What is water? Swimming in the Public Good

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” -DFW at Kenyon

My last political thought piece included an introduction to the public good which was a new concept for a lot of people even though we swim in it. Institutions like public schools or documents like the Bill of Rights are not often explicitly categorized and taught as the public good so few of us can easily outline it. We commune with, and draw from this resource constantly but probably end up just like the David Foster Wallace’s fish, “What the hell is water?”

Last week I watched the video monologue of Marine Steve Gern in Iraq who is a very impressive guy and I admire the calming way he speaks about a very charged topic. Gern’s (over)simplified conclusion did not take into account that back in the states we are swimming in this public good that other countries simply do not have to our degree. The Marine notes that an American cannot go and walk the streets of Iraq alone because they’d probably get kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. That being the case, he concludes that no Iraqi should be allowed to come to the U.S. because they’d likely carry out the same behavior. Gern seems like an exemplary soldier, and no doubt has made many friends in hostile territory, but Iraqis to Gern are regarded as inherently bad until they are vetted.

Countless immigrants come to the U.S. from dangerous places around the world and this peculiar thing keeps happening, near all of them become productive members of society. But what makes that possible?

A fish needs water. Out of water a fish thrashes around dangerously gasping and embracing primal instincts. A fish in merely stagnant water languishes. The public good is the set of resources and rights that supports our inherent goodness and lets each of us participate in the American optimism that creates prosperity. The public good works when it is around. It stops working when it is privatized by kleptocrats.

A reason for the failure of the democracies we’ve tried to create around the world is that they were built with no strong institutions of the public good, no rights actually held firmly by checks and balances. They were set up by American politicians and consultants who cannot recognize the properties of the water they are swimming in.

There is a human gravity towards being lazy and corner cutting to make a job easier, especially when we stop exercising foresight, so there will always be a push towards ideologies like immigration restrictions that we need to resist. What we need to realize is that immigration, with its inherent risks, is integral to expanding prosperity. There will be a few bad eggs and even those that want revenge after seeing their entire families murdered in front of them at the hands of the West, but that may be laissez faire no matter how hard that is to swallow.

In parts of the world we’ve meddled, there is even a large shell shocked generation with hidden physical scars very much like our own soldiers who come back and succumb to erratic behavior and often suicide. We are in denial of their condition, often inflicted by us, just like we are in denial of our own veteran’s state. This kind of risk complicates freedom of movement yet we must allow it. We need to restrict the obvious, but never fully exclude. Anyone left behind will become increasingly dangerous. The ability to leave a hostile land with the choice to join the West reduces radicalization in areas we destabilize. Crossing our border and joining us, anyone foreign should realize they are entering water and can become their good self. It works, we’ve done this for years.

The relationship between immigration and prosperity is something we need to thoroughly debate more often so we can resist ideology. Many think immigrants are taking the jobs of American born citizens, but they are often taking jobs Americans will not do and at the other end they are truly innovating and creating new jobs for Americans as seen by looking at the figures in Silicon valley. Countless doctors who are the best and brightest of their countries come to America to supply our growing demand for healthcare. The closer you look, the more clear it is that we are nowhere near a point where immigration is damaging American prosperity.

What we also need to debate is whether fear of immigrants particularly Muslims is invented to accumulate the easy votes of the ignorant. Racism worn on the sleeve against African Americans has mostly subsided into covert systemic racism so that it can no longer be easily used as an electioneering tool. The hate vacuum has been filled by plainly spoken prejudice against Muslims. Many politicians, personally, barely care, but for the GOP party of pessimism, any category to hate openly is a tool to enter or maintain power.

Today we have a largely urban population. Our cities are filled with a highly mobile population, two job families, high divorce levels, single parent families, the return of long hours of work, the loss of community identification, high immigration levels, a new rise in the division between rich and poor and so on and so on. All of these factors mean that the one—if not the only—public structure we have which is capable of reaching out to all citizens in all parts of the country and making them feel part of the extended family of citizenship is the public education system. In the classic sense of the inclusive democracy, those simple bricks and mortar buildings, which we call the public schools, are in fact the one remaining open club house of citizenship. Not only is the public education system and its fundamental structure not old fashioned, it has found a new form of modernity. I would argue that we are more reliant on it today than we were through most of the 20th century. -John Ralston Saul, Address to the Canadian Teacher’s Federation (2001)

As explained by John Ralston Saul, the public good reaches out to people and makes them feel included and connected to others through citizenship. The outstretched arms of the public good, in forms so easy to take for granted as public lands, is an equalizer that prevents class formation and increases economic mobility which is important because most immigrants come here so poor.

When defending immigrants, asylum seekers, and refuges to those that are fearful or ignorant, it is important to mention the outstretched arms of the public good. For generations we have absorbed those that came from hostile lands and a positive force not readily apparent has been there to guide them in participating in the creation of American prosperity. For those of us that have never stepped outside of this force, we are doomed to say “What the hell is water?”

3 thoughts on “What is water? Swimming in the Public Good

  1. Great essay. Thanks for this!

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