Still hard to believe, I told a friend the other day while trying to fathom the election results, that pot is legal in my state, gays are free to marry, and a black man who vowed to raise taxes on the rich won a majority of the popular vote for president, back to back -- the first time any Democrat has done that since Franklin Roosevelt's second election in 1936. And yet only one in four voters identified themselves as "liberal" in national exit polls. Conservatives were 35 percent, and moderates the plurality, at 41 percent. The number of voters who agreed to the "L" tag was up by three percentage points, for what it's worth, from 22 percent in 2008."
--From "A Liberal Moment" by Timothy Egan, New York Times, Nov. 29, 2012.
I thought it might be interesting to discuss what it means to be a person of the left -- or "liberal" or "progressive" -- in T-Town. It's important to remember that I'm hardly alone here: even in what is routinely described as one of the most politically conservative cities in the country, nearly 90,000 people voted, as I did, for Barack Obama some weeks ago. As a standalone number, this constitutes a very large town in Oklahoma and elsewhere. Only Oklahoma City, Norman, Lawton, and Broken Arrow are larger "jurisdictions" in our state. And when you combine the number of people who voted for the president in Oklahoma County and the balance of the state, you arrive at over 443,500 -- a lot of people, collectively more than any Oklahoma city save for OKC itself.
At first, I was a little reluctant to do this piece. I thought it might seem a little narcissistic: there are so many other issues that are far and away more consequential than my own core beliefs and how my outlook shapes my journey here in Tulsa. But here we go: this piece -- which covers freedom, borders, education, and science -- will be followed by another piece, in a couple of weeks, on economics, city government and urban life, race and engagement, and spiritual matters.
I have a radical, maybe purely libertarian conception, of personal freedom. I think that adults should be empowered to do pretty much what they want to do in the social/personal sphere: this is particularly true of drug use, sexuality and relationships, and certainly in spiritual and religious expression. There is an important, sometimes complex qualifier of course: no one should have the right to do anything that harms anyone else in a physically or psychologically traumatic fashion. I've written in these pages about this outlook and the considerable moral, legal, and economic logic, for example, of drug legalization. I've confined my views to marijuana usage, but in point of fact, I feel the same way about virtually every other drug in general use. None of this outlook applies to children, who from my vantage are special humans in the scheme of things and deserve close care and considerable supervision.
I am not much of a respecter of borders and boundaries of any description. I'm an unabashed supporter, for example, of minimizing the practical importance of national borders: I am an absolute Lennonist (think John, the musician). Don't be confused: I'm an American and proud of it and I want our country to do extremely well and believe that on lots of fronts, we are doing well. But imagine being able to hop on a plane and teach English or elementary science to a bunch of kids in Kenya or to spend a couple of years scoping out the entrepreneurial and torrid technology scene in India or being able to hang out for a season or two in the central biz district of some "middle sized" Chinese town that has 10 million people -- a town that most Americans have never heard of. And it would be wonderful, and every bit as important, to see people from any of these places come here and do the same things.
RYAN RODRICK BEILER / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
From my vantage, our world is hobbled, our imagination and prospects badly constrained, as a consequence of the fact that we can't have these adventures easily in early 21st-century America. And of course people in India, Kenya, and China can't come over here easily either. More tangibly, effectively addressing the immigration challenges that Hispanic folks find themselves in at the moment should be one of our highest national priorities. We are a nation of immigrants, a roiling territory filled with outsiders with a fervent desire to come here: a constant flow of newcomers is a big part of the secret sauce of our American magic.
And Tulsa was a decidedly more vibrant place when the oil capital era was in play: thousands of cosmopolitan oil types -- Americans and not -- populated the joint in meaningful numbers. Making this so again in T-Town should be a singular priority. It has humongous economic and social yields.
I am a fervent, maybe even rabid exponent for what you could call the "reality club": the notion that our society prospers and humanity does well when we aggressively expand our creative, economic, and intellectual trajectory by investing in the magic of science and accelerated technological development. From my vantage we should use every means at our disposal, including expanding the aggressive university/public-private ventures that have already transformed every domain of the U.S. technologically. Allowing conventional religion, the creepy, counterproductive demands of "cowboy capitalism," or other highly emotional conceptions of the natural world to shape what we should do via government and public policy in these realms is repellant and simply vapid. While thousands of people in Tulsa are entitled to their private views about the age of the earth, the nature of life, and the dynamics of climate, they will find people like me (and thousands of other Tulsans) opposed at every turn when they try to convert these views into public policy, put constraints on novel science, stop public tech initiatives, or influence the stuff of curriculum in public schools. All these matters need to be far removed from management by people and forces with religious agendas of any kind.
I am a total partisan for public education: it is an absolutely essential facet of anything that resembles a free, open, and informed society and is the basis for an enlightened, empowered, and productive life. But unlike some of my compadres in the liberal movement, here and elsewhere, I'm pretty critical about the current state of public education -- the way we organize and manage schools. I believe that the evidence for anyone who cares to look at it is pretty clear -- American schools are doing a very, very poor job compared to our international competitors, especially at the K-12 level. In Oklahoma we have an absolutely huge problem, and not just with kids from poor families and impoverished neighborhoods. So while I'm a partisan for public schools and opposed to a whole raft of impractical and morally suspect privatization schemes, I'm also a harsh critic of our hyper-conventional national and local practices, the way we treat and pay teachers, the super-rigid character of many public schools, and the typical instruction and curriculum students receive.
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