Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Welcome SUSI 2011 Alumni!

Well it has been almost 10 months since we said goodbye to each other! Since then, a wild variety of superb "teaching moments" have come and gone, or come and persisted. The economic struggles of Americans have sharpened and clarified the gulf between two antithetical economic models-- the Keynesian social-welfare-state model, which we expected would return with renewed energy under President Obama, and a laissez-faire model, which has surged back into play in the past few months. It is quite surprising to see that the economic models we taught you in discussing the American 1880s and '90s are back with almost no modernization: anti-union, anti-taxation, celebrating the extremes of wealth, blaming the poor and dispossessed for their plights, and a general backing away from what we have called "the public sector," but what I called, in my lectures, "the commons"-- shared spaces, services, and resources that must be protected by a super-arching institution or government, so that individuals are regulated in their desires to acquire or use these common goods exclusively for themselves.

But you will also remember that we argued that American politics and American beliefs tend to vacillate between poles in times of crisis and tension, and these have certainly been times of crisis and tension in the States. And you will also remember that the isolated pockets of extremes on either side tend to stay huddled among themselves rather than passing fluidly through the body politic or the public sphere, where they might be introduced to those who believe differently than they do, and as importantly, see conditions different than their own. Urban kids, you remember, often think bread grows on bread trees and cheetos and doritos are harvested on farms. Rural kids can't imagine taking a bus or subway, seeing vacant lots and burned-out buildings, or going to a free concert in Millennium Park.

Already, the extremes seem to be fading a bit, and the empathic middle is emerging. This middle isn't, as politicians often mistake it, a common denominator, and it isn't even a set of shared ideas or beliefs. The American middle is often more accurately a group who hold fast to their core beliefs, but understand, and are sympathetic to, the differing core beliefs of others. Then there is the struggle to find a way for multiple beliefs to coexist in the public and the civic sphere. This is what's going to go on over the next few years, I predict, and you can hold me to it!


  1. Peter,

    I agree with your prediction. The recent views and criticism of Donald Trump and Republican Presidential Candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich elucidate your perspective.

    By the way, the first edition of Silver Cities was great and the new edition is superb.

    Carlos Morales

  2. I should write the title of this great book:

    Silver Cities: Photographing American Urbanization, 1839–1939