Reading and Remembering Jonathan Rowe

by Howard Silverman

In the handful of times I met Jonathan Rowe, I sensed a rare combination of outrage and mindfulness.

Jon's passion was that elusive thing called community: the story of human relationships, the value of mutual customs and shared spaces, and the intellectual history of rules and practices that fostered social well-being or failed to do so. Although Jon worked in the 1970s as one of Ralph Nader's "Raiders," I always thought of him as deeply conservative.

Jon passed away suddenly last week, and I've searched around for remembrances. Here are a few.

Paul Glastris: He had a subtle, original and powerful mind, and a way of elevating any conversation such that you found yourself trying to express your own ideas with greater care, the intellectual equivalent of sitting up a little straighter in your chair.

Russ Baker: When you told him something significant, he would say “Oh.” Or “Hmm.” Followed by silence. He was thinking. He wanted to respect the concept. Sometimes there was nothing to be said, and so he said nothing.

David Bollier: I met Jon in the late 1970s in Washington, D.C. when we were both making our way as young public-interest activists in Nader circles. We were younger men and the world was a more hopeful place.

Edgar Cahn: Sometimes I found myself asking: "Is this guy a closet reactionary," because he seemed to be coming from a time and place that had nothing to do with the world of Great Society programs and civil rights. He knew the world of politics intimately – from his time on the hill and his time with Ralph Nader. But his moral energy was not about laws or government spending, entitlements or legal battles. The commons and all they stood for provided his real emotional and moral center. The commons functioned for Jonathan as a kind of moral oasis that he brought to every undertaking. (One of several in the thread at West Marin Commons.)

I followed Jon's writings at On the Commons throughout the 2005-07 period that he was a frequent contributor, and this week I returned to linger there again. Here are selections from a few favorites.

From "Municipal WiFi: It Started on the Farm":

My mother’s second husband grew up on a farm in West Texas. He was libertine but not liberal. He railed about the men in town – a summer resort – who spent the winter on unemployment, and he thought criminals had it coming, the worse the better. He also revered FDR. (Liberals today who don’t grasp the connection are showing why they are the minority party.)

Partly it was the farm programs that rescued many from the depths. But mainly it was public power. In Texas, as in most of the country, private utilities had bypassed rural areas because they weren’t worth serving, in the utilities’ view at least. Too much cost, not enough potential yield. Yet these utilities guarded jealously their monopolies, and resisted efforts of legislators to serve those in need.

Finally, FDR pushed through the Rural Electrification Act. Utility poles went up along dirt roads. Wires went from the utility poles to farm houses. One momentous day, light bulbs went on in farm kitchens, and refrigerators began to purr. It was like the Red Sea parting. My stepfather’s evocation of the taste of cold milk in the brutal West Texas heat is something I never will forget. (Robert Caro tells the story wonderfully in his biography of Lyndon Johnson.) Texas was Democratic for as long as that memory survived.

From "Milton Friedman: Romantic":

We tend to romanticize the opposite of what we don’t like, and in political economy the tendency reaches full flower. To those who hate “the market,” the government is a knight in shining armor. To those who hate the government, “the market” can do no wrong.

Milton Friedman, the economist who passed on this week, was in the latter camp. The market to him was not just the combined actions of a bunch of people with all their silliness and hang-ups. It was a thing, the holiest of holies, the hand of God on this earth. Friedman came of age in the shadow of the young Soviet Union and its appeal for Depression-era intellectuals. Like many of his generation he got stuck in that drama, and never grew past it.

From "Market Boundaries and the Commons of a Conservative":

Edmund Burke maintained that a society is an organic whole, a “community of souls,” as his follower Russell Kirk put it. Milton Friedman would support rent control before he would say something like that.

This view of society had large implications. For one thing it meant that people have a duty to support the whole with taxes. “Are all the taxes to be voted grievances?” Burke asked rhetorically, and dismissively, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.

For another thing, it meant that humanity must take the long view. Society is a partnership “not only between those who are living,” Burke wrote, “but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” We who inhabit the earth today are merely “temporary possessors and life-renters,” and we have no moral right to “cut off the entail or commit waste on the inheritance.”

From "Looting, Necessity, and the 'Community of Goods'"

We reveal ourselves in our instinctive response to another’s need. When the President received reports of people breaking into stores in New Orleans, he saw a threat to property rather than a desperate need for food and water. Enough said.

In truth of course both were involved – lawless looting and desperate need. The extent of the latter became more apparent, when it came out that even the police had to break into stores to get crucial electronic equipment. A hundred miles north of New Orleans, a hungry man threatened to get his gun if the manager of the local Wal-Mart didn’t open it for business. How many of us wouldn’t do the same?

There is a legal tradition that justifies such action, and it comes from the theological teachings the President hearkens to on other matters, and also the Natural Law teachings so favored by rightward judges. It is called the doctrine of “overruling necessity,” and it says that property is secondary in times of urgent human need. “Necessity sets property aside,” wrote Thomas Rutherford, a noted 18th-century legal commentator, in his Institutes of Natural Law. At such times there is a “community of goods.”

In canon law, charity was not just a matter of voluntary well-doing. The very poor actually could demand help in time of need. 

[Update] And one more, from "Commons Language: Provide The Words And They Will Speak":

Language is a silent commisar in our political and economic life. What we can say – what we even can think about – is a function largely of the words that are available for us to use. “It is hard to focus the attention upon the nameless,” is how William James, the psychologist-philosopher, once put it. One big reason that the discourse of the commons is so deficient in our public life – and why there is so little awareness of the thing itself – lies here. Where are the words that we would use?

The vocabulary of the market is beyond extensive. It exists in such profusion that it is hard to tell where it stops and the rest of the language begins. Such basic terms as value, benefit, wealth, good, are suffused with market meaning and the astigmatism this includes. (Is the “value” of a tree or of a life really what an economist says it is?) It is a good question whether economics as we know it could have evolved without the English language to serve as host.

The language of the commons by contrast is sparse; compare the vocabulary available for discussing, say, the ownership of a business with that for discussing the interests (another example by the way) in the ocean or sky. Partly this is a symptom of the historic nature of commoners themselves. In the formative era of market culture they were peasants, illiterate, and therefore mute in the historical record. There is no vocabulary of the commons for much the same reason there is no story of it, apart from the one told by those who enclosed it.

The “tragedy of the commons” in other words is yet another example of the saw that history is a story told by the victors.

Gary Ruskin is collecting Jon's writings at jonathanrowe.org. To send condolences to Jon's family or gifts in his memory, email Gary: Gary.Ruskin AT Gmail.com.

I miss you, Jon.