job openings in civic renewal (11)

This is the eleventh in an occasional series.

Ford Foundation:

The overall goal of Ford’s Civic Engagement and Government (CEG) thematic area is to make civic engagement more powerful and strategic, and government more representative, responsive and accountable.

We seek one CEG Program Officer (United States) to inform work on expanding participation—promoting increased and greater representation in elections and agendas which reflect the public interest– particularly to develop a body of work focused on promoting voting rights and other aspects of non-partisan democratic practice in the US—registering voters, increased participation/debate in primaries, connecting voting to issues people care about– and contributing to efforts on to reduce the undue influence of money in politics; and develop/test/demonstrate models of powerful civic engagement with governments in the US.

We seek a second CEG Program Officer (Global) to inform work on encouraging development of more progressive tax and budget systems; advancing fairer frameworks/specific proposals for reducing global tax avoidance; and building legitimacy of civil society in communities globally and testing models of powerful civic engagement with government.  The Global CEG Program Officer will also help link the CEG work of Ford’s eleven offices globally and engage in relevant global platforms in a manner which draws in voices and perspectives from the Global South. See www.fordfoundation.org/careers

Everyday Democracy:

Everyday Democracy, a national leader in civic participation and community change, works to strengthen democracy in neighborhoods, towns, cities, states and the United States. We have more than 25 years of experience working with grass-roots organizers and public officials to bring people together to talk about and work on critical public issues, using a racial equity lens.

We are seeking a full-time Associate for the Evaluation and Learning Unit. This position works closely with the Director of Evaluation and Learning to implement the primary functions of the Evaluation and Learning unit. This person contributes high level evaluation thinking and skills to the team in support of the organization’s mission and goal. Job description here.

Street Law, Inc.

Street Law is now seeking qualified applicants for a Program Director to implement our Legal Diversity Pipeline Programs with law firms and corporate legal departments.

The Florida Joint Center for Citizenship

The FJCC is looking for an Action Civics Coordinator!

The Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida is recruiting a fulltime instructional specialist in civics education. The individual in this position will be based in the institute’s Orlando office and will coordinate and support action civics programs for the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship (FJCC) – a
Lou Frey Institute/Bob Graham Center partnership. The action civics coordinator will be responsible for working with K-12 districts, schools and teachers throughout Florida to implement service learning and other active civic learning initiatives. This position will also manage the institute’s partnership with Kids Voting and will support statewide mock elections. The individual in this position will work as part of a team to design and deliver professional development that supports classroom implementation of a wide range of active civic learning strategies. Long-term outreach and support for
individual schools – including low performing schools – may be required.

Diversity, Equality, and Realignment

Though we like to think of political parties in the US on a single dimension, this obviously doesn’t capture the true range of political views. Yet even though we can conceive of massively more multifarious policy differences than this, only two dimensions explain the vast majority of political behavior in the US: one largely concerned with the distribution of economic resources and another with the treatment of African-Americans and other racial minorities.

Yet even the four permutations of these views are too many to perfectly represent within the US’s two viable political parties. The US political system seems almost to have been designed so that most citizens will hate the dominant political parties, and thus find politics vaguely distasteful.

Big Tents and Third Party Spoilers

Why should this be so? Why not have three or four parties, to segregate those dimensions or hit all the possible permutations? It is a truism that the US electoral system requires two big-tent parties, but that’s not quite right. What’s true is that the system has very strong incentives in place to encourage party elites to find a way to force very different interests to share policy goals and ideology: a third party will tend to disempower its voters by splitting its big tent, as famously happened at the outset of the Civil War and during the salad days of the Progressive Movement. Yet for some policy issues, such a split may not be avoidable!1

What’s more, the US political system has pretty good methods for allocating voters to its two main political parties in roughly equal numbers. Like your favorite sports league’s revenue sharing or draft-picking arrangements, the party system tends to reward short-term victories with unsatisfiable constituencies that undermine the party’s lead, which produces future upsets and reversals. Incumbency advantages turn into incumbency fatigue; midterm elections draw different demographics than presidential elections; victorious parties engage in divisive self-destruction over exactly which part of the big tent will dominate.

