Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Conservatism for the Black Community

Well, since my friend Brett is plugging me as the answer to Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson's demand that Republicans give a damn about blacks, I'll dust off the blog, which has been too much neglected of late, and throw together a policy agenda.
As long-time readers know, this is a topic I've been thinking hard about for several years. But tonight I only have time to slap some things on line, without supporting my recommendations with my wonted statistics.
My purpose is, on the one hand, to show that conservatism has much to offer the black community, especially the urban black community. (I think about 60% of black Americans live in cities, and a large part of the other 40% have those black urban communities as their center of gravity.)
On the other hand, I'd like to show that conservatism has nothing to fear from outreach to blacks. There is an unfortunate perception that outreach to blacks means giving up on conservative principles: pandering, etc. But one of the points of the following policy agenda is that outreach to blacks is a matter of applying conservative principles to forgotten issues, not a matter of giving up on conservative principles. Thus these arguments attempt to be thoroughly conservative, not only because I believe that conservatism is true, but also in order to show that conservatives need not abandon principles to reach out to blacks.
Blacks left the Republican party of Lincoln, to which they were beholden for about seventy years, in response to outreach by FDR in the 1930s. FDR drew their attention to the fact that the GOP took their votes for granted, and won for his party eighty years of 90+% majorities among a population that forms some 14% of the country. Were the GOP to reclaim even a significant part of this population, I think liberalism would be politically finished in this country.
So, without further ado, a preliminary Conservative Policy Agenda for the Black Community:
1. Public transit. Buses are a big deal for urban folk, especially for poor urban folk. And in my experience riding buses in many cities, even very white cities like St. Paul, Minnesota, bus ridership is overwhelmingly black.
Almost everywhere, buses are a government-run monopoly, and (not surprising to conservatives) a lousy one. Riding the bus means paying too much, for a crowded, bumpy ride, with unpredictable schedules that make life very hard for the urban poor. And, by the way, for us urban middle-class folks, a good bus system would be an awfully welcome alternative to driving and parking in the city. Moreover, the government monopolies have been directly used in some places -- New York, for example -- to put out of business bus companies directly started by blacks for blacks in underserved communities. This is intolerable.
De-monopolize the buses. Maybe -- maybe -- provide some government oversight to make sure people don't get fleeced. But otherwise, unleash private enterprise to create better buses, better routes, and better schedules, and let people so inclined run buses to serve underserved communities. Government buses are bad for blacks.
2. Legal reform. I recently got a mistaken traffic ticket in Newark. It took me no fewer than three three-hour court appearances before the judge dismissed me, without a trial. If I had had a lawyer, I could have gotten it done in fifteen minutes. If I had had money, I could have just paid the ticket. And if I hadn't had a white collar job, I would have lost a lot of money sitting there in court. This is an unfair burden on the poor, and there is nothing conservative about mismanaged courts.
Follow the lead of Gov. Mitch Daniels in Indiana (who, by the way, got 20% of the black vote in a year when Indiana's blacks voted over 90% for Obama) and streamline all public offices. Waiting in line at the DMV hurts poor people more than rich people. Waiting in line at the court hurts poor people more than rich people. Figure it out. I don't know how, but figure it out.
3. Decentralized policing. Urban black communities have two police problems. One is that there's too much crime, and the police aren't successfully stopping it. The other is that the police feel like foreign forces. No wonder, when even cities like Newark, NJ (53% black) and Washington, DC (56% black) have white police commissioners. Even where police commissioners are black, residents can be forgiven for feeling hopeless when all crime-fighting is put in the hands of a distant bureaucracy. When a community cannot police itself, it feels, on the one hand, helpless, and on the other hand, occupied. People are less inclined to police their own communities when they are treated as outsiders by the police. And, let us not fail to mention, police officers routinely speed through our communities in a way that makes very clear how they feel about local populations.
Here's a right-wing answer: arm the people. Condi Rice once said, of course she supports the Second Amendment: she grew up in Montgomery, where her father and the other men of their community guarded their block against white supremacists. People should have the right to defend their community. Fathers who want to defend their families should not be left defenseless against lawless drug dealers.
While we're at it, let's restore the old system of private detectives, where individuals can decide for themselves what crimes to investigate, instead of leaving all policing in the hands of a centralized bureaucracy.
4. Forget drugs. Drugs are a symptom, not a cause. Socially, they are a symptom of hopeless communities. Economically, they can seem like the only option for young men who can't get better employment. I don't think we should legalize drugs; they are really bad for young men, and disproportionately hurt black men. But neither should we make prosecuting drug dealers a main focus; this is just whack-a-mole. Benign neglect.
