"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, January 29, 2016

Are The Auguries Favorable for Norristown, At Long Last?

I’ve enjoyed speculating about my international audience (and speculation is the best word I can apply to it) during my first two posts of this year.  But now it’s back to the U.S.A., specifically the lower Schuylkill Valley in Pennsylvania.  If my primary goal was to maximize my pageviews, I would write every future post about Phoenixville, Pa.  But it’s time to return to the real world as shared by many more small towns than that of Phoenixville, including five of its fellow towns along the lower river (I don’t count the Conshohockens).  I again address specifically the condition of Norristown, but with something of a twist.  I’m actually trending confident on the town’s future.  That may be difficult to do at this point, given the snow situation in the Borough, so my timing is not exactly good, but oh well.

I know that County and municipal officials have been talking about good times coming for a while now, and I’m late to the party, but I don’t see my role as that of cheerleader.  I’m not from Missouri, I’m from Kansas, but that’s close enough.  I too got to be showed.  That’s happening.  A picture—hazy yet evolving—is taking shape.  It’s rather like a paint-by-number set with only a few of the colors filled in.  That picture is of a Norristown undergoing a revival, at least that’s what I think I see.  The primary colors are being painted in, some for the first time, and they are the important ones.  Some are being applied, as projects currently underway, but too early in the process to affect much yet.  Others are just sitting there, waiting to be applied, in the form of plans or perhaps even dreams.

First, let me confess that the method by which I arrived at this less-than-certain conclusion is no more scientific than casting bones or reading the entrails of a sheep, but at least it is based on facts.  In fact (sorry about that), it is utterly deficient in any sort of what is usually termed “feeling.”  People in a town—or at least some of them—can sense, feel when their town seems to be turning a corner, just as they sensed it declining.  It’s partially based on facts, as they see new businesses appearing, or old ones being spiffed-up, and it’s partially wish fulfillment.  Even so, the test is whether it is contagious.  Do others feel the same thing?  If so, then it’s real.

I can possess no such feeling.  This is the view from outside, although in this day of social media, access to the inside is a great deal better than it used to be.  I pay close attention to what is published about the towns on which I focus, particularly when “published” is by amateurs.  They will say what they actually think.  I discern, amass and sort this collection of items, then attempt to assess them, absent those emotional elements that residence within the town may have implanted in me, in either a positive or negative way.  This isn’t a replacement for your feelings, those of you who do live in these towns, not by any means.  It is merely additional information, to strengthen your appreciation for what is happening.

There is an advantage to viewing from the outside; it can offer a wider perspective.  That’s what motivates this post, and those to come on the subject of a Norristown revival.  I base my optimism more on what is happening outside the borough, although not entirely.  There are several components to this emerging picture, which I will take up in future posts.  Not all of them are positive, but I will leave those to the last.

Those “primary colors” referred to above are the three fundamental realities of life along the river.  A town’s relationship to them has determined the status of each; always has and always will. The problem is that the realities change.  Today, each trend positive for the Norristown area.  This is the first time that all three have pointed in that direction in far too many years.  That is what I shall focus on, and explain what I mean.  Keep in mind, however, that the favorable state of the three fundamental realities is not, by itself, sufficient to bring about a revival.  The residents and their leaders must take advantage of them. 

Notice I said “the Norristown area.”  That’s because no revival of Norristown is possible without an accompanying revival of Bridgeport.  The two towns lie largely in full view of one another, and the people and businesses everyone wants to attract to either will have to like that view if they are going to show up and put down roots.  Norristown and Bridgeport rose together then declined together, and must again rise together if either is to rise at all.  Norristown will get most of the attention in the posts that follow, but Bridgeport will not be ignored.