A Party for the Anti-Political Majority

Yet there are hints (if not evidence) that this may be changing, in a way that is partly inspired by the rise of Donald Trump and partly contributed to that rise. Voter turnout has been stuck below 60% of the voting age population since 1968, and is even lower in primaries, so a candidate who can get out the vote from a unique part of the demographics of his party or the nation has a strong chance of surprising us, as Trump did.

Jason Stanley called attention to the particular role of Trump’s demagoguery in reorienting the primaries last October:

But there is a way a politician could appear to be honest and nonhypocritical without having to vie against other candidates pursing the same strategy: by standing for division and conflict without apology. Such a candidate might openly side with Christians over Muslims or atheists, or native-born Americans over immigrants, or whites over blacks, or the rich over the poor. In short, one could signal honesty by openly and explicitly rejecting what are presumed to be sacrosanct political values.

Trump, it seems, carries the promise of engaging the previously disengaged, those who have no stomach for politicians’ attempts to preserve a big tent by mobilizing disparate interests together. It’s difficult to pretend that business interests and “values” voters have much in common, and that you are adequately representing both without preference. Voters are smart enough to see through those efforts, if not willing to recognize the structural reasons why American politicians continue to try to straddle those fences.

There are always disaffected voters who give up on both parties. Usually, neither party can figure out how to reliably get out the vote from these truly independent voters while keeping the support of its base. These voters are largely mythical in third-party bids and usually for in-party insurgencies as well, but the idea that disaffected voters could show up at the polls in large numbers and destroy all the pollsters “likely voter” modeling is tenacious. We know it’s possible, and that when it happens we see surprisingly anti-establishment results. As the political participation of disaffected, unrepresented voters drops, this reserve army of the unallied gets bigger. It’s especially potent in party primaries, which are very low turnout events.

My suspicion is that if a group of disaffected voters could be reliably re-engaged, the parties would likely find wedge issues to divvy them up over a relatively short set of elections. But they may well divvy them up differently than the parties had previously done. This would be the seed of a realignment.

Party Platforms are Contingent; So Is the Meaning of “Liberal” and “Conservative”

How far could this go? We frequently joke that the Republican Party switched places with the Democratic Party between the Civil War and the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But so many of the relevant policy questions are different that this has always been a bit inexact.

Far too many of my friends and colleagues believe that there’s a natural connection between cosmopolitan attitudes towards other races and cultures and egalitarian economic preferences. There really isn’t; in fact, there’s just as often a tension! Terms like Republican and Democrat and conservative and liberal are free-floating signifiers that don’t really track particular policy preferences or ideologies over time.

Just one example: there’s a whole host of people who think that government should not offer certain sorts of assistance that they call “welfare.” But what they mean by “welfare” varies a lot, includes and excludes a lot of different services and cash transfers and tax treatments. Worse still, many people who oppose “welfare” think that the same program is justified or unjustified based on who will get it, and don’t think that their brother-in-law’s disability check is welfare while a stranger’s disability check is, nor see their home owner’s tax credit as similar to a poor person’s food stamp support.

The same thing goes for the Affordable Care Act: many of the Republicans who oppose it (and have voted to repeal it repeatedly) want to abolish something they call “ObamaCare” and replace it with an almost exactly identical program (i.e. RomneyCare). So at least for the vast plurality of Republicans elected to federal office, it’s clear that what is at stake is not a real difference in thinking or policy preference, but rather a partisan fight over votes which everyone is pretending is actually a deep ideological difference.

What we know is that we and our fellow citizens tend to seize on a few policy issues that matter to us, select a party on that basis, and then adopt a lot of the other policies of that party as equally important. This gets odd when the parties change policy positions (for electoral reasons) and partisans change their own views as if these things were demanded by rationality (often backdating their new policy beliefs as if they hadn’t changed at all) rather than merely a response to politicians competing for votes.

