ed.: I wrote this in July of 2005, but it seems apropos enough, because of the post below, to bring it out of the bowels of the internet again.
We talk past each other while the city burns.
“If you’re not my friend, you’re my enemy in this war,” the officer told Fahd sternly.
“I am very disappointed in this conversation. I came here today with hope, but now I will treat you, your family and the al-Ghrirs differently.”
“I am so sad that you’re disappointed,” Fahd answered. “But there is nothing that I can do. I don’t have your guns and armor, what can I do?”
The officer replied: “I don’t want you to fight. I want you to organize the al-Ghrirs and take a stand against the insurgents and your fear.”
“Please be sure that I will always be your friend and I will not hesitate to help you if I can. Do you accept my friendship?” asked Fahd.”No,” Brown snapped.Fahd left shaken by Brown’s attitude. Now, he said, he expects the worst.”He can do whatever he pleases. Allah is my protector,” he said.

This isn’t so much a clash of civilizations as it is a derth of civilization. One decadent to the point of uselessness (ours), one a smoldering wreck (theirs). This is shown in their need and our inability to address it.

I think Stirling is headed in the right direction when he writes

“While factions debate represenatives, the real need is for water, light, power, hospitals and jobs – none of which are conjured up on the halls of the Iraqi Parliament.”

Real power must reach all the way to the bottom. When elites forget this, they fail.

Civilization means Cities:
“Civilization” is one of those words, like “moral” or “forward,” that have been so dislodged from significance (by people desperate to clothe their own mere preferences as universal principles) that now the words can only conjure up a diffuse, temporary, and unsatisfying warmth, kinda like wetting yourself. America’s failure in rebuilding Iraq is a failure of American know-how, which in turn is a result of a hole in the American experience. We share this fault with those on the right.

Not having to participate in creating the order that makes our lives and standards of living possible, it is no wonder that we have no idea how to build that order, or how to approach an alternate order. The most crippling idea, the flaw in the kernel of the American operating system is one hardly every discussed in political circles. It has nothing to do with left and right. They share the same problem. They are both mere consumers of order. They are coke and pepsi, they are levis and wrangers, ford and chevy. They are consumers because that’s how they’ve been raised and that’s all they ever know.

As an American, your experience of the great ourobouros of the macroeconomic cycle is horribly distorted, as it is in much of the rest of the developed world. Your experience as a producer is limited to some part of some thing that you might not even consume yourself. But as a consumer, you consume a whole range of things, all the things of life and many superfluous things besides. And so we come to take it for granted that, when we need something, a “solution” will be there. Someone else’s product. We’ll take that one!

What makes Americans especially isolated in this respect is that, from home-bubble to car-bubble to work-bubble and back again, with occasional visits to a demographic birds-of-a-feather-bubble consuming whatever drug and music has been flogged to your caste, what do we know? Isolation in sprawl makes Americans vulnerable, and I don’t just mean to gas prices. Everything we know about most of the world outside our habitrail existence is mediated. You’ll believe anything mediated at you. You have no choice because you know no alternative. Except pepsi. I prefer coke.

So, what happens when you have to make everything that makes your life possible? What would that even look like? Do you know? Waitaminute. You can’t do it alone. With whom would you band together for survival, and how would y’all operate? How would you delegate? What happens when you get old or die or break a leg? How would you pass on the skills to make everything that makes your life possible?

Or let me make it even more difficult for you: what if I dropped you in among people who had lost everything and you had to teach them not only how to make everything that makes their life possible, but also how to teach others to make everything that makes all their lives possible? Could you do that?

Fred Cuny did.

Rebuilding Civilization:
He started in the suburbs, in Texas, no less, like every other proud and preening drone, and he died in Chechnya trying to do what he’d done regardless of continent, language, or government opposition: teach people to teach people to fish, so to speak.

Let me explain this as best I can.

Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.

[but take it one step further]

Teach a man to teach others to fish, and his whole people eat forever.

(… or at least until Japan has its way and processes all terrestrial aquatic life into aphrodisiacs/industrial lubricants.)

The genius of the extrinsic system of information, which we call civilization, as a joint enterprise and macro-organism is not just the benefit of that social order, or the knowledge of how it works, but rather the ability and habit of teaching others how to teach others to reproduce that order. Civilization is a process. You cannot buy order, you have to participate in it. We either reproduce the order that makes that process possible, or we don’t. We must also pass that knowledge on.

Once, I knew that the order of a society was reproduced by every particle of that society. Even the oppressed are expected to act a certain way to guarantee their oppression. That was the genius of civil disobedience: you fail to participate in your own oppression. Your oppressors rely on your cooperation. You can defeat them by letting them down, not just by confronting and/or killing them. I knew that. But Fred Cuny taught me how to think about civilization and power from the genesis of their order, because that’s what he did for a living. He made order out of chaos, sometimes in spite of powerful forces and entrenched habits. But, I only heard about him after his assassination.

