The Edge of Chaos and the Failure of Progressivism

The following essay was written right after the 2016 election. I think it useful to revisit it now.

The age of Donald Trump is an age of uncertainty. White progressives are particularly unequipped to cope with political and social uncertainty. Contrary to popular opinion this isn’t because of hardline idealism. It isn’t because we have pandered excessively to special interests and its neighbor identity politics. It isn’t even because we’ve ignored the economic precarity of the rural, white, working class. The reason we fail is because we don’t understand how change happens. And because of that failure we’ve adopted tactics that blow up in our faces, as my Dad used to say. 

On November 8th, 2016 I went early to the polls—before the doors even opened. The pundits had all assured us that Hillary Clinton would easily win Wisconsin, but it was a presidential election after all. I wanted to beat the after-work rush. 

On this particular voting day I was in a line of about fifteen people waiting for the doors to open. I was standing behind a young white man, mid-thirties, dressed for work—blue jeans, flannels, and heavy work boots. Not sure where to go, he was pointed to the registration line. He’d explained that he’d never voted before. I had a sinking feeling he wasn’t registering as a first-time voter to vote for Hillary. How had we managed to end up here, I wondered?

I blame Hegel and to some extent Marx, but mostly Hegel.

We insist on believing that change is the result of a mechanical linear process rather than the result of complex adaptive systems. Even though the sciences have made significant strides in understanding how complex adaptive systems work, we rely on an historically mechanistic framing to justify progress through incremental change. 

When we understand how complex adaptive systems work we can understand what makes change happen. We can talk about the importance of feedback systems in creating increasing returns, the impact of implicit models and network effects on social norms, how to recognize path dependencies and emergent properties, and how adaptive agents take advantage of emergent properties to cause change. In the sciences the phrase “Change happens at the edge of chaos” is not a metaphor.

The economist Eric D. Beinhocker in The Origin of Wealth describes the edge of chaos as the area of turbulence between steady states, where complex and unpredictable patterns such as exponential growth or radical collapse happen. M. Mitchell Waldrop in Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos describes the edge of chaos as the balance point where new ideas and genotypes nibble away at the status quo, where small changes can have major results. 

The science of complex adaptive systems also explains why incrementalism never seems to work, why for instance, women are again fighting for the same reproductive rights we fought for (and thought we’d won) in the nineteen sixties and seventies. 

Our Village of Prairie du Sac is part of the white working-class community colloquially referred to as Sauk Prairie, made up of the small side by side Villages of Sauk City and Prairie du Sac. Prairie du Sac proper has a population of a little over four thousand people and one polling place—the Village Hall. 

The poll workers apologetically asked their small-town friends and neighbors for newly required, acceptable forms of photo id. We pulled out our driver’s licenses and smiled in commiseration.

Since the mid-1970s Sauk Prairie has experienced higher unemployment than neighboring Dane County and a prolonged period of wage stagnation, even though its proximity to the state capitol (a thirty minute drive across the Wisconsin River) meant it’s fared better than other rural Wisconsin communities. Once a thriving agricultural community, the hollowing out of ag employment following increased farm mechanization (starting in the 1960s); and the closure of the Badger Army Ammunition Plant, which stopped producing acid, oleum, ball powder and rocket propellant in 1975, has reduced the size of the surrounding area’s working populations and led to deteriorating downtown districts. 

The Villages’ major employers are the school district and the local hospital. Changes in job make-up and the de-unionization of construction and manufacturing are responsible for wage stagnation. Scott Walker’s Act 10 further eroded the power of teachers’ unions when teachers’ wages had been legislatively stagnant for years anyway. This shift, taking place over decades made it difficult to recognize these changes as long term trends. People here continue to operate from the implicit model that individual hard work overcomes all obstacles. Baby boomers believe that if our children make the same choices and sacrifices we did that they will have the same opportunities. Our children flee to urban areas.

Sauk County as a whole swung for Trump in the election. Sauk Prairie marginally preferred Clinton. It is arguable that residents who view Sauk Prairie as largely a bedroom community for the nearby state capital and university center of Madison were more likely to vote a liberal slate. 