So while historically we can observe both massive and bipartisan shifts around specific policies (remember when the Democratic Party opposed same sex marriage?) and realignments (remember when the Republican Party was the party of Lincoln and Black people?) it is quite obvious that many people don’t have an accurate phenomenological or narrative account of what is happening in the moment. We think in terms of urban and rural, in terms of our neighbors and our transportation preferences and our religious traditions.

It’s a unique kind of privilege to be able to maintain strong coherence between our different beliefs, and indeed it’s actually presumptuous to pretend that only a couple of coherent ways to hold these beliefs together.

Realignment May Be Unpredictable But Formulaic

We may not know when a realignment has arrived, but we do have some information on what it is likely to do when it does. Jennifer N. Victor from Vox’s Mischiefs of Faction blog detailed a famous theory of party realignment to try to explain why Trump and Sanders were doing so well against more traditional candidates, bringing attention back to the 2003 paper by Gary Miller and Norm Schofield detailing shifts in party policy platforms. Here’s Victor’s gloss:

the party that loses an election has a strong incentive to try to peel away voters from the winning party. This is how a party grows its coalition to win in the next round. The party does this by taking policy positions that appeal to voters who may only weakly identify with the winning party. Think of these voters as the ones at the edges of the cleavage lines.

So losing leads to strategizing and better political competition for ignored voters at the winning party’s “rump,” which leads to winning. If one party’s “big tent” gets too large, the other party finds an opportunity to compete for some of the voters whose policy goals have been most ignored.

Yet neither party has had to actually compete for unallied voters for the last twenty-five years or so. They’ve been depending instead on GTFO efforts and incumbency-fatigue to restore them to power. This is why the Republican party has spent the last three decades working on “fusionism” to combine conservative Christianity with business-oriented small-government rhetoric. The Democratic party has spent those same three decades trying to keep mostly-white-male working class voters together with urban minorities and rich cultural cosmopolitans.

Thus the “clockwork” of party realignment has been momentarily frozen, and we can’t even say if we are now in one or if both parties will simply revamp their rule to prevent insurgencies in the future. Yet if we are in a realignment period, the model predicts which “side” will be the rump:

Miller and Schofield show that this cleavage line rather naturally rotates in a clockwise fashion across time. Bill Clinton broke up the previous partisan alignment when he proposed more conservative economic policies, like those of the cosmopolitans, moving the Democratic coalition from the liberal position more to the cosmopolitan one.

The “clockwise” directionality comes from a supposedly natural movement of the cleavage line in this chart over time:

Party Realignment

So we should expect that the Republicans will lose cosmopolitan pro-business types represented by the likes of Michael Bloomberg, while the Democrats will lose the remaining supply of white men without college degrees who are economically liberal but “socially” conservative (here meaning: they are anti-diversity.) And indeed, this is basically what seems poised to happen.

The fact that state support for the poor and working class is orthogonal to the state’s treatment of African-Americans and other racial minorities is certainly vexing: it seems to extend from the American experience with slavery and persistent white supremacy, yet we see similar trends in Europe towards immigrants and Jews. But the key here is that attitudes towards racial difference just are unmoored from attitudes towards the distribution of economic assets among whites, and so we need these two dimensions (and yet oddly: not much more than that) to explain most of American political behavior, especially in the legislature.

There Will Always Be Elites; Who They Are Matters

Freddie deBoer is also thinking about realignmnent:

Today, there is a least an ostensible connection between the liberalism of diversity and the leftism of equality. Tomorrow, even that thin thread might be cut forever, and so much the worse for us.

Basically, deBoer imagines a future where the boot forever stomping on the face of humanity is gender equitable and racially diverse. But what if having a more Black or female Senators–or a Black President–isn’t necessarily better for that President’s or Senator’s female or Black constituents?
The impetus of deBoer’s piece seems to be this zinger of a tweet from Dan O’Sullivan):

“Our political future: a snakepit of insane fascists on one side, & on the other, a Wall Street party that’s culturally liberal & nothing more.”