A flawed man, vain, frustrated because an injury kept him from a military career, Cuny had overcome the parochial limitations of his suburban Texas upbringing by, what else?, traveling and seeing how other people live. But it’s what he did that gave me an object lesson in the microphysics of power (actually, several of them) as well as the perspective to see the failure of American democracy at home and abroad.

If you were to read this, you might think I was talking about some avatar of conservative values…

Fred Cuny was the guy that came up with ideas. In 23 war zones over three decades, he found the solutions that nobody could–or would–find and use. From Albania to Mexico to Zimbabwe, for governments and organizations ranging from the Agency for International Development to the Pan American Health Organization to the World Bank, he applied his experience and expertise to make a better world for the survivors of both man-made and natural disasters.

Cuny’s philosophy of supplying the means for refugees to support themselves instead of just dumping supplies has been difficult to rationalize to many aid organizations but has proven itself to be the best way to help people over the long run.

…and you’d be wrong, in the same way that conservatives don’t stand for free market values or smaller government any more. Cuny provided them with “means” that included the knowledge of how to build the basics of civilization AND the knowledge of how to teach that knowledge. This is the kind of independence and self-government that corporatism cannot abide. It seems, too, he had little patience for socialism corporate or otherwise:

Mr. Cuny describes himself as a liberal Democrat, though he’s a strong believer in allowing market-forces a role in disaster relief. He is often critical of international relief agencies, and maintains that “we really don’t need a lot of these organizations.”He said that in many situations understanding and manipulating market forces can be far more important and effective than classic relief operations. Mr. Cuny credits the Bush administration with taking market intervention seriously after earlier administrations gave the notion mere lip service.”Too many people die because the world doesn’t really care how relief work is done,” he said. Much of what relief agencies do is “just for show,” he said, where they end up saving people who were not going to die in the first place while ignoring the underlying causes of the disaster.

The show of concern in Somalia was a disaster, in large part because Bush Sr. ignored Cuny’s advice not to centralize or militarize the operation. The starving people weren’t in the cities, the technicals were. A giant government operation wasn’t necessary. Everyone knows what happened next. Cuny knew better than that, and had shown it decades before Somalia turned into a dirty word.

The kind of small scale, microcosmic markets that Cuny relied on to leverage his relief efforts aren’t the kind that you hear about on CNBC. Local demands were what he was there to satisfy, and he had to leave in place local operations that would continue to satify them. These two would need each other, and would therefore sustain each other, long after the NGO’s and the cameras were gone. What Cuny created was a libertarian nightmare of social interdependence to assure collective survival. Ayn Rand would need an 8-ball and at least half a dozen fawning young men to help her blot out the shock, or at least to help her go snow-blind, so she could return to bitching about commies taking her daddy’s fur-farm in ham-handed fiction.

He studied city planning at the University of Houston, and first got into relief work while working little immigrant towns along the Mexican border. He saw there that simple things, like paving the roads to eliminate pools of mosquito-breeding stagnant water, could really affect public health. He got involved in the Biafran war in 1970, where Nigeria conquered the breakaway province of Biafra. There too the problems had straightforward engineering solutions. Build tent camps in high ground to improve drainage. Dig latrines. Distribute food in the countryside instead of the city to keep down refugee build-up. Since relief agencies tend to specialize in medicine, food assistance, and fund-raising, there was a real need for someone with engineering experience. Cuny founded Intertect to fill that need. Over the next twenty-five years he was in all of the world’s hot spots. He advised Mother Teresa on what kind of housing would suit Calcutta’s muddy soil, showed Guatamalan Indians how to use cross-braces to make their roofs more earthquake-resistant, improved the adobe used to rebuild houses in Peru after an earthquake by adding a little motor oil to it, and managed the return of 400,000 Kurd refugees to northern Iraq after the Gulf War.

Cuny didn’t just engineer structures and sanitation systems or help communities avoid creating their own engineering nightmares. He approached community as an engineer. Don’t just dump tents, teach 100 people to set them up and each of them will teach ten and each of them and so on. Don’t set the tents up on a grid. Set them up in cells of a few dozen. Don’t just tell them what to do, teach a few from each cell what to do. Rely on them for information. Keep them informed so they can prepare their people for change, and so on.

Not just material or instruction: provide both order and the ability to reproduce it. Wind it up and let it go.

… disaster, he liked to say, was also an opportunity: “If we throw junk aid at a problem, there won’t be any impact, even if it might soothe someone’s conscience, especially donors.” For example, he recommended buying land after an earthquake; when the rich sell it off to get enough money to rebuild their industries, there is a chance to move the poor onto good land. “Start with something you can really do, ” he said. “Many agencies want to give them tents. That doesn’t solve the problem. Give them tools and let them salvage what they can from the fallen buildings. Ninety percent is reusable. You let them take the bricks and steel and wood, put in some materials to help them build components, and you’ve begun reconstruction. If you just give people a tent, what does that tell them? Either you don’t want them on that land or this isn’t the solution. You slow down and reconstruction and create expectations you can’t meet. But if you give them a tool and some basic materials the message is, Get on with it. Let’s get this thing over with. Let’s rebuild the community.”