Because Sauk County has remained relatively prosperous as rural communities go, it is easy to believe that that prosperity is the result of working hard and following the rules. We could attribute our prosperity to the facts that the farmland is rich and the weather cooperative resulting in fewer seasons of agricultural losses than less favorable parts of the country. We could attribute our prosperity to the proximity to the fast-growing state capital and resulting jobs and supporting industries. We could do that, but the American cult of the individual frames a different story. We believe our successes are the results of individual effort and that our failures are somebody else’s fault. That somebody else is increasingly identified as the government and as minority populations.

Political change as understood by American progressives is based on a belief in an inevitable march to a better future—hence the name progressive. Mainstream progressivism has adopted and enforced incrementalism as its primary tactic. The idea is that change inevitably moves in a positive direction (the right side of history) and that small changes are easier for your political opponents to accept than large changes. At times it appears that the left spends more effort arguing over which incremental change to support than actually achieving any of them.

It was believed that gay marriage would lead to greater acceptance of the LGBTQIA community and integration into mainstream economic prosperity. It was believed that obtaining abortion rights and greater access to birth control would give (primarily white) women a greater ability to pursue careers and greater economic opportunities. The list goes on. The theory, believed even by those who weren’t theorists, was that small changes inevitably lead to larger social goods. “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” as we like to quote Martin Luther King Jr. (now that he is dead and acceptable.)

Isn’t it ironic that eighteenth and nineteenth century philosophers so thoroughly control the strategy and tactics of modern day progressives? Isn’t it funny that we are unwaveringly committed to making the Hegelian mistake (what some people call the dialectic) over and over again. 

Using the dialectic to understand social change and political movements appeals to the human brain’s desire to understand things through recognition of simple patterns, particularly binary patterns. It is an implicit model that appeals to our desire for predictability. This is why a dialectic analysis can be used successfully by conservatives (in the original meaning of conserving the existing steady state) such as Hegel, as well as by ideological Marxists. It is why the generalized idea of the dialectic becomes embedded in the way we see the world, even when we are not purposefully looking through an ideological lens. 

In the simplest of terms the dialectic explains that there is a thing-the thesis and in the thing there is the opposite thing-the antithesis. When these things collide they produce a third thing-the synthesis. Seems like common sense when you put it that way. Where it becomes dangerous in the hands of progressives is the piece that Marx added, the belief that the synthesis is inevitably progressive. It just seems fair, as indeed it is, that my hard work should result in a better life. And if your life sucks you’ve obviously failed in some personal way. 

We as a species are ill-equipped to step willingly into the unknown. We are more comfortable with the demons we know after all. In an age of uncertainty it is a form of looking out for one’s self-interest to try to move back to a familiar steady state, either a real or imagined one. We want our actions to result in predictable outcomes. History has primed us to adopt a linear mechanism for understanding change.

But, what if that is not how change happens? What if the movement to an equal and fair society depends upon a different model? What if the tactic of incrementalism in particular cannot move us in a positive direction?

What if to understand what happened in the 2016 election “was it race or was it class?” is the wrong question? Incrementalism’s failure is built into the mechanistic models we’ve been using to predict change. Incrementalism causes us to overlook emergent trends at the edge of chaos, while opposing agents learn from progressive tactics how better to fight progressive ideals.

In 1984 a number of scientists including Ken Arrow and Brian Arthur in Economics and Stuart Kauffman and John Holland in Theoretical Biology and Psychology came together across their respective disciplines. They congregated in the New Mexico desert to form the Santa Fe Institute. They came together to look for solutions to what have since been termed “wicked problems”. They came together, because like Kimberlé Crenshaw when she coined the social justice term intersectionality, they were becoming increasingly convinced that order in the universe was more than the sum of all of its parts. 

In his book on complexity theory and the founding of the Santa Fe Institute, Waldrop details how the fields of economics and political theory had become stuck in the linear mechanistic thinking that had been new and exciting science in the nineteenth century. Economics and social theory had become wed to an idea of predictability that is understood by using linear equations and by simplifying variables to the smallest understandable components and then adding them up.