I think this is really the crux of deBoer’s piece, as an elaboration of that perfect tweet, and I think there’s something odd about it. Is it possible for realignment to turn today’s educated leftists into completely alienated voters with no party to support at all? As I’ve tried to show above, the answer is probably not: one or another party will almost always have something to offer the educated people who currently self-identify as Leftists. If Democrats really start leaving the Left, the Left will learn how to get along with nationalists and chauvinists, like they did when nationalists and chauvinist were running labor unions. And perhaps this is where the oddness in deBoer’s view emerges:

“The entire purpose of the elite-building mechanisms of our country is to keep that elite small. There’s only room for 1% of people within the 1%, after all.”

Every society has a top 1%, whether it’s the billionaire class or the Politburo. It has been the case that the people with the PhDs were among that class of elites, but not recently. It’s an open question who the elites should be. It’s historically been the case that US elites were white men, and while that’s changing, it’s not actually changed very much yet. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford will achieve truly representative diversity, but without expanding their first year classes. Perhaps tomorrow’s elites will be truly representative of the rest of the country.

It’s also an open question for political debate how much better off the elites should be than the people below them: I tend to favor egalitarian distributions of well-being, myself, but I recognize that there are lots of people who disagree, and for something approaching good institutional reasons. Specifically, the existence of a top 1% doesn’t actually tell us anything about the material conditions of the bottom 99%.

There’s good reason to believe that social justice work to ensure diversity has largely helped contribute to what Deirdre McCloskey calls the Great Enrichment. The American 99% are much better off than most precisely because we have been forced to diversify both our elites and our middle-class. We can expect to reap further wealth gains if we continue to diversify our elites, so we obviously should.

US Political Parties Could Be Better

A few things follow from all this. First, it seems highly desirable to have two healthy, reasonable parties at all times. Constitutional hardball is dangerous in a way that threatens to shatter the conditions of possibility for our overt disagreements. Yet the best evidence suggests that the Republican Party has been growing increasingly extreme for almost twenty years. This is easy for opponents to celebrate, as it tends to render Republican politicians and Republican voters less effective at making progress on their policy goals, and might well help Democrats win in November. But in the medium and long-term, it’s deeply unstable (it has already been destabilizing.) The survival of a political order has to be compatible with either party losing elections.

Second, the ideal should not be to have a permanent victory that utterly destroys the other party; we should aspire to the Aaron Sorkin West Wing fantasy of principled idealists representing the divergent but reasonable views of the Good Life and the Good Society. Reasonable pluralism is better than a fragile modus vivendi; deliberative disagreement that preserves the possibility of compromise and collaboration is better than dirty tricks and pitched winner-take-all political battles.2

The problem, of course, is that without a healthy and rational opposition party, we’re going to have a hard time living up to that fantasy of democratic deliberation.

Economic Equality and Nationalism

Insofar as nationalism in the US is understood as a kind of jingoistic, nationalist chauvinism–a defense of the traditional perquisites of white men–we will all be better off and richer insofar as the political parties can find a way to preserve the disaffection and disengagement of the anti-diversity voters.

Politicians and pundits shouldn’t court them, even with coded language or some account of what their “true” interests and resentments are. But they will. (Perhaps some of the reactionaries are coalescing around the financial crisis, but then why not vote for Bernie Sanders instead of Donald Trump, who claims to be a billionaire?) Trumps’ supporters aren’t the folks who lost their jobs to the financial crisis; they’re the long-term unemployed who fell out of the economy long before: the unnecessariat:

This is the world highlighted in those maps, brought to the fore by drug deaths and bullets to the brain- a world in which a significant part of the population has been rendered unnecessary, superfluous, a bit of a pain but not likely to last long. Utopians on the coasts occasionally feel obliged to dream up some scheme whereby the unnecessariat become useful again, but its crap and nobody ever holds them to it. If you even think about it for a minute, it becomes obvious: what if Sanders (or your political savior of choice) had won? Would that fix the Ohio river valley? Would it bring back Youngstown Sheet and Tube, or something comparable that could pay off a mortgage? Would it end the drug game in Appalachia, New England, and the Great Plains? Would it call back the economic viability of small farms in Illinois, of ranching in Oklahoma and Kansas? Would it make a hardware store viable again in Iowa, or a bookstore in Nevada? Who even bothers to pretend anymore?

