunch is nearing completion. Sadly, I got a bad piece of birch ply from Ashby Lumber. Delamination was so extensive that I stripped off the entire birch veneer and exposed the knotty-pine interlayer. It does not look pretty.


With both haunches installed, the Guppy has taken on its final shape.

Guppy trailer, part 5: 1000-mile test



On July 4, we drove to Ashland, OR and saw Misner & Smith in concert. It was 107 degrees in the Sacramento Valley during our drive, so we had the air conditioner on most of the way. We found that the AC slowed us down far more than the trailer. Aside from an occasional chunka-chunk shaking of the trailer-hitch, the trailer’s effect on the car was barely noticeable. A good sign! In the image above you can see now the Guppy is relatively large compared to our golf, but tiny compared to a standard American camper.


Ashland is quite beautiful; I recommend it. Dragonflies.130705_0642_TrailerAtApt

Our first night on the road, we camped behind an apartment building. Not so romantic, but realistic: the Guppy is designed so that we can camp wherever we park. Here you can see the unfinished back end; we won’t know the aerodynamics of the full trailer until the hatch-lid and haunches are built.  130707_1008_kids+trailer

On our second night we stayed at Tule Lake, after visiting the Japanese-American internment camp site. Apparently the TuleLake camp was famous for housing dissidents and (Japanese)Americans who would not sign an insulting “loyalty oath.”

On our third night, we stayed in a park in Trinidad, CA.


Trinidad is stunningly beautiful. In many ways it is the beginning of the Pacific Northwest coast. It also has a fleet of tiny, working fishing boats. I thought it would be great to meet some of the boatwrights to confer about the Guppy trailer, since it is built like a wooden boat.



…But first, we had breakfast at Trinidad’s Beachcomber Cafe. Fabulous place.



They have displays of where their ingredients come from.


Trinidad is very different from Arcata, the hippie college town just down the road. Still groovy-north-coastal, but much more low key.

Teardrop Trailer 001

After breakfast, we went outside and lo and behold: a boat guy had found us. Actually, when we parked in town to go to the cafe, we parked in front of Ken Bechdol’s house. He has built many wooden boats, but the partially-complete trailer intrigued him. Ken emailed me the photo above; note that he laid a yardstick in the image for scale. Also note how incomplete the Guppy is: we used cling-film to close the window-holes. You can see straight through the gap between the door and the jamb. There is even a bit of a shark-fin where I have not trimmed down the side-paneling above the door.130707_1130_Ken

Ken showed me six of his boats. [Hopefully when he reads this, he will remind me of the names of the four wooden boats. A leeboard skiff? A gig? Argh, I did not write them down immediately. But the two coracles are so distinct they are hard to forget!]

Here, Ken is showing me that on the rail of the boat he left the edge of the plywood exposed, so that he could show the thinness, and humbleness of the actual hull material. When the wood is finished this nicely, though, that sandwiched plywood edge looks like decorative inlay.130707_1133_BechdolBoat

One of Ken’s strip-plank boats, suspended from the rafters of the shop/garage. 130707_1625_beadingArcata

After conferring with Ken for one highly-informative hour, we headed down to Arcata and made beaded jewelry. Lizzie came up with a brilliant design for a pair of earrings! When I get the chance I will post images of them.130707_1932_PegHouse_KeylockScarfJoint

On our way back from Arcata, we stopped at the Peg House for coffee and snacks. The cashier pointed out the elaborate carpentry shown above. He did not know the name of the joint; I believe it is called a key-lock lapped scarf joint. And yes, that is a portrait of The Man In Black, affixed to the underside of the joined beam.

The drive back was uneventful; the Guppy continued to handle smoothly. In Petaluma, our trip-meter marked 1,000 miles traveled.