What physics and biology had figured out after the disciplines became siloed is that breaking components down to their smallest parts to define and categorize them and then trying to build an understanding of reality by adding the parts back up, left things out. We were left without a way to measure the importance of interaction between components.  We were unable to allow for feedback mechanisms (termed increasing returns in economics by Brian Arthur.) We weren’t looking at the ability of systems to self-organize beyond an ideological and poorly understood invisible hand. Physics developed chaos mathematics to study these questions. Biology looked at the importance of adaptability and emergent properties in complex systems. Economics left alone in its own silo, continued to build its discipline on the back of making existing theory conform to linear equations. 

The antidote to neo-liberalism according to left-leaning economists was to double down on the Hegelian mistake. The compromises the left made in promoting an incrementalist agenda moved the Overton Window ever rightward. The Democratic party remained committed to compromise. Mitch McConnell famously promised non-cooperation until the Republican party was in control. Democratic concessions led to—well no concessions on the part of the other side. That wasn’t the outcome predicted by progressives.

Complexity theory is the science around unpredictable outcomes. It allows us to imagine and prepare for scenarios that might not be 100 percent predictable, but still highly likely. It allows us to ask questions about how the universe, the economy, or social institutions actually work, rather than how we wish them to work or how ideology prescribes them as working—data be damned. We can imagine how things fall apart, but what if we could imagine how things come back together? 

One of the wicked problems that the Santa Fe Fellows were intent on solving was how do you explain the tendency of the universe to order? The laws of thermodynamics explain how the universe tends to disorder, but they fail to explain the order we observe all around us, think fractals, galaxies, and life itself. How do you explain that? 

The three laws of thermodynamics are: 1) Energy in a closed system can neither be created nor destroyed. It can only be changed from one form to another. 2) As energy changes from one form to another the universe tends to entropy or disorder. 3) As a system approaches absolute zero the extraction of energy becomes more difficult. In simple terms, the more we expend energy as work the more disordered the environment becomes in the long run. If you think the housework is never done you are existentially right. So, we get how disorder is created, but we’ve been short on mechanisms to explain the order we see in the universe. 

Stuart Kauffman had been looking for a way to explain order in the universe since his pre-med school days. As reported by Waldrop “He was thunderstruck” by the phenomenology of life, by the ability of a fertilized egg to give rise to an ordered newborn, then an adult. Even though the nature of self-organization and cellular differentiation in living organisms was not part of his pre-med coursework at Berkeley, this was the wicked problem that he was intent to solve. Studying this phenomenon was his obsessive hobby while attending medical school in San Francisco.

The turning point for Kauffman came in his sophomore year of medical school. He had been running models on paper where he looked at the changes triggered when you switched two input nodes in a network off or on, trying to replicate the non-linear interactions of regulatory genes. 

It was understood at the time that cells contained a number of regulatory genes that switched like a light bulb on and off, controlling gene expression at the cellular level. This mechanism caused a cell to differentiate between becoming a part of a hair follicle or becoming a cone in the eye, for example. How did this precision within complexity arise? Random chance over millions of years seemed an inadequate explanation. 

Gene expression could not be explained as a step by step reductionist sequence, akin to running a computer program. These interactions happened simultaneously, not sequentially. Logically, cells should quickly collapse into chaos as the switches randomly flip on and off. Instead they settle down into self-consistent stable patterns. 

Kauffman’s work eventually led him to study sparsely connected networks and the formation of autocatalytic sets. He discovered that sparsely connected networks were mathematically more likely to organize themselves into stable cycles than dense networks. Imagine these sparsely connected networks reaching towards equilibrium in economists’ favorite example—a ball circling to rest at the bottom of a bowl. (I may have been ruined for neo-classical economics when my college professor—the Institutional Economist John Culbertson explained economic equilibrium using the fulcrum of a teeter totter to represent the point of equilibrium.)

Autocatalytic sets are the sets of catalysts working together to act on molecules. Catalysts provide a type of feedback mechanism which hastens chemical reactions. The modern chemical industry is dependent on the existence of catalysts. While preparing for the Santa Fe Institute’s first lecture on Economics Brian Arthur realized how neatly Kauffman’s work intersected with the work he was doing on increasing returns in economics. Arthur and Kauffman agreed that the economy as a “web of transformations among goods and services” functioned like autocatalytic sets. 

