Last week I finally got the roof on my house fixed. It was damaged in a severe storm last July, a mini-disaster in my life that came at a very difficult time. We had just finished a new strategic plan here at Strong Towns. I was in the middle of a staff transition. I was trying to hire two people -- with tons of conflicting advice on how to go about it -- and we were having serious member retention issues. I was also not keeping up with the content stream and was hearing from some of you about that. And, at the end of the summer, I knew I was going to be heading out on the road for ten weeks straight. Not the best time to have four trees dropped on your house.
That was just at work. At home not only was my roof damaged but we had sheetrock and carpet that had gone bad. My shady yard full of oak trees and leafy shrubs was now a scene of devastation. My oldest daughter was going to be attending a new school on a big campus way out of town and I could go on but I'll spare my family members and allow us our privacy. Let's just say it was quite a stressful time.
Having a roof over my head now that doesn't leak -- getting rid of the buckets and the towels -- feels like a bit of a luxury. As we sat down for our Thanksgiving meal last week, I felt we had a lot to be thankful for. Nobody died and, including for some scrapes, sore muscles and an episode with a bees nest, nobody was hurt all that much. The carpet and ceiling should be fixed by Christmas. The yard will take a while but it will grow back. We're lucky.
Those of you that know me or have followed me on Facebook or Twitter likely know that I've struggled with the direction our national dialog has taken on the issue of Syrian refugees in general and the Muslim religion in specific. While we do talk about community, neighbors and Strong Citizens here, I've not brought the refugee issue to Strong Towns largely because of how intertwined it has become with our politics. We're not a political organization, we have no political leanings and, in fact, have a really broad group of political affiliations among our staff, board and members. For an issue that is not central to who we are -- and where it is central, I can always make the point in a different way -- I just opted to stay away from it.
As I pick up the buckets and put away the towels, as I ponder the gifts I wish to buy for my daughters, family and friends over the next few weeks, as I sit with my belly full and my feet warm, I can't help but return to this issue. I keep pondering a statement someone recently shared with me:
If only we had a seasonally-appropriate story about Middle Eastern people seeking refuge being turned away by the heartless.
The central insight of Strong Towns is that our post World War II development pattern was a huge experiment. It created an illusion of wealth, one that we have tried to sustain with warped economic policy derived from convenient economic theory. We're in the process of seeing that illusion destroyed and, with it, much of our national identity vis-a-vis the rest of the world (aka: the American dream).
As we study civilizations that have gone through resets such as the one we are attempting to navigate, there are success stories and there are tragedies. England after World War II, which lost its entire global empire yet retained its bearings and, thus, its influence on the world stage, is what I would call a success story. Japan of that same time period could be similarly classified. Germany after World War I, however, went a completely different way. You could say the same about the last decades of czarist Russia, the Soviet Union under Stalin and Mao's China.
Transition is a time of uncertainty. As Nassim Taleb would suggest, this is even more so when you add layers of fragility to a system -- debt, energy dependency, globalized trade -- that create cascading inter-dependencies. I just finished the book Asia's Cauldron by Robert Kaplan. You think we or China would risk a devastating war over a few submerged atolls in the South China Sea? You think Germany would risk a devastating war with their major trading partners England and France over the assassination of an archduke from a neighboring, crumbling empire?
Times of desperation magnify our insecurities and leave us collectively prone to shameful conduct. We're appalled -- we can't imagine what they were even thinking -- that people who looked like, and may have been ethnically similar to, the people who bombed our naval base at Pearl Harbor in 1941 were put into internment camps for the course of the subsequent war. Yet our national discourse today includes allusions to doing the same with people who look like, and may be ethnically similar to, the people who attacked us on 9/11. The German conversation during the 1930's regarding Jews began in a similar way.
This is because humans are flawed. In Maslow's hierarchy of needs, security is far more important than friendship, self-esteem and even morality. The words of Hermann Goering at the Nuremberg trials resonate throughout time because they are horrifically true:
"Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."
My biggest fear for our country is that, as we go through this transition -- one where I think we go from Americans living in unrivaled prosperity to merely well above world average -- we lose who we are. That we cease striving to be better people. That we accept a position of diminished moral leadership both here and abroad. I think that world would be a darker place.
One of America's great virtues is that we have historically been a home for the oppressed, for those seeking refuge. Go to any major city in the eastern part of this country and experience the ethnic neighborhoods, be they Irish or German or Jewish. These people didn't move here and then assimilate. They came as collective waves and they clung to each other, their own identity and their own customs as they made their way in this strange new place. Yet, over time, the opportunity afforded them here prompted them not to assimilate but to integrate, to combine with Americans to become a greater whole.
I'm a Catholic. In the past, Catholic immigrants were not trusted to be real Americans. They had strange beliefs about communion bread and wine. Some said they owed their allegiance to the Pope and could not be trusted. It was also suggested that Irish Catholics in particular would be terrorists (and some did ship weapons and give financial support to the IRA back in Ireland, but we weren't overrun with terrorism). They took low paying jobs which "drove down wages". You can take our dialog back a century, replace "Muslim" with "Catholic" and you would hardly know the difference.
There is a difference, however. Those refugees of the past were entering a country in ascension, one where our cities were strong and becoming stronger, where jobs and growth and economic opportunity were a byproduct of things we collectively did together at the local level. It was the perfect place for someone used to hardship to bootstrap themselves to a better life. Our affluence -- that illusion of wealth -- has moved us a long ways from that hungrier existence. Like the rich kid whose trust fund is running low, our world -- while still incredibly privileged -- is about to get a little harder. We can actually learn a lot from integrating some fresh blood into our national body. I think refugees -- much like artists and other traditionally marginalized members of society -- are a key catalyst for moving us into a Strong Towns way of being.
Either way, I'm not afraid. You should not be either.
(Top photo credit to Wikipedia.)