5. Cut taxes for the poor. Conservatives like to talk about how high taxes discourage work. I agree, but this applies to the poor, as well as to the rich. The Payroll Tax, a silly device designed to make it look like Social Security is a private investment, not social welfare, amounts to a 15% tax on income under $104,000. Higher income doesn't have this tax at all. (Oh sure, half the tax is "paid" by the employer -- but it comes out of his payroll, and thus means less money for workers: either lower pay, or fewer jobs.) What that 15% means is that, for example, income between $8,375 and $34,000 is taxed at 30% (15% income tax + 15% payroll) while income between $104,000 and $171,850 is taxed at only 28%. Income between $34,000 and $82,400 is taxed at 40%, while the very highest tax bracket pays only 35%. In other words, because of the payroll tax, lower-income brackets actually pay higher marginal tax rates. That's insane. And it kills jobs.
Let us not fail to notice, also, the effect of benefit phase-out. The Earned Income Tax Credit, which supposedly helps lower-income workers, plateaus at $5,657, then phases out as a person's income rises from $16,420-$43,279. This amounts to an additional 21% tax on earners in that bracket, because for every dollar earned, they lose 21 cents of benefits -- bringing them to 61% taxes. I have been in this position, and calculated whether it's worth it to work the extra hours. And I have heard black youths discussing the same thing on the street of Washington, DC. Insane. A similar thing happens as welfare and SSI benefits are phased out for even lower-income earners.
I have proposed a system in which these benefits are not phased out, but are matched by a high flat tax, a combination which amounts to a graduated income tax without benefit phase-out. Anyway, something's gotta give. If it's bad for the rich to pay 35% income tax -- and it is -- it's far worse for the poor to pay 61%.
6. Abolish the property tax. In Newark, where my wife and I are presently trying to buy a home, property taxes are so high that, with a typical 30-year mortgage, taxes are half as much as your mortgage payment. For example, if I pay $1,000/mo to the bank, I also pay $500/mo to the city. That means fully 1/3 of my buying power is killed with property taxes. What's most asinine about this policy is that it kills property values. Buyers are worried about their final payment, not about what portion goes to taxes: I'm going to buy a $1,500/mo house, whether that $1,500 goes to the bank or to the city. So, even more than with income tax, property tax just ends up eating itself: every time you raise property taxes, home values plummet to adjust.
This makes buying in the city kind of a stupid idea. And that is bad, above all, for urban black communities, because it means that anyone who has the money to buy is given huge financial incentives to leave the community. Driving out the middle class is not good for those communities. It's not good for the people who are driven out, either, because many people actually want to live in the communities where they grew up and where they have social and cultural ties. Property taxes disproportionately hurt black communities.
They hurt renters, too, by the way. We're looking at buying a two-family home. It's not like our high property taxes have nothing to do with how much we'll need to charge for rent. And the same is true for big-money big-apartment-building investors: in order to pay their mortgage, they need to charge higher rent. Not many people can get into the low-end market when taxes are going to drive them out of business.
7. Cut it out about integration. Integration is a genocidal word (genocide = cide/killing + geno/race or ethnicity). Black culture is not a bad thing. We should not be looking for it to go away, or for black people to act more like "white" people. (Long-time readers know I think "white" is a horrible, ethnicity-denying construction.)
But, by the way, integration isn't conservative, either. Conservatives believe in local culture, in the rights of individuals and communities to pursue their own ideals. For heaven's sake, we're the party of state's rights! Conservatives do not believe in a government that smoothes out all differences.
The marriage between conservatives and integrationists in the GOP is a marriage of convenience, not of principle -- and it isn't very convenient. Tell Tom Tancredo to climb back under the rock where we found him, and let's get back to conservative principle.
8. Culturally positive free speech. In our current free-speech regime, public expressions of religion are verboten, but pornography is an essential part of freedom. This hurts cities the most, because cities are where you most see and hear your neighbors. No one should have a right to post pornographic posters, play pornographic music, or show pornographic films in the neighborhoods where we read our children. And we should be able to practice our religion in public. This is what city life is all about. I think we underestimate how much the current idea of free speech undermines the cultural life of the city.
9. Support mothers. Everyone knows the black family is in trouble -- so is the white family, we're just a couple decades behind in our decline. How about policies that give money to mothers to help them raise their children? How about tying money to mothers, so that fathers have an economic incentive to stick around? How about giving up on the sickening rhetoric of "welfare queens," and the horrific idea that women have babies just to get money from the government, and realize that there is no stronger bond, and no more socially useful bond, than that between mothers and their children? If a poor mother wants to work less so that she can be at home with her children, society ought to make that possible.
10. Education! Obviously. Our schools are failing our children -- and they are, overwhelmingly, disproportionately, failing our black children. Burn down the teacher's unions. Never let them hurt our children again. Give parents choice about their children's education, because (as the teachers incessantly say, but never allow us to realize in policy) there can be no education where parents are not invested. And realize that, in the city above all, school choice make sense, because it's easy for kids to get to schools. And, for heaven's sake, quit the boloney where we think only secularist education is allowable: if parents want their children to be sent to schools that support their values, even their religious values, government has no place denying that right to poor parents.
Those are just a few ideas. The point is, conservatives have lots to offer the black community, but have been too afraid to think about issues that disproportionately affect the places where black people live.