Like the three laws of thermodynamics which explain the tendency to entropy and decay, economics has laws which explain diminishing returns. In economics the theory of diminishing returns is that the marginal output of production tends to decrease, with each incremental addition producing less than the previous addition. 

This is a useful theorem in a largely industrial economy that is trying to measure the cost benefit ratio of inputs in the means of production. It is a less useful tool for looking at a largely financialized and increasingly networked economy. Brian Arthur’s law of increasing returns fits not only with current thinking in the hard sciences but is a more adequate explanation for understanding impact and the importance of networks. 

Arthur explained that in “the actual living economy out there… it’s path-dependent, it’s complicated, it’s evolving, it’s open, and it’s organic.” One of the major frustrations of modern life is the inability of our tech to work together in ways that are seamless to the user. The competition between Apple and Microsoft is one such example. Each company has worked hard to create a path dependency that results in lock-in to one tech over the other. Consumers can be rabidly committed to their choice, but the major question when buying a new phone or computer remains not which is the better system overall, but which system is compatible with what I’m replacing and what I’m keeping. Once the first choice has been made the resulting path dependency creates a winner take all arena in tech markets as well as artificially inflated pricing. 

The popularity of Facebook is also the result of path dependency. The idea of using anti-monopoly regulations to break-up Facebook is gaining increasing popularity, but it is hard to see how laws put in place to counter old-style monopolies would work on a platform whose growth is not through unfair business practices, but through the increasing returns of belonging to a network where growth has already happened. As Yogi Berra might have said “Facebook is a lonely place, but that’s where all the people are.”

FaceBook wouldn’t exist without the self-organizing networks of its members. The very idea of the importance of networks makes total sense today. We have all heard of viral marketing. Recently Nike initiated a viral marketing campaign where it purposely picked a politically controversial subject as its spokesperson. Disagreements over the propriety of using Colin Kaepernick resulted in the original Nike “Believe in Something” ad being viewed over 5 million times in three days according to Footwear News, and getting $34 million worth of media exposure in 24 hours according to the Apex Marketing Group.

It is well documented that millennials in particular reach out to their networks for advice and recommendations rather than to the voices of authority baby boomers might have relied on. Start-ups and tech businesses are organized using the power of networks even while their boardrooms may still follow hierarchical org charts. 

The most memorable social movements of recent years have relied on social networks and shied away from hierarchical organization—the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter. The Women’s March on Washington followed a more traditional hierarchical model, and maybe not quite coincidentally caused a great deal of distress and rethinking when women who were marginalized on more than one axis demanded that their voices be heard. 

In Santa Fe John Holland added another group of important pieces to the puzzle of how change happens. Holland contributed the ideas of building blocks in implicit models and adaptive agents leading to emergence. Agents are any individual actors within a network—such as chromosomes within a cell or individual organisms within a biological system or people within a society. 

An implicit model is any model which determines the results of specific behaviors within a system. Agents acting within an implicit model do not have to be aware of what the model is. Holland’s example is the DNA of the viceroy butterfly. The viceroy is an orange and black butterfly very similar to the monarch butterfly in appearance. Insect eating birds learn to avoid monarchs because of their bitter taste. The coloring of the viceroy has evolved to protect them from being eaten by these birds, who would otherwise find them quite tasty. No committee of butterflies decided to do this and enforced compliance, yet cells within the viceroy’s bodies organized to recreate the monarch butterflies’ colorful patterns. 

My example is white people in my rural community making individual decisions which to outsiders appear to be against our own self-interest.

An implicit model learns from its environment (through feedback), but what works within a smaller system can be antithetical to the survival of the larger system. In 1996 the Evolutionary Biologist William Moore undertook a study at Purdue University to better understand how to breed the most productive laying hens. Since then “The Super Chicken Study” has often been used as a business case study on the effectiveness of cooperation vs competition. It is also a good model for understanding how what works in small groups can destroy large groups. The building blocks within an implicit model of chicken behavior leads to one kind of success and another kind of failure.