Let’s rebuild the community. Indeed.

Pyramids and Spheres
What Cuny created were self-reproducing cells of self-reliance and self-determination which could furthermore coordinate with other cells for their collective survival. Furthermore, he did this on four different continents, in various cultures, across different languages, and in spite of various governments and NGOs. He was so successful that the leaders his system created were often the first to be killed by their governments after he left. In the top-down world Bush has failed to impose on Iraq (but which his minions have successfully imposed on the stunted right blogsphere), such cells and their leaders would be automatic enemies. Any kind of collective action threatens conservatives because unless people are isloated they’re more expensive to exploit. Hurts the bottom line, you know.

Bush’s pygmalion act in Iraq has failed because the sculptor doesn’t understand his own civilization, let alone how to jumpstart another one. This failure isn’t a function of conservatism or liberalism, necessarily. What Bush has carved into Iraq is the mirror image of the right’s failure to understand our democratic Republic at home. They never grasped it here, and have demonstrated this Over There. The right, moreover, succeeds best when it undermines democracy, when it depresses voter turnout, when it divides our pluralist society in favor of its once and future WASP hegemon. I know that we share this blind spot with them because we have let them do this.

Learning from the Imperial failure abroad is critical to our democratic future at home. This should have been obvious: Iraq was their dream all along, it’s the radical right’s magnum opus. The top-down imposition of “democracy” shows they’ve forgotten what the “demo” means in “democracy.” They cancelled local elections, failed to protect existing leaders, left communities without basic security and services and so those communities turned to the mosques, transforming in less than a year a staunchly secular Arab nation into an Islamist hotbed.

Political nature abhors a power vacuum. Bush failed to fill it, and so it has been filled by elements beyond our control, most of them hostile. But if you think about it, this isn’t much different from the situation at home.

What we have in common with our opponents is our assumption of universal comestibility. We grew up in the same culture, after all, and have more in common with them than we may like to admit. Being the enemies of corporatism, however, we benefit least from being mere consumers of order. Like the corporate media’s “news,” if you’re willing to just buy it, they win. If you want to break out, it takes work.

The kind of community that has made it possible for the left to at least contest rightwing media dominance for the first time in over a decade is not about to be emulated by the right, most of which is still allergic to community, and it’s not just because “communism” shares the first seven letters (although I’m sure that’s a sticking point for many of them). The reason for this is a fundamental difference in philosophy and objective. You can see this fundamental difference in both the struggles of the left and the policies of the right. Above all, you can see this in the adjunct nature of the right blogsphere, which serves to inject AM Radio discourse into the internet in the same way that FOX brought that propaganda to cable news.

They have constructed pyramids in honor of their escaping mere America. We’re still rehearsing the music of the spheres. There is nothing certain about the outcome, except that the left will lose if it does not understand what’s at work, and learn to work accordingly.

Aping the thinktank structure of the right would only be playing catch-up. Any strategy must target the situation as it will be at the moment we expect to triumph. Our opportunity lies in our very nature, and that of our opponents. The order we fight is a capital-intensive one, bent on not only preserving its privilege, but also cannibalizing the public thing, the ‘res publica,’ to support that privilege. Our opportunities lie, in part, in technology’s reduction of the price of admission to the national discussion.

But rather than dumping capital on a cause, we must engineer the order that best reproduces our best chances for success. They scramble to serve an elite, hoping to be rewarded. We strive to rebuild an egalitarian society, knowing we will all benefit, that the whole of us will be greater than the sum of us. Their order is ready-made: they say what they are told and dare to hope for a pat on the head and a bone. We must build our own order. That work is more demanding, but comes with the kind of self-respect that servants are never allowed, no matter how many crumbs are thrown under the table.

The spheres we build moment by moment through what we do are not static objects, they should be exploited as hives. What we do here is teach. Outrage has given way to coordinated action, though in fits and starts.

When you turned to blogs for better news and information, you became more than a mere consumer of political thought. You became a producer of political thought. This transition has brought you closer to being a political actor, not just a political consumer.

But the next step is passing on the know-how to organize, in order to better bring the power of coordinated action to bear. This expertise lies disporportionately in our older members, the former journalists, the lawyers, the labor organizers, the greying activists. They have explained how to address mass media, the ins and outs of the laws involved in a given controversy, the limitations and struggles of organized labor in an era where employees are rediscovering its necessity, etc. Time and again I am struck by how the most cogent voices in this supposedly young person’s medium are middle aged.

This human capital is invaluable. As it is, however, since they don’t serve corporatism, they are atomized, scattered, neutralized. Our task is to construct systems that give their abilities a context and pass that capital on. This is the strength of democratic societies, since they (unlike elitist ones) make use of human capital by both selecting for ability and also providing a broad, open, and stable social space for the development of that ability. Our strength lies in this core principle, and it is the primary weakness and blindspot of the enemies of our Republic and Constitution. It is our necessary, natural, and best course of action.