The fundamental realities are all trending positive, so the key to the future will be the reception Norristown’s people give to these realities in their current form.  While I consider all three changing realities as positive, that’s a net conclusion.  Nothing is ever solely positive for everyone.  Only one reality approaches that standard, and I will discuss it.  Another has some negativity built into it, but that must be accepted, together with steps to minimize that result.  The third reality is the tough one.  I believe that its recent changes are quite positive, and I can point to history to support my conclusion.  Nonetheless, an unpleasant fact of our current times is that a portion—perhaps a substantial one—of Norristown’s people do not see the changes in this third reality as positive at all.  Too many would already classify the current situation as a negative, and if what I consider to be a positive trend continues, the portion of the borough’s population that comes to consider this a negative may well increase.  If this portion proves to be substantial, then Norristown’s path to revival will be longer, more tumultuous, and it will not take the borough nearly as far as it should and could.  I’ll close this blog series with a discussion of this issue, but I want to begin—and continue for as long as possible on a positive note.

Next time I will address the evolving situation just outside the Norristown area, which is the prime driver of both specific projects and a better feeling about the future.  If this situation continues to evolve along recent lines, the Norristown area will become more and more attractive to better-off people and businesses.  A potentially great opportunity looms; can Norristown and Bridgeport take advantage of it?

Friday, January 15, 2016

Phoenixville, Pennsylvania And Ukraine? It’s A Puzzlement!

I am dedicating the first two posts of 2016 to my international audience, and the questions that arise from their patronage.  The first post dealt with the steady, but mysterious, number of pageviews my posts receive from Norway.  In only one year, Norway has move to a solid number two in the rankings by country.  The lousy metrics on my blog site don’t allow me to process the numbers exactly, and it appears that while the largest number view my most recent post first, a substantial number of pageviews are spread through my previous posts, steadily raising their totals.  As always, I asked the question “why?”  At this point, I’m still hoping for some insight.

I was sorely tempted to write about Phoenixville for my first post of 2016, considering that it marked exactly one year since I began my “Why Phoenixville?” series.  I didn’t, but here is my second post, and I’m back to Phoenixville.  Specifically, I want to inquire into another foreign connection, this time between Phoenixville and Ukraine, a country a long way away.  The facts surrounding this more specific connection are far more complex and puzzling, but here’s what I know so far.

The Phoenixville/Ukraine connection appears on only two of my seven posts about Phoenixville, both guest posts, but it has made itself felt in a big way.  I published the first guest post on August 7.  It exploded, almost entirely from overseas.  It garnered a huge number of pageviews from Russia, then seemed to spread almost geographically, to Ukraine, and then the Middle East.  It even received an appreciable number of pageviews from Iraq, of all places.  It is my number one post for pageviews, by a considerable margin.

My second guest post on Phoenixville was published on November 27.  It pageview stats reveal that it bypassed Russia entirely but began immediately to post large numbers from Ukraine.  Those numbers have continued to build, but there was no geographic spread as with the first guest post; just Ukraine.  It very quickly rose to become the second most-viewed post of all.  What was curious is why an overwhelming number of those pageviews came from Ukraine, but not Russia or any of the other countries that viewed the first post.

What little I know suggests that there is a connection between what happened to these two posts, and that Ukraine’s Internet interest in Phoenixville stemmed from the first guest post, to appear fully in the second.  That’s why I posted a question on several Phoenixville Facebook pages: why should my blog’s second guest post have received so many pageviews from Ukraine?  Several people replied, most mentioning the Sts. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church in the Borough.  I have decided to follow that lead.  The Ukranian Church connection between my occasional posts and Internet users in Ukraine is quite plausible, and will serve as a working thesis for further research.  So far, so good, but while you can outline “why” in a thesis, you have to demonstrate the “how” to prove your thesis.  I’m still in the dark about that.  The connection is logical, but cannot be demonstrated.  Logic is sufficient proof for many, but not for me.  That’s why I call this a thesis, not a conclusion, or even an opinion.

Consider these additional, complicating, facts:
1.  Neither post title gave a hint as to what was inside; both titles began, as to all my Phoenixville missives, with “Why Phoenxville?”  The only thing they shared was the words “guest post.”