In the study Moore selectively bred his chickens by taking the most productive layers out of each coop and putting them together to create a coop of “super chickens”. He left a control group of chickens that weren’t bred selectively. After reiterating through multiple generations the egg production in the group of “super chickens” fell dramatically. Their behavior became increasingly aggressive and anti-social. It was clear that these chickens had “won” not by being better layers, but by pecking the other chickens and lowering the productivity of their competitors. What worked for success at an individual level was hugely detrimental to the entire group. 

It is difficult for many on the left to understand how white rural voters can consistently vote against their own self-interest. The answer lies in perceived self-interest within the implicit models that work in highly homogenous communities—let’s call them highly dense networks. It lies in understanding how individual dynamics can undermine group dynamics, how identifying at the local level can undermine the wellbeing of the nation. 

One of the results of our current (I believe purposely engineered) divisiveness across the American landscape is that it is harder than ever to counteract adverse small group impacts to the larger nation. We are locked into a path dependency that discourages empathy, teamwork, and productive discourse (and by productive discourse I don’t mean that the most marginalized among us need to be more polite). Dialectic analysis and incremental reform gives us little in the way of tools to counteract this. 

Individuals in our highly individualistic society feel constrained to doing their best to support the well-being of small communal groups. The Republican model has been to draw on this failure of identification with larger social groups to cause fractures and feed racism, to exacerbate the tension between an artificial construct of us vs them. But what if the building blocks for progressive change already exist within our networks? What if solutions to large scale problems can emerge from the survival strategies of marginalized communities, strategies white liberal communities tend to dismiss? What if there is a way to take advantage of emergence within our understanding of what makes society fair and just? What if some members of society are the adaptive agents we need?

In complexity science path dependencies not only cause lock-in to a specific course, but they can create new niches. It is within those new niches that something unforeseen can emerge. Agents can adapt to emergent properties as well as to the repetitive conditions they are already familiar with. The main failure of the progressive movement is the refusal to adapt, while at the same time conservative agents continuously adapt. 

According to Holland in Complexity: 

Human culture is an implicit model, a rich complex of myths and symbols that implicitly define a people’s beliefs about their world and their rules for correct behavior.” But also, according to Holland “…that’s what this business of emergence was all about: building blocks at one level combining into new building blocks at a higher level. It seemed to be one of the fundamental organizing principles of the world. It certainly seemed to appear in every complex, adaptive system that you looked at.

Holland’s concept of building blocks in implicit models seems self explanatory but the precise scientific meaning adds insight. Building blocks are self-reinforcing coherent clusters that if stable enough work together to form larger clusters. For example large mammals are made of clusters of cells—the cells came first in the form of single-celled creatures. It was easier for natural selection to bring together groups of cells to form larger creatures than to create mammalian life from individual atoms. 

Societal (including economic) structures are also built from building blocks. International firms follow hierarchical organizational structures which are similar to each other. Everyone knows that in a C-Suite you will find Financial, Executive, and Operational Divisions. At the same time disruptive industries have found ways to combine existing building blocks for new results. Uber and Lyft used distributed computer tech to find a way to reinvent the taxi business and to avoid regulatory and labor costs. To its peril consumer retail failed to recognize early enough that Amazon wasn’t a dot-com information business. It had actually recombined the building blocks in the mundane business of warehousing and distribution.

Individualism, hard work and fairness are the building blocks of cultural values in my community, as they are in the other white rural communities of Sauk County. According to University of Wisconsin Political Scientist Katherine J. Cramer in her book Understanding the Politics of Resentment:

People in rural areas make sense of their economic interests, they often rely on social identities rooted in their identities as rural people and their perceptions of distributive justice.

Fairness is relative. Without significant analysis of how groups—individuals, families, communities, states interact and impact each other it is politically easy to feed the trap of I have less because someone who doesn’t share my values has something that they haven’t earned and don’t deserve. Somewhere, someone has broken the rules.

In the cognitive scientist George Lakoff’s work on ideological differences between the political parties, he posits that the difference between Republicans and Democrats is the result of different moral outlooks. Republicans have a “strict father” model of morality.

In the strict father family, father knows best. He knows right from wrong and has the ultimate authority to make sure his children and his spouse do what he says… Through physical discipline they are supposed to become disciplined, internally strong, and able to prosper in the external world. What if they don’t prosper? That means they are not disciplined, and therefore cannot be moral, and so deserve their poverty.

