Friday, January 07, 2011

Leading columnist/historian of California notices that Jerry Brown was ahead of his time

Gosh, who would have thought that? I mean, aside from anyone who bothered to take a look at what Jerry Brown accomplished and the ideas he advocated during his first Governorship and since.

But I'm not putting down this column, which is by Peter Schrag, Jerry Brown seems better suited to run today's California than in the '80s Sacramento Bee 01/07/2010. He "gets" Jerry's perspective better than 99% of those who write about him. He even managed to notice the influence on Jerry's thinking of the Christian philosopher Ivan Illich (which long-time readers of this blog have heard of more than once):

Brown, who like many of his contemporaries once had at least one hesitant foot in the counterculture of the 1960s, was deeply influenced by the anti-institutional ideas of his friend Ivan Illich. Illich, ordained as a priest, later an influential scholar, challenged all conventional ideas of progress – in institutionalized schooling, in modern health care, in technology – as forces that alienated the individual from his own ability to live a confident, self-reliant life.

In his moving tribute after Illich's death in 2002, Brown talked about how Illich took him back to the "Ignatian indifference to secular values of long life, fame and riches," he had learned as a Jesuit seminarian.

Both in his life and his work, Brown said, Illich "bore witness to the destructive power of modern institutions that 'create needs faster than they can create satisfaction, and in the process of trying to meet the needs they generate, they consume the earth.' "

Brown has always seemed torn between the ambitions of practical politics and his didactic, moralistic impulses. He left the seminary, but the seminary never quite left him.
This is what I always tell people who are puzzled by Brown's perspective. He's a Jesuit who went into politics.


On Brown's being ahead of his time, Shrag writes:

At times during those years [his first Governorship], his talk about an era of limits and the need to lower expectations seemed just a little – well, preachy. Similarly "small is beautiful," the British economist E.F. Schumacher's metaphor for the design of human-scale appropriate technologies that Brown embraced, often seemed almost un-American at a time when "bigger is better" was the rallying cry of national progress.

But limits – whether economic, environmental, political or military – hardly seem so strange now, even if the state, and other states and the nation as a whole, didn't face the monster budgetary crises they now struggle with.
And he recalls that Jerry understood that California needed to be on the leading edge of technological development and environmental business; this orientation wound up generating Jerry's most famous nickname:

Something similar is true about what you could call Brown's futurism. Thirty years ago Brown's fascination with the advanced and at times esoteric ideas of people like the great anthropologist and cybernetician Gregory Bateson, who he would appoint to the University of California regents, seemed too far out for the earthy practicalities of everyday government and public administration. Brown even flirted with the idea of a California space program. Chicago columnist Mike Royko's famously called him Governor Moonbeam.

During his last tenure as governor, Brown created a California Office of Appropriate Technology (which was promptly shut down by George Deukmejian when he succeeded Brown in Sacramento), and pushed hard for many of the model environmental and energy efficiency programs and policies for which the state has since become globally famous.
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