2.  Both guest posts are not just ranked number one and two overall for pageviews, but have received hugely more of them than the other posts about Phoenixville.  I have published a total of seven posts entitled “Why Phoenixville?” since January, 2015.  The first and second guest posts are numbers one and two respectively, on my all-time list of pageviews.  The gap between them however, is substantial.  That’s because Russia has largely ignored the second one while Ukraine loved it, causing it to displace Russia from third place on my all-time pageviews-by-country list (Norway is second, by the way).  The gap between them and the other Phoenixville posts is, however, even larger.  My two Phoenixville guest posts stand head, shoulders and torso above all other posts in pageviews.  The greater numbers for those two stem almost entirely from overseas views.  The two guest posts clearly tell a different story; I just don’t know what that story might be.

3.  Where is the religious connection?
Religion barely figures in any of the seven posts.  There is a brief reference to religious diversity in my September 17th post, but no mention of any Ukrainian church, in that post or any other, including the two guest posts.  In fact, there is no mention of any church by name, anywhere.  So where is the religious connection, the trigger that generates interest?

On a final note, what will happen with this post?  It’s the only one that mentions Ukraine in the title.  How will it play there, or Russia, not to mention Iraq?  To date, my most promising thought is that someone (or something) functions as a “gatekeeper.”  The connection simply can’t be direct between two posts on an obscure blog about America and thousands of Internet users in Russia and Ukraine. 

And so I ask you, my readers, regardless of your nation of residence, to enlighten me about what is happening.  Is there actually a connection between Phoenixville, Pennsylvania and Ukraine?  If so, what could it be?

It’s a puzzlement.  Any thoughts?

Friday, January 1, 2016

This Is For My Loyal Readers In Norway: Thank You!

Happy New Year to Everyone!

I hope  that everyone who reads these words will have a happy, successful and above all healthy 2016, as will your loved ones.  I am definitely looking forward to the new year.  That’s largely because I expect 2016 will provide me with an ample number of subjects to discuss, as did 2015.  Several of these will be carryovers, subjects that just keep on occurring.  But first I want to acknowledge two significant holdover issues from last year, one in this post and one in the next.  Both are structured as questions, because I would like to know more from my readers.  Only they—you—know the answers.

Everyone who reads this blog knows that while I deal with major issues facing our country today, my specific examples to illustrate those issues derive almost exclusively from eight small towns on the lower Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania.  That’s a pretty tight focus, but the Internet knows no geographic boundaries, so my posts are accessible to anyone, anywhere, at least as far as I know.  In my next post I will the discuss the interest Ukraine seems to have about Phoenixville, but first I want to acknowledge and say “Thank You” to a loyal group of followers from Norway.  Yes, Norway.  Beginning in December of last year, I have received some 200-300 pageviews from Norway every week, without fail.  So, I employ this post to address my Norwegian readers directly, and ask the question I always ask:  Why?

I believe I know how I was introduced to your country, perhaps.  In November of 2014, I attended a reunion of my wife’s family, which is predominately Norwegian.  Two family members came all the way from Norway!  I was impressed that they had traveled such a distance to meet with people they did not know, and gave them a signed copy of my book, What Killed Downtown?  Norristown, Pennsylvania, From Main Street to the Malls.  This was in November, and my Norwegian pageviews exploded in December.  It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to see a connection.  Am I right about this?

Initial—or periodic—interest is one thing, but sustained interest over an entire year is something else entirely.  Unlike my popularity in Ukraine (the subject of my next post), which is very post-specific, my pageviews from Norway arrive every week, regardless of subject. 
Although the metrics on my blog site do not allow me to analyze the response from specific countries to specific posts (in truth, they don’t allow me to analyze much of anything), I am continually pleased that attention is not paid solely to the current post.  Most of my earlier posts (pre-2015) have been steadily been accumulating pageviews.

As pleased as I am by appearances, I am going to assume nothing.  After all, I recently read (on the Internet, of course, so keep that in mind) that Norwegians employ the word “Texas” as a synonym for “crazy.”  I’d like to think I haven’t earned any such status, but this post is phrased as a question, because I simply know almost nothing about why—and how—my posts seem to attract continued attention in Norway. 

