I may not be graceful or simple, but I’m trying to be persistant

Graceful SimplicityOne of my deepest difficulties as a reader and a researcher is my tendency to chase footnotes and citations, sometimes until I wander off permanently from the primary text. It was a real pain in grad school, because it usually ended up with other people thinking I was showing off my extensive reading. That’s not really what I was after; mostly, I just get curious. For example, even though I read and didn’t really care for Thoreau’s Walden, I just ordered a cheap dover copy since I hate e-books and PDFs. I blame Jerome Segal. It may not be obvious that’s what I was doing when I wandered down the alleys of some of the recent posts.

I’m still trying to process the Segal (and EP Thompson’s book on William Morris too, for that matter). It’s hard to try to focus when there are so many interesting topics at hand. To recap a bit, I summarized the basic framework Segal establishes for impoverishment and listed his criteria for a so called “Aristotelian approach” to political life.

Segal invokes Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech , focusing particularly on the lines:

“Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.”

There are some interesting rabbit holes to fall down in this book. I had encountered Edward Bok before in a journalism independent study back when I was working on my master’s degree, but didn’t realize until Segal brought it up that his magazine, Ladie’s Home Journal, was a big proponent of “simple living” at the turn of the twentieth century. I’ve trolled their archives on ProQuest for a while, finding all sorts of things that I won’t get lost in here. As Zoe Nyssa once remarked, my mind is a strange and mysterious place.

Segal summons John Woolman, Ben Franklin, and Thoreau to establish a different version of the “American Dream” that begins with simple living. It’s an alternate sort of economics, which he sums up:

The point of an economy, even a dynamic economy is not to have more and more; it is to liberate us from the economic—to provide a material platform from which we may go forth and build the good life. That’s the Alternative American Dream. (22)

The material that follows isn’t really as interesting as the primary sources he cites. He’s got a survey of various “simple living” self-help books, and some political policy arguments about the state of NRI (needs related income) and the difficulties of simplifying things when it’s actually harder to get enough money to maintain a basic standard of living than it has been in the past. Segal has some unique and concrete policy ideas working within existing government programs, like the earned income credit and medicaid, to assist people in finding a better basic quality of life. The general conclusion, after exploring the increasing costs of security, education, transportation, housing, etc. is this:

A general picture emerges. Yes, Americans over the years have increased consumption expenditures quite considerably. Much of this increase in household expenditure has gone to meet fundamental needs, either because needs were previously unmet, or because in real terms the cost of meeting these needs has increased dramatically.

This is quite a different picture than is commonly portrayed of our affluent society. For most Americans, their subjective experience that they always need more money than they have—is not to be explained by inflation in their appetites or standards of decency (e.g.”I must have more square feet, a newer car, better furniture, new gadgets, or I’ll just die), but rather by socioeconomic conditions that have resulted in unmet need or increased cost of meeting long-existing needs. (65)

It’s Segal’s framing of these “unmet” or “long-existing” needs that I find most fascinating. He actually discusses aesthetic impoverishment. It’s not something you see much outside of Morris and other Arts and Crafts literatures. In a long series of bullet points he frames a social conception of beauty that has some interesting twists, which I’ll turn to next. It’s almost socialist in its approach rather than individualist; coming on the heels on so much about standard economic needs, it’s a surprise. Rather than the conventional “ugly American” indictment of consumerism, Segal is on to something quite different.

Crisis of Confidence

Washington, D.C., has become an island. The gap between our citizens and our Government has never been so wide. The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual.

What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends.

Often you see paralysis and stagnation and drift. You don’t like it, and neither do I. What can we do?

First of all, we must face the truth, and then we can change our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this Nation. Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we face. It is a true challenge of this generation of Americans.

One of the visitors to Camp David last week put it this way: “We’ve got to stop crying and start sweating, stop talking and start walking, stop cursing and start praying. The strength we need will not come from the White House, but from every house in America.”

Full transcript

Treating the household as the center of the polis persists from Aristotle to Jimmy Carter and beyond. Jerome Segal points to Carter’s speech for its indictment of the excesses of material wealth and their impact on the psyche of the American people. This speech wasn’t effective at the time, but it’s an incredibly interesting thing to revisit.

As global energy markets are disrupted not by OPEC, but with the overwhelming efficiency and superior technology of American energy companies. We’re producing too much now, and instead of lines at the gas pumps we’ve got falling prices. But we still have, by most measures, a lack of faith in the future.

We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.

All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our Nation and ourselves.

Jimmy Carter, Craftsman

DIY: The 87-year-old former U.S. President Jimmy Carter (left) put volunteers half his age to shame by chipping in, alongside wife Rosalynn (right), to help build a series of one-room houses on the earthquake hit island of Haiti
DIY: The 87-year-old former U.S. President Jimmy Carter (left) put volunteers half his age to shame by chipping in, alongside wife Rosalynn (right), to help build a series of one-room houses on the earthquake hit island of Haiti

I grew up on a relatively isolated farm, long before we had electricity and when all the labor was by hand or with livestock. My father did the building and repairs, made many of our hand tools, and was a good cobbler and an expert blacksmith. As soon as I was physically able, he expected me to do my share of the work, and I was an eager student. I expanded my skills as a Future Farmer of America, and was required to make a few pieces of furniture, usually as gifts for my mother.Later, when I was a young naval officer with a base pay of $300 a month, it was important for my wife, Rosalynn, and me to live as inexpensively as possible, so we chose unfurnished apartments. There were fully equipped hobby shops at the large submarine bases, staffed by qualified personnel who helped in the design of furniture and provided good advice on the types of wood, proper joints, gluing techniques, and the use of power tools. I made the necessary beds, tables, and other furniture, but the only piece we brought home from the Navy was a white oak cabinet for high-fidelity sound equipment.

When Rosalynn and I moved back to Plains, we lived in a government housing project, and I was struggling just to earn a living for our family. I can’t say that I improved my woodworking skills during those years as a farmer and struggling businessman, since my only tools were a handsaw, hammer, drawknife, and an auger and bits, but I made some couches, lounge chairs, and tables that we still use every day. During this time, I became more familiar with the local woods and accumulated a good supply of lumber.

I had very little time for woodworking while we lived in the governor’s mansion in Atlanta, which had no shop facilities, or immediately thereafter when I was a campaigning full-time for president.

From Fine Woodworking #174, pp. 82

also see Highland Woodworker Episode 3