Monday, March 01, 2010

My Appalachian Epiphany and The Tea-Baggers

All the caterwauling by the Tea-Baggers has reminded me of an epiphany I had on a train trip in the early 1990's, a class I took in 1997 and a Monty Python bit. I'll explain.

As I've mentioned before, I got my bachelor's and master's degrees in Political Science in the mid 1980's. I also studied history and economics, and found all three subjects fascinating. One of the things we discussed frequently in all three subjects was the chicken and egg question of what comes first: political development or economic development. Does the political stability and physical and economic infrastructure provided by having a functioning government allow commerce, or does commerce provide the push and prosperity to form local, regional and ultimately central governments?

In 1990 or so, my parents moved to Raleigh, North Carolina. I loved two things about it. One was that it was fascinating to watch the planned development in the area they lived in-- how there were laws regulating the color of commercial signs and buildings to match the general aesthsetic of the area; how developers were only allowed to cut down the absolute minimum amount of trees to build; how expressways were built with the future capacity in mind (I used to laugh at how light the traffic was in rush hour, in stark contrast to the massive congestion of Chicago's). The second thing was that it was easy to take the train to Raleigh from Chicago.

I'll post another time of my love of train travel and the wonderful trips I've taken for another time. The trip from Chicago to Raleigh takes one through Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., where there's a couple of hours of layover-- just enough to wander out of the station and see the Capitol Building, Washington Monument and a few other things. And then there's the Appalachian Mountains.

One of the things I love about a train, as opposed to driving or flying, is that you go right through amazingly beautiful areas and are right in the middle of them without having to worry about driving. I've travelled through the Rockies and the Appalachians several times each via train, and hope to do so again when I'm done with school.

One of the other things I love about train trips is that it gives me time to read. On one particular trip I was reading Arthur Lall's book about his native India. Mr. Lall had been India's ambassador to the UN. The book was broad and readable, discussing India's history and present, including the challenges of development.

As the train went through the Appalachians and I pondered the questions Lall had brought up, we passed through a town. The train tracks ran on one side of a deep crevasse, and I looked across the crevasse to the other side, where the town was. The town was built on the other side of the enormous crevasse. It struck me that the architecture of the houses in the town were very similar to those in the town square in Charleston, Illinois, my college town. I figured that the towns had been built around the same period.

I began to ponder the economic reasons for various municipalities-- towns, cities, etc. and wondered about the economic reason for this town in the middle of the Appalachians.

We stopped there for a while-- there was a train station there, accessible from the town by a bridge built across the ravine. As I sat and looked at the quaint town, I realized that it had a fully developed infrastructure-- paved streets, electricity, streetlights, heated homes, etc. Thinking about Lall's book and his discussions about development in his country, I realized that in all but a few corners of the United States we can take the existence of a well-developed infrastructure for granted. We assume that with rare exceptions, the water we drink will be clean, the garbage will be picked up and disposed of safely, the human waste we flush down the toilet will not end up in our drinking water, the food we eat will not kill us, that we will be protected from crime, that fires will be put out, that streets will be built and maintained, that we will have schools, libraries, a postal service and other public institutions available to everybody. In short, we are able to depend on government at various levels-- municipal, county, state and federal, even in the poorest areas of our country.

A few months ago, my son and I were watching one of my favorite movies, Monty Python's "The Life Of Brian." There's a brilliant scene in which a rebel group is meeting, discussing how to rid themselves of the scourge of the Roman Empire. "What have the Romans ever done for us?" the leader asks:

Until that day, even having gotten two college degrees and having studied political science, economics and history, I had never pondered that-- the infrastructure was there, something I and most of my countrymen can take for granted. Through much of the world, that's not the case.

It takes an incredible naivete, then, to decry big government. We are, in every corner of the country, surrounded by the benefits of governments, even in the heart of "Tea Bagger" land.

When I was finishing my teacher certification, I took a required class: "Middle School Education." Sometimes I think that it should be required for everybody, for it gave me an insight into the behavior of adolescents. One of the themes that the teacher, Geno P., one of the best I had in getting my Elementary Education certification, hammered on was the exaggerated emotional response of adolescent children-- that "nothing is fair" to them-- even when their own behavior is infantile, outrageous, and, well, not fair. He reminded us again and again that their behavior is going to appear, to a mature adult, silly and ridiculous, and that you had to develop the ability to not take it personally. That class and his advice served me well in the years that followed-- my entire teaching career I taught adolescents. And of course it helped prepare me to raise a couple of kids, reminding me not to take behavior during adolescence personally.

Watching the puerile antics of the "Tea Party" protesters, I'm reminded of those adolescents I taught all those years. They are surrounded by a reasonably affluent and just society, but still it is not enough. What has the government ever done for them? Lots. To me, and most adults, their behavior is infantile at best, and racist at worst. It's alternately hilarious and frightening to see people who have been raised, educated, fed and protected by the infrastructure provided by government that is, for its faults, pretty effective, angrily denounce that government for doing things that every other industrialized nation has done-- keep their banking systems from collapsing and assuring adequate medical care for the majority of the population-- things that nearly every single one of them will benefit from.

It just isn't fair, is it?

So as an adult, I'll keep living my life. I'll reap the benefits of having a functioning government-- and do the adult thing by paying for it, through my taxes. And like watching a crybaby adolescent in my classroom who is screaming that it's not fair to be asked to do what is expected of everyone, and as long as they don't do anything rash, like fly their airplane into a federal building, and stick to their whining, I'll calmly wait them out and hope that they grow up someday.


Erik Donald France said...

Absolutely brilliant, man! Have you posted this on Facebook, too?
This works on so many levels . . .

And a nice plug for North Carolina -- which for those reasons is probably why much of my family still lives there, from Raleigh on over to Greensboro.

The blessings of government, infrastructure and relative stability combined with freedom of movement, ideas and commerce . . . Tom Paine would approve, as would Adam Smith. Voltaire Award for this one, Johnny!

Erik Donald France said...

I did that Amtrak trip in 2008. Wasn't it cool rolling into Harpers Ferry by train?

Churlita said...

yeah. Personally, I like having a good educational system, and maintained roads and national parks and I'm willing to pay for them with my taxes. Der