That’s why I am asking you, my readers in Norway, to email me at mike@michaeltolle.com, or leave a comment on my blog site.  I very much want to know more about you.  I don’t speak a word of Norwegian, but will have them translated, so feel free.



(Of course, if you have answers to these questions, you don’t have to be from Norway to email me, or comment on my blog site.  Any contribution could help.)

Friday, December 18, 2015

WELFARE! SECTION 8! RACISM!

Part II:  If It’s Not Racism, It Might Be Religion.  Or History.

Last week I explained one reason why I do not consider my Facebook friends who post objections to welfare and “Section 8” to be racists employing code words.  I spoke of the rhetorical trick that such an automatic accusation too often is.  I said I would ignore this trick and continue to take my Facebook friends at face value, and implored you to do the same.  That was the proper response, but it did sidestep the central issue: can you oppose welfare (in its urban racial context, mind you) and point to anything positive to support your position?  You most definitely can, and this week I very briefly outline why opposition to welfare has considerable history on its side.

If your starting point is why a Christian can oppose helping his fellow man, it’s a long story, and you have to go back rather far.  As with most differences between Christianity and what Jesus actually said, that largely begins with Saint Paul, but I’m going to skip ahead and begin with the Protestant Reformation.  Out of this event arose a great many religious sects; for American history, the most important were those we broadly describe as “Calvinist.”  From their focus on “predestination” arose what is called “The Protestant Work Ethic,” the belief that hard work—and success—are signs of “the elect,” those who will be saved.  The significance of this ideology in American history cannot be overestimated.  It was well suited to people who were abandoning everything and crossing an ocean to build a “City on a Hill” in an unknown land. 

The Puritans were the first to bring that religious aspect to the new world, but a rather more secular method of saying much the same thing had already made an appearance in the new world, at Jamestown, Virginia.  This first English settlement initially followed what we term “the Spanish Model”; i.e., the arrivals were mostly young men who expected to simply collect (or seize) the gold that was lying around and make their fortunes.  They found no gold, and soon realized that finding something to eat was even more important.  “The Starving Time” (recent evidence has surfaced that cannibalism was practiced) produced a leader in John Smith, whose enduring contribution to American history was the expression he supposedly coined to solve the problem:  “They who do not work, neither shall they eat.  He did rework a New Testament aphorism, but the judgment on those who did not work would be made by men, not God.

The religious and the secular attitudes toward those who did not labor combined to form the core of the American myth: a nation of individuals, who, untrammeled by the ancient constraints of the old world, could seek their individual fortunes as they may.  From Jamestown and Massachusetts through the period of the American frontier, this was more fact than myth.  When land could not be found locally (today we would say “jobs”), you could always “lit out for the territory,” as Mark Twain put it.  In the almost total absence of charity (or much law, for that matter), a man’s fate was indeed in his own hands, and hard work was the most likely path to a better one.  The myth grew, and was burnished over and over again with that uniquely American combination of Protestantism, individuality and manifest destiny.  But as the frontier closed, times changed and continued to change.  That oh so human longing for the better times of our youth implanted a pure form of the myth into the American psyche even as the reality became steadily one of interconnection, not independence.

The Protestant Work Ethic suffered something of a beating during the Great Society years, but American history after 1980 demonstrates a clear resurgence and even an intensification of the belief.  The Reagan revolution harnessed the growing belief that the Great Society had not implanted the Protestant Work Ethic in the irresponsible poor, but had simply increased the number of “welfare queens.”  The central rationale for opposing welfare shifted; such aid not only did not instill a hard-working, gratification-delaying attitude among its recipients, it made the poor dependent, knowing they could consume even without working.  Senator Rand Paul (R, KY) has repeatedly made this point, arguing that welfare is a “disservice” to the poor.  The result of this trend has been polarization—and mutual antipathy—between “the workers and the free loaders.” 