One of the reasons conservative Christians have become stalwarts of the modern Republican party is because church hierarchies mirror political ones. When the head of the church or the state transgresses the notion that they have their reasons which may be unknowable but must be respected, tends to prevail.

Democrats by contrast have a “nurturing parent” morality according to Lakoff:

The primal experience behind this model is one of being cared for and cared about, having one's desires for loving interactions met, living as happily as possible, and deriving meaning from one's community and from caring for and about others.

People are realized in and through their ‘secure attachments’: through their positive relationships to others, through their contribution to their community, and through the ways in which they develop their potential and find joy in life. 

There is much to recognize in these models about the different espoused values of followers of each implicit model. As Lakoff takes the analogy further the attributes and political positions of each group become even more recognizable. 

But, these attributes are not immutable. Anyone who has been to a church funeral in a small mid-Western town can attest to this. After the funeral service everyone is invited to the church basement or annex to share a meal. The “church ladies” have been working since dawn or more accurately yesterday preparing the food which is set out on long tables. The mourners walk through and fill their plates with the predictable ham on buns, multiple variations of jello, and potato and pasta salads. In subdued voices they share memories of the diseased. “It was a beautiful service,” is the most frequently expressed observation. The purpose is clear—the mourners need to be fed and comforted, and that is the nurturing work of the community of faith. The implicit models of both of Lakoff’s examples can be built from the building blocks of the values of shared community. 

The most dangerous things the Trump Republicans have done, continue to do is to undermine the ability to expand our definition of our community. President John F. Kennedy’s call to “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” was a call to see our communities as part of a larger, diverse nation. It was a call to recognize that the country belonged to and was the responsibility of all Americans. Trump’s call for “America first” is a call to recognize America as belonging to only white, straight, cis-gendered, middle-class Americans. Yet, the insistence on an implicit model which values one specific small scale community within the nation is leading us to become failed “super chickens”.

Donald Trump as president is itself an unpredictable result of emergence. The Republican party has been working systematically to consolidate power. That consolidation has included undermining the checks and balances role of the three branches of government. Between Supreme Court Justices vetted and groomed by the conservative Federalist Society, taking the brakes off of corporate campaign financing through the Citizens United Decision, technical database improvements which have turned gerrymandering into a science, and congressional rule changes that make it possible for more approvals to proceed on simple majorities and elimination of the filibuster, a feedback system has been created that keeps power within one political party.

Articles have been written that trace the path dependency to Trump in hindsight, almost making it seem inevitable, but the presidential polls still predicated a Democratic Presidency, and I went to bed on November 8th still hoping for Hillary.

Republicans have created a path dependency where they feel compelled to support the Trump presidency no matter how repellant they find him (recognizing that not all of them do find him so). Their continued power now depends upon his. But, Republicans are not solely to blame for getting us here. The Clintons’ and Barack Obama’s commitment to the Wall Street version of the financial good of the country led to increasing disaffection among the ninety percent of Americans whose fortunes don’t rise with the stock market. President Bill Clinton was willing to undermine the social safety net through “welfare reform”. He supported changes to the criminal justice system such as three strikes laws and an increase in building prisons which then needed to be populated, continuing a trend that has seen Americans prison population increase almost 800 percent since 1980. These policies have led to increased disaffection among the marginalized and voter suppression in states where felons are denied the vote. 

In my community where many of the residents have one of two common last names, people view themselves as both hard-working and cohesive. White families have lived here since before the penultimate battle of the Black Hawk War just across the Wisconsin River. In June of 1832 the Sauk Nation was finally pushed out of Wisconsin and well, ever since then the Sauk Prairie community prides itself on being rule abiding and largely apolitical. The landscape is dotted with plaques honoring 100 year farms. No irony is noted nor implied. 

Jokes are made about the Wisconsin capitol of Madison being seventy-seven square miles surrounded by reality, a reference to its out of step liberalism. Well, that’s not fair, really. Sauk Prairie has its own long-standing progressive tradition. Park Hall in Sauk City was founded by German liberals fleeing persecution in Germany after 1848. They were part of the German Freie Gemeinden or Free Congregations. Park Hall, the Free Church building was built in 1884 and continues to operate as a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. It also functions as the meeting place of Indivisible Sauk Prairie. 