By linking education to jobs in the way that we have, we’ve guaranteed that a large number of our citizens will not be qualified for the majority of dignified work. It’s hard not to fault their resentment, even as it seems misguided for failing to understand a hypothetical Kaldor-Hicksian analysis of their error.

The whole problem is that the loss of dignified work is concentrated among people who can’t readily understand such arguments. This allows us to pretend that the correlation between education and income is noble and meritocratic without challenge. But in fact, we’ve installed an invidious systematic bar to recognizing the real pain of poor people without college educations, especially men. We hold out the promise of both self-sufficiency and effective citizenship only to those who can jump through all the hoops between kindergarten and a Bachelor’s degree.

In the best of all possible worlds, maybe both parties would ignore anti-diversity interests and find a way to make economic policies that reduce racist and sexist resentments. That’s right: I’m suggesting that maybe we should not hope for 100% political participation, at least insofar as that requires that white supremacists and chauvinists find viable politicians who will court them openly. In the second-best world, both parties would court the anti-diversity vote while remaining conveniently but systematically paralyzed in the realization of their anti-diversity policy preferences, and thus blunt their power.

Yet with Trump poised to run as a populist nationalist demagogue explicitly recognizing and courting this demographic, it may already be too late even if he loses. The neo-reactionary movement will become self-aware and have a single partisan home.

So in the third-best world we actually inhabit (or is it even worse than that?), the uneducated white vote (call them George Wallace Democrats) is lost to the Democratic Party. Miller and Schofield point out that this had already mostly happened by 1996, and called it “The Decline of Class and the Rise of Race.”

Perhaps deBoer shouldn’t worry so much: if the clockwork thesis continues to hold up, we should expect the next few elections to reverse the focus on race and develop conflicts along the very dimensions of class inequality that the Left has championed. Soon the Republican Party should begin courting disaffected economic liberals who are willing to overlook the party’s racism. In fact: they’re ahead of schedule:

Trump: GOP will become “worker’s party” under me


1. Of course, there were actually four serious parties competing in the 1860 election before the Civil War. If there had been three, though, the result would have been quite different. Both the Republican and Democratic parties’ inability to ally behind a single candidate because of regional differences over slavery and unity produced not two but four Presidential candidates. Lincoln’s victory was thus mostly a matter of chance, and indeed Stephen Douglas and John Bell together–both “centrists” convinced that avoiding the slavery issue could stave off secession–received more votes than Lincoln did, as many Southerners preferred union to secession. With their influence split, one of the more radical parties was victorious; but it could have gone differently.
2. I’m being inexact: what I’m describing could easily be understood as simply a much more desirable modus vivendi than our current equilibrium between neoliberalism and nationalism.

Victoria’s Citizens’ Jury on Obesity

Author: 
Between July and October 2015, 78 Australians from the state of Victoria deliberated online and face-to-face in an experimental Citizens' Jury on obesity policy. Citizens participated in facilitated online deliberations over six weeks before meeting in person for two days to finalise their recommendations. The initiative was instigated by VicHealth,...

Democracy in Schools — The Need for a Larger Strategy

In my weekly conversation with Deborah Meier on Education Week, Meier asked last time, "At what point does one go from flawed democracy to one not at all?"

Meier is raising questions of larger strategy. If we understand democracy to include not only governance structures but also empowering cultures, the question is, How does such culture develop?