The Protestant Work Ethic long ago ceased to be confined to Calvinists, or even Protestants.  A great many Catholics (despite their Pope)—and even a number of Jews—subscribe to it.  It is interlocked with aphorisms everybody knows (“God helps those who help themselves,” “If you give a man a fish…”) and the rags-to-riches stories that have always inspired us.  After more than three centuries of myth polishing, several of its components have changed, of course.  The Calvinist demonstration of a frugal and modest lifestyle has fallen by the wayside.  This is the Age of Consumption.  If you’ve got it, flaunt it, you worked hard for it (or inherited it), you deserve it. 

Yet despite enormous historical change and all the evidence of a tilted playing field (Donald Trump got his start with $1 million from his father, and damn few of the ghetto-born become millionaires), belief in the importance of an individual’s efforts has not waned.  Today, amid our showing off, we abhor those that consume, but do not labor.  That’s because the taxes of those who do labor are given to those that don’t, or so the common belief goes.  That’s not wrong, just greatly exaggerated, but it is a belief deeply held by many sincere, decent people. 

Then there is the reality that work doesn’t always deliver what leisure seems to.  Those who work for a living see those who don’t standing in front of them in the checkout line and handing the clerk some paper that isn’t money.  Also, as Senator James Inhofe (R, OK) phrased it, “people who are perfectly capable of working are buying thing like beer.”  From this stems repeated attempts to restrict what welfare recipients can purchase, how much they can withdraw from an ATM, and the like.  While I am sure there is a moral concern over the evil influence of beer and a bad diet involved in this, I think anger at comparative lifestyles for the work involved is still the real motive.

Thus the dispute is only superficially a financial one.  Morality, religion and The American Way underpin the arguments.  Representative Steve Southerland (Rep, Fla), a leading proponent of cutting welfare, argues that “The explosion of food stamps in this country is not just a fiscal issue for me.  This is a defining moral issue of our time,” and he is far from alone. 

All of this is not to separate racism from the development of the American myth; that is not possible, and I do not attempt to do so.  And I am sure it is also true that some simply employ the “welfare is a disservice to the poor” argument to hide their true motives, perhaps even from themselves.  So, in the end, it comes down to what I argued last week and several times before: take people as individuals, assume nothing, listen to what they say and take them at face value until proven otherwise, and then do so to individuals, not groups they seem to represent.


Note:

With the year draws to a close, because I have non-Christian friends, and always seek inclusivity, I want to wish everyone a Happy Holiday Season.  You’ll hear from me again on New Year’s Day.

Friday, December 11, 2015

WELFARE! SECTION 8! RACISM!

Part I: Are Some of My Facebook Friends Racists?

How’s that for hot-button issues?  Did I get your attention?  I am going to discuss those issues, specifically the all-too automatic connection between them.  I’ve addressed the first two on several occasions, so it’s time to add the third.  That’s because they are connected in the minds of a great many Americans.  I acknowledge the connection, but think it might be overstated.  Here’s what I mean:

Although I have attracted a worldwide audience, my subjects tend to be quite geographically specific, the classic river mill towns along the lower Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania.  I derive many of my topics from reading posts on the Facebook group pages to which I belong, in particular on those dedicated to reviving these communities.  Posts about unpleasant neighbors, their landlords—or both—appear frequently.  I often read screeds against welfare and “Section 8” that not only decry these people, but also the fact that they are benefitting from the writer’s tax dollars.  Race is rarely mentioned, and I have seen no references that I would find pejorative.  Yet many would term them so. 

I also belong to several “Occupy” groups, and in them see claims that such posts evidence racism even when race isn’t mentioned.  It doesn’t matter that nothing explicitly racist is written, they say; the racism is implicit, and evidenced by “cover phrases,” designed to provide some other, and more acceptable, reason to argue what one already believes for other reasons, ones that would attract widespread disapproval if expressed publicly.  This, they say, is the real meaning behind citizen outbursts against welfare and “Section 8.”

