On Death, Taxes, and Strong Democracy

I’ve been neglecting a few things lately–No blog posts, no videos, and the shop has been a mess. As with all cases of neglect, I have no real excuse, but by way of lame defense I will cite a couple of circumstances:

– First, taxes came due, and I procrastinated per usual (Geez, I’m not making a good case for myself), and…
– Second, tenants moved out of one of our rentals, and they left the place a mess.

On that vacancy–It’s the house we originally bought as a residence, not one of the pair we bought specifically as investments. It bothers me to see any of our properties trashed, but it bothers me even more when it comes to this particular place. It’s the first detached home we ever bought (our previous home was a townhouse). Our daughter was born while we lived there, and both kids did some prime growing under its roof. Their handprints from 2009 are in the concrete pad I poured outside the back door. So, yeah, I get a little emotional about it. Which is why I’ve decided to put it on the market. Well, it’s one of the reasons, but it’s a major one. I just don’t need to be putting myself through this every few years.

At one time I envisioned us, after the kids were grown, moving back into the house, which would then be paid off. Powerful forces far outside of my control have rendered this scenario an impossibility. Powerful, female forces. Entirely out of my control. So that incentive to keep it is gone.

Furthermore, as investment properties go, this house is less attractive than the other two, because it is significantly larger and thus exponentially more expensive to maintain and periodically renovate–The difference in rent simply doesn’t make up for the additional overhead and ass-pain.

There was one additional reason I have been clinging to it, and that is this: We’re in year 13 of a 15-year mortgage on the property. That sucker is nearly paid off. I’ve never owned real estate outright before, and I was looking forward to the sensation. But I’ve determined that one thing I can do with the proceeds is to pay off one of the little houses and, Boom! I’ve got that magic feeling. With cash to spare. So I’ve cleared that emotional hurdle.

So prepping the house for sale has consumed a fair amount of my time. But not all of it. Fact is, I’m classic ADD–I get intensely interested in something for periods of time, and then I drift off. But if it’s an important thing, something that really suits me, I’ll drift back around. And so I’m back. Howdy.

Writing of one kind or another is important to me. I’ll admit that my brief sojourn into academic writing sapped the joy out of my keyboard, but that was long ago. I don’t owe any footnotes to a blog.

My mentor from back then, W. Carey McWilliams, impressed upon me the idea of writing as therapy. The context was this: I was remarking that often when one delved into an author’s biography or even, if possible, met that author face-to-face, one discovered a complete disparity between the personality displayed in writing as compared to that displayed in everyday encounters. Carey’s explanation was that our alter ego emerges in our writing. As with many things Carey said, I ponder that observation frequently.

A prime example of this tendency was Benjamin R. Barber, who passed away yesterday. He may even have been the person on my mind during my conversation with Carey. Barber is famous as a political theorist, and as an advocate of “Strong Democracy,” the title of one of his best-sellers. If your Google Kung Fu is strong, you can probably find a picture of Bill Clinton holding the book up in front of a crowd. Strong democracy is the democracy of the Athenian polis, and it relies upon face-to-face interaction. It is not scalable. The larger the polis, the more difficult it is to approximate strong democracy. But there are measures that can be put into place, community organizations that can be built, and those can create breeding grounds and sanctuaries for the democratic spirit. And that is what Barber advocated. Strong Democracy was the book that brought me to Rutgers, to study under its author. And to work at the institute he founded there.

Amazingly to me, Barber in person was the opposite of a strong democrat. He was a complete autocrat. A tyrant!

I should have realized from day one that we were not compatible. I had driven six hours or more from Virginia to New Jersey to interview with him. I was punctual, arriving in the reception area of his institute at the appointed time. I was given a chair and told by his secretary that he was running a little behind.

I sat in that chair more than an hour. And during that hour I witnessed for the first time the way he terrorized that poor secretary. Their desks, his and hers, were separated by a little window in a wall, with sliding glass between. He would slide that glass open (Hiss!) fire off a command, and slide it shut (Thunk!). She would frantically try to comply. Long before she could finish whatever task he had thrown at her, the glass would hiss and thunk again in its tracks, and a new priority directive would be issued.

Months lather, that lady confided to me that if not for the benefits of a state job, primarily health care for herself and her son, she would have been outta there long ago. As it was, she was counting the days to retirement.

He kept the graduate students and full-time staff in a perpetual frenzy, catering to whatever whim popped into his head at a particular moment.

Once, I arrived early to a function at his house. He told me to drive around the block a few times.

I simply could not make sense of the two people I was to experience over the next several years: Barber in person, and Barber in print. Frankly, the public personality that comes easiest to mind by way of comparison is Donald Trump. I’m not kidding. Barber simply had that kind of force of will.

Of course, that force of will made him incredibly effective. The man counseled presidents, wrote best-sellers, composed arias, and, late in life, gave Ted Talks.

Once, I was teaching an introductory political theory course, and we arrived at our section on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Barber was an authority on Rousseau. I doubt there was another historical theorist about whom he was more passionate. So I invited him to give a lecture.

His performance was jaw-dropping. On that day, he forever changed the way I approached teaching. I realized on that day that to do as I had done previously, which was to hide my own interpretations and simply encourage the students to develop their own, was not only stupid, but just plain boring. And an insult to the students themselves, since it presumed they were incapable of taking or leaving my opinions.

Barber didn’t provide this interpretation and that interpretation; he provided HIS interpretation, and therefore his passion shone through. The students loved it.

Like I said, the man was effective. And now he is gone. And, tyrant that he was, I am saddened by that fact. Democracy has lost a champion. In print.