As I learned in the freedom movement as a young man (the "civil rights" movement) it's a mistake to make overly sharp contrasts between "democratic" and "undemocratic" communities, just as it's mistaken to contrast "good" and "bad" people. It's more or less, not either-or.

All communities have elements that "make for democratic action" and elements that "oppose democratic action," as the community organizer Saul Alinsky put it. In community organizing, the first job of an organizer when entering a community is not to identify what she or he thinks is wrong with it, but rather to get to know that community and its values, histories, power dynamics, conflicts, and leaders. Democratic capacities are developed from the inside out.

Beginning where a community is, not where one would like it to be, and developing democratic capacities, civic agency, is the strategy of "organizing." It contrasts with both mobilizing and also a human rights stance. Mobilizing, rallying people against injustices, often overlooks developing democratic capacities. Human rights, articulating ideals of equality and dignity and seeking protection usually through the courts, often is advanced as an alternative to popular agency. Both mobilizing and human rights play important roles in democracy. But the question needs insistently to be asked: How do they build civic agency?

In this vein, Martin Luther King assigned me to organize in poor white communities, though he knew full well that they included KKK members, a story told on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website. We had some success, beginning in a white mill village in East Durham, N.C., as I've mentioned. I don't want to exaggerate. We also had many challenges and made mistakes, but we also saw changes and new interracial relationships.

My other point: it's important to think about building democracy schools in historical context.

I didn't know this at the time of King's assignment but later discovered that he and others were thinking about the movement's "next stage," which they believed needed to involve alliances between blacks and white working people.

Bayard Rustin, a political mentor of Dr. King, had argued for such alliance-building since the 1940s. By the mid-1960s he was making this argument with urgency. The battle against legal segregation was largely won. He saw the movement's next stage as much more difficult, tackling many-sided, complex problems, "wicked problems," such as chronic unemployment, failing schools, lousy housing, drugs, and antagonistic relations with police. All are still with us. The strategy Rustin proposed is still relevant.

In his 1965 essay "From Protest to Politics" Bayard Rustin proposed three elements. The first was electoral coalitions to win over middle America. Robert Kennedy's presidential bid in 1968 was in this vein, successfully appealing to white blue collar voters who had earlier backed the segregationist George Wallace. Cross-racial community organizing of the kind I was doing was the second. Here and there across the country, it was proving highly successful, but it never went to full scale. Institutional transformation, including transformation of schools, was the third. Deborah Meier helped show the way in this through the schools she founded in New York and Boston, which is why I see her work as so exemplary, but most neglected this approach entirely.

Rustin contrasted this, what could be called a sober democratization strategy, with the purist tone he saw among many young activists and white professionals, whom he called "moralists." Moralists looked at white working people with condescension and prejudice, seeing them as the enemy. This continues to be a problem. Today in education, a focus on consciousness-raising about injustices continues to substitute for the citizen politics which Rustin advanced.

Rustin, King, and others anticipated what would occur if alliance-building did not happen on a large scale: elites would drive a wedge between blacks and white working people. Divide-and-conquer was central to Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy" in 1968 and 1972. It reached new levels with Donald Trump. This is our context and our challenge.

"Trumpism" is much bigger than Donald Trump. Bill Doherty, a family therapist and pioneer in the movement called citizen professionalism, observes that Trumpism includes scapegoating groups; degrading rivals; and promoting the cult of the strong man. The cult of the strong man appeals to resentments, scorns reasoned discussion, champions narrow nationalism over respect for other societies, incites violence, and calls for people to trust in the great leader. Whether it is resurgent fascism or something new is beside the point. Trumpism is profoundly dangerous. It threatens existing elements of democracy, like protection of human rights. It threatens future democratic possibilities. It is emerging not only in the US but also around the world.

Bayard Rustin, like many around Martin Luther King, was shaped by the 1930s, in a time with parallels to our time, when the world faced rising dangers of totalitarianism. In response people created an international movement against fascism which not only defended democracy but also deepened democracy, showing connections between many issues. Rustin brought this perspective to the sixties.