Such an argument bothers me on two levels.  First, there are far too many assumptions built into any attempt to simply dismiss the statements of so many unrelated people with one sweeping gesture.  This suggests an ignorance—or avoidance—of well-known elements of both world religious history and from American history that offer an alternate motive for opposing welfare.  The Facebook groups to which I belong focus on urban areas.  The faces of the urban poor tend to be of a darker hue than those of their rural counterparts, and appear much more often on TV, but it’s a big leap to automatically assume that the people being scorned in the posts I read are minorities.  Even if they are, do complaints about their illegal behavior constitute racism?

My next post will discuss how anti-welfare attitudes are intertwined with American history, from the very beginning, even without adding racism.  This post, however, focuses on the aspect of this dismissive approach that I believe to be much more insidious than just its display of ignorance.

Dismissive responses maligning someone’s motives are examples of an all too frequently seen rhetorical trick. I consider the trick more dangerous because its use is not limited to “urban” issues (attention! cover phrase!), but because it has become such a staple in our national discourse, regardless of subject.

Here’s the trick: someone confronted by a perfectly legitimate question or observation and who wishes to avoid—or can’t—respond in a reasonable, factual manner, dodges the issue by attacking the questioner personally, claiming to see improper motives behind reasonable words.  This immediately shifts the focus of attention from the subject to the questioner and heaps on a little personal scorn at the same time; exactly what the person being questioned wished to have happen.  There are many phrases that cover this rhetorical trick; I call it “The Apt Response,” for more than one reason.

Given our national concern over “offending” people, they who claim to be offended—even by innocuous words—too often get away with this trick, and may even manage to avoid the original issue entirely, by describing an apparently innocuous question as racist, anti-Semitic, or some other unpleasantness.  They often double down by saying something like "By saying such a thing, you clearly are either [an unpleasantness] or [another unpleasantness].  If you give people more alternatives to think about, the less they think about the original subject.  Nobody wants to be accused of those motives, and too many readers equate accusation with evidence.  It’s a trick and nothing more, regardless of the word(s) used to divert attention.  People employ it so often because it works so well.

It doesn’t work with me, so I shall continue to take each Facebook poster’s statements at face value.  I owe that to them.  The Shadow may know what evil lurks in the hearts of men, but I don’t.  Of course, they might be carefully choosing their coded phrases to disguise racism, as posting blatantly racist thoughts tends to bring too much trouble, but I see no reason to just assume that.  I try to live by the adage, “say what you mean, mean what you say,” and I shall assume the same of my readers until proven differently, and then only in individual cases.

What does all this have to do with my constant topic, urban revitalization?  Everything, of course.  This is particularly true in our smaller towns, as the “bad neighborhood(s)” are harder to avoid, and the municipality has fewer resources to combat the problem.  The issues of welfare and “Section 8” can have an outsized effect on these towns, in both their real and their perceived effects.  I have written on this subject before.  But once you add racism to the discussion, things tend to polarize.  That sends the discourse off course, usually to a sullen dead end.  One side assumes the other’s racism, and the other resents it.  The people resources of our small towns are sorely taxed to overcome such impressions, whether they are justified or not.  Honest, straightforward dialogue is needed, and assumptions about the motives behind those who disagree with you should be avoided.

I thus implore each and every one of you to recognize this rhetorical trick when you see it.  Don’t fall for it, use it instead as evidence against what the trickster is trying to get you to support.  But I’m not going to leave it at that.  There are valid historical reasons to object to welfare, at least in theory.  They are rooted deeply in American history, and have become part of our national myth.  That doesn’t make them valid reasons to oppose welfare today, but they are—again, in theory—distinct from the racist components of our history, and should be understood as such.  My follow-up post will discuss these.

NOTE:
I publish a post every two weeks, on Friday.  As that schedule this month would have me posting on Christmas Day, I will not follow it.  I will publish the follow-up to this post NEXT FRIDAY, December 18, and then take holiday break until New Years Day.