The German community in Sauk City was founded on principals of religious freedom and anti-oppression activism. However, most Sauk Prairie Germans retained their Catholic faith and lost track of the pro-immigrant progressive politics that brought their forbears here. Small business owners including ag producers tend to be politically conservative and strong supporters of the Republican Party. Area Catholics are typically single issue voters seemingly willing to put up with any evil that is done in the name of saving “unborn innocents”. (In Catholic theology only the unborn are without original sin and truly innocent.) 

The community is extremely white. The small Latinx community works primarily in ag production and construction. Except for the fact that there is a decent Mexican restaurant and a well-stocked Mexican grocery on Water Street the white community would be largely unaware that there was a Latinx population at all.

Local German farmers Karl and Hermine Hausner immigrated to the United States from German Sudetenland in the 1950s. They were also German Catholic immigrants. Their families suffered horrors perpetrated by the Soviet liberating army and the Czech soldiers who reclaimed the Sudetenland. Reading Karl Hauser’s “A Survivor’s Report” and Hermine Hausner’s “The Day I will Never Forget” in Ethnic Cleansing in 20th-Century Europe (Steven Bèla Vàrdy & T. Hunt Tooley, editors) is a journey into atrocity which I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that a great deal of Karl Hausner’s resulting trauma came from being silenced about his experiences after the war.

Where were the Western journalists when our women were raped and our people were tortured to death? While the Nazis committed their crimes behind heavily guarded concentration camp fences, the Soviet troops and the Czech Partisans committed even greater brutalities publicly in every village.

Leaving aside the futility of ranking the brutalities of genocidal tendencies, our narratives around who does and doesn’t get to be a victim is hugely problematic.

Karl Hausner remained a devoted Catholic until his death in 2004. The conglomerate of dairy farming operations he acquired continues to function under the umbrella of Karl Hausner Farms, LLC. The Hausner farms dot the Sauk County landscape from Sauk City to Plain to Spring Green. The Expellee Memorial Chapel he built on the home farm in 1995 was dedicated to:

The expulsion of over sixteen million German people, three and one-half million from the Sudetenland…the result of the Yalta and Potsdam Agreements between Churchill, Roosevelt/Truman and Stalin and the subsequent Benes Decree… This Expellee Memorial Chapel is also dedicated to the memory of the brutal expulsion and even extinction of Native Americans and in particular of the Sauk Indians from the land where this very Chapel is constructed. It also includes the Afro-Americans and, of course, the terrible crimes which are committed even now in Africa, Asia and Europe, in particular Bosnia.

Hausner was interviewed by the Wisconsin State Journal prior to the dedication:

’It’s also a reminder that hate is creating hate,’ he said, referring to the war in Bosnia.

‘I know I won’t change the world, but I believe we have a responsibility to do what we can,’ he said. ‘I did well in this country and I want to leave a heritage.

‘Hard work and a certain foundation will give everyone an opportunity.’ Hausner said. ‘The rest you do yourself.’”

Within the Hausner story we have many narratives, a narrative of recognizing oneself in others through shared experiences and hardships, a narrative of working together to build something substantive that lasts beyond generations, a narrative of community that recognized the importance of communities which don’t “look like us” and a narrative of the power of the individual to overcome all odds. 

The Trump Republicans have taken particular building blocks within that shared implicit model to amplify racism, white nationalism, and divisiveness. Within what have become competing American communities, white communities, communities of color, communities united by gender, or faith, or disability among many others may find they have more in common than they are aware. Those commonalities could become the connectors of the sparse networks where emergence happens. 

But, I will have to advise caution after that last feel good line. White Americans operate from an implicit model that centers us in the nation’s narrative. It will take a great deal of introspective work for white progressives, myself included to understand that this is not a call for unity and inclusion. This is a call for moving away from mechanistic solutions towards a systems understanding of the nature of change. It also wouldn’t hurt us to recognize that our more marginalized neighbors, those who live daily closer to the edge of chaos, may have the best insights into an emerging yet better unknown. 

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