The international movement was a seedbed for unions, cooperatives, culture change, anti-racist struggles, and organizing in and around education. It birthed successful anti-colonial movements. Overall it built civic agency on an immense scale, even with all its contradictions (like the manipulations of the self-proclaimed communist "vanguard").

Today, again, we need to develop something parallel.

Building democracy in schools is inextricably connected to building democracy everywhere.

Equilibrium, Madness, and Utopia

Is it possible to have the good without the bad? Does beauty create ugliness and does love beget hate?

These questions are often explored in dystopian fiction, but Szathmári Sándor’s Voyage to Kazohinia is notable in its resounding answer. Yes, these opposites endlessly create each other, Szathmári argues, and thus is it better to have neither.

It is better to leave passion and madness behind in favor of the calm stability of reason.

Perhaps this seems like not such a bold claim. Reason is certainly favorable, and ugliness and hate should be gladly left behind.

Yet, it is not quite as simple as that. The premise of the question finds that to abandon hate is to give up love, that defeating all the ills of society can only be accomplished by relinquishing the passion and spirit we hold most dear.

The perfect society is the monotonous society. Ideal and unchanging.

In making this point, Szathmári introduces us to the Hins. Technologically advanced, the Hins suffer no hunger or conflict. They live in equilibrium and harmony, through the mathematical clarity of kazo. They have no need for police or money; no need for government institutions regulating behavior. They each behave perfectly and have, quite sincerely, a perfect society.

But there is, perhaps, something unsatisfying in their existence.

We meet the Hins through Gulliver, our proud English protagonist. And while we might join the author in snickering at his cultural absurdities, there is one element of Gulliver’s impression of the Hins which resonates.

It starts with small observations. The Hins, we learn, “have no expression for taking delight in something.” A crowded beach is bathed in silence; among the Hins, “everybody was a stranger; not a single greeting was to be heard. Each simply did not exist for the other.”

Our hero begins struggling against this dispassionate view. He is impressed by the technological advancement of the Hins, but distraught by their seeming lack of feeling and soul. He desperately seeks to explain his culture to his Hin acquaintance, Zatamon, who interprets his words through the core Hin concepts of kazo, mathematical perfection, and its opposite, kazi.

After Gulliver carefully explains a number of concepts – friend, hatred, wife, happiness, theater, art, and political parties – Zatamon expresses his disappointment:

In your country the kazo is considered to apply to certain groups only, which, however, already means that it is not kazo as you do not observe it where others are concerned. Because you imagine some persons closer to yourselves and favor them, this can only be done at the same time you offer less or nothing to others. That is, both the things you give your friends and those you do not give others bear all the marks of the kazi concept. These friends do not receive out of need, or on the basis of a general state of equilibrium – at least this is what I gather from your words – but purely because you have invented the kazi idea of ‘friendship.’

…And as for the word ‘love,’ it seems to me you wish to indicate with this that people outside an exclusive circle are to be treated beneath the merit of their existence. But why do you call the same thing hatred on other occasions?

The Hins have no love or beauty or friendship because the mere conceptualization of such things existing indicates the existence of their opposites. They throw society out of balance, bring disharmony where harmony would exist otherwise. This might seem a tragic loss to our own kazi sensibilities, but giving up the extremes in favor of equilibrium is clearly the logical thing to do.

It should be noted, of course, that the philosophy which Szathmári advances here is by no means unique to the fictional Hins. Consider this eloquent passage from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

“Practice not-doing,” Lao Tzu advises, “and everything will fall into place.”

That is kazo.

This way of thinking is in bold contrast to the conclusions of others who have pondered this challenge of duality.

In 1959 – eighteen years after Kazohinia, but before it was translated to English – American author Robert Heinlein comes to a different conclusion in his novel Starship Troopers.

Heinlein similarly sees a tension between an idyllic but mundane society and a passionate society of hardship and growth.

Writing in the early years of the Vietnam War, Heinlein imagines a paradise planet called Sanctuary. Life is easy on Sanctuary, a tempting home for weary soldiers. But, while Szathmári genuinely advocates for the lifestyle of the Hins, Heinlein is clear that he sees such an appealing ideal as a trap.

The descendants of Sanctuary colonists will not evolve. “So what happens?” Heinlein asks. “Do they stay frozen at their present level while the rest of the human race moves on past them, until they are living fossils, as out of place as a pithecanthropus in a space ship?”

For Heinlein, it is not problematic that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are inextricably intertwined – both are a necessary part of human existence. Indeed, it is the challenge of living which truly makes us alive. Life on Sanctuary is no life at all.

This is the view of our Gulliver among the Hins. While Szathmári seems to advocate for the ideal society of the Hins, he knows such a view is unlikely to be adopted easily. Becoming fully acquainted with the dull, effortless, efficiency of Hin life, our hero finds himself filled with despair.

A feeling of terrible powerlessness came over me. I was buried alive among the dead in this island in the suffocating atmosphere of which the life-thirsty lung panted in vain. And there was no escape. I was to wither away here, without air and life…

Thus finding the Hins to be efficient but lifeless automatons, and painfully deprived of the passions he deems living, our hero makes his escape. He goes to live amongst the Behins, those  beings which the Hins find to be incurably kazi. 

Life amongst the Behins is so mad as to be hardly worth relaying. Gulliver is relieved to leave the colorless world of the Hins, only to find his new home “the most terrible bedlam in the world.”

Of course, the Behins are hardly more mad than we are. They greet each other with meaningless phrases and useless physical contact. They follow a convoluted set of social norms which are constantly changing and entirely unpredictable. They divide themselves into constantly warring factions that fight over nothing more than whether the circle or square is a more perfect geometric shape. They create work that doesn’t need to be done in order to enforce an arbitrary system in which the rich earn more than the poor. They are embarrassed to speak of basic physical processes (such as eating). They use metaphors which don’t in any way relate to the actual objects they are discussing. Women pay to have their faces mutilated in the name of beauty.

Yes, the Behins are quite mad.

This then, is the price of accepting the extremes. Of taking in love, hate, joy, and despair. It does, indeed, disrupt the unchanging world of the Hins, but while Heinlein sees these extremes as the essence of life, Szathmári argues the opposite – such madness is not life at all.

And while you are pondering which type of life makes you more alive, there is one more element of Szathmári’s deeply amusing satire worth mentioning.

In Behinistic society, people who speak the truth, who exercise reason, are frequently burned at the stake. Therefore, as Gulliver explains:

If one wanted to say something particularly sensible and dangerous he put a cap and bells on his head and put his fingers into his mouth. And the Behins listened to him with great amusement…

These makrus, as they were known, are the only ones who are free to speak the truth; at the cost that they are laughed at and never understood.

While “some openly described how stupid and wretched the Behin life was,” listeners always believed the words of a makru to apply only to their enemies. “…It never occurred to them that all the vile words the makrus wrote also applied to their own lives.”

In fact, while living amongst the Behins Gulliver begins writing the travel diary which we are ostensibly reading. His friend discovers the text and, finding his own name frequently amid the list of mad occurrences, asks out loud who that name is supposed to represent.

Yet this same friend guffaws moments later finding distasteful but accurate descriptions of a local dignitary. The friend encourages Gulliver to publish his comical work, assuring him that he need not fear the dignitary’s wrath: “How do you imagine that he would recognize himself?”

Considering the opportunity to publish his work among the Behins, our Gulliver reflects:

The proposal was enticing but after some thinking I realized that for the very same reason there was no point in publishing it. How could it be imagined that reading it would make them even one iota cleverer or would render their lives one jot more endurable with such a lack of comprehension? Should I publish the account of my travels? It deserved a lot better than to be object of idiots’ imbecilic guffaws.

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