Friday, March 12, 2010

More on Yeoman Farmers: Monticello

Continuing in our critique of the so-called "yeoman farmer" -- that is, the virtuous independent farmer as the bulwark of our republic -- today let us consider Monticello, the home from which Thomas Jefferson so prominently theorized about the value of yeoman farmers.

The most obvious problem with Monticello is that it is built on the backs of slaves. I dare say this problem runs deeper in the agrarian movement than many would like to admit. Agrarianism often involves a romance with the South. Now let me say, I can feel some of that romance. I believe in the importance of "States' Rights" -- that is, preserving the autonomy of the local, and mediating institutions -- and I think the Civil War led to unfortunate losses in our form of republican government. As I have written before, I even think some civil-rights ideas of "integration" tend more to destroy our nation's wealth of ethnicity than to uplift anybody.

But chattel slavery -- the dehumanization of an entire class purely because of the color of their skin -- is an abomination. And, unfortunately, agrarianism's romance with the south is rooted as deeply in slavery itself as in states rights, local autonomy, or ethnic diversity. Let us consider Monticello.

Jefferson is the symbol of the gentleman farmer, a man given to the land, but high in ideals, a man who could read and write broadly and clearly because of his contemplative lifestyle. But his life was precisely not that of a farmer. Jefferson could afford his beautiful house, his great library (the foundation of our Library of Congress), his scientific experiments, his travel, and his leisure time, because he was supported by no fewer than 150 slaves. If anything, Jefferson proves that the life of the mind requires freedom from the farm.

I am not an expert on Thomas Jefferson, but in researching for this post, I found a great statement he wrote on the issue -- rich in irony:

Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It [i.e., corruption of morals] is the mark set on those, who not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistence, depend for it on casualties and caprice of customers. Dependance begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.

Let's consider this line by line.

Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.

Who? Thomas Jefferson did not "labour in the earth." The people who did labor in the earth of his home were brought and held there by force, and treated, not as God's "peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue" but as people incapable of making decisions for themselves.

Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example.

It is nice that he shifts from "those who labour in the earth" to "cultivators," since the latter could conceivably describe him. Need I point out the irony? We need look no further than Jefferson's own society to find an example of "corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators": an entire society built upon desperate injustice and often sustained by horrific violence. Jefferson himself thoroughly rejected Christianity, going so far as to cut-and-paste his own anti-Christian Bible. And he seems to have fathered children with his illicit, enslaved mistress.

But did "cultivating" help the slaves themselves? This is perhaps a delicate issue, but I don't think it should be controversial to say that their morals suffered from the desperation of their situation: including their lack of leisure for contemplation and religion, a problem inherent to the agrarian position. Again, Jefferson had leisure only because he wasn't "labouring in the earth."

Dependance begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.

On the one hand, let us note the monstrous individualism of this statement. Does any defender of the family really want to stand on a blanket condemnation of "dependence" of all sorts? And yet much of the myth of the yeoman farmer rests precisely on this supposed independence from every power outside of the family. To the contrary, as Aristotle so brilliantly describes in the first book of the Politics, the dependence of the family precisely opens out to the broader dependence of the clan and the polis. The man who appreciates family is the man who does not see independence as the highest good, and dependence on others as the source of all vice -- appreciating family and culture means appreciating, not vilifying, the profound interdependence that defines city life.
On the other hand, note that the supposed independence of the farmer is a myth. Jefferson was not self-supporting. Nor, even, were his slaves. Monticello was, in truth, a small city -- kept small only by the oppression of all but one of its "citizens." In order to keep itself going, Monticello needed not just gardeners, but full-time workers in the dairy and at the wash, carpenters, weavers, and even a nail factory. The "yeoman farmers" of America's West, who did not have slaves to do this work for them, could go only where roads and rivers, and later the railroad, connected them to parallel services in the city.
Given this inherent fact of human interdependence, perhaps the truer fount of virtue is in a recognition of this truth, and a seriousness about maintaining just relationships within it. Virtue is not in radical independence; to the contrary, virtue is radically undermined by the romantics who, following Jefferson, pretend they can live without other people, and then are forced to other expedients -- not always as wicked as chattel slavery -- in order to support themselves.
I think we have, in the end, two problems with Jefferson's model of the yeoman farmer. On the practical level, the problem is the sheer myth of it -- and the truth that the only people who could pursue Jefferson's model of leisure were those who enslaved others to support them. Without appreciating this truth, either leisure or work must be depreciated.
On the philosophical level, the problem is the myth of independence itself. Let Jefferson serve, not as the hero of radical atomized individualism, but of the profoundly contextualized situation of humanity. Monticello was a city (though a terribly unjust one); let it remind us that we can only live a truly human life in the city (at least in some sense) -- and that we can only live justly by making just those relationships that define the city.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Yeoman Farmers, Part One: Back-Porch Democracy

It is a central purpose of this blog to put forth a vision of urban conservatism -- to argue, in fact, that true conservatism is truly urban, and vice versa. I am well aware, of course, that this goes directly contrary to a standard American legend, that of the Yeoman Farmer: rooted in the land, tradition, community, and republican institutions. So I propose, time and energy allowing, to publish a series of posts pointing out some problems in that narrative. I'll tell you the overall theme at the start: romanticism is pernicious. But hopefully I can spell that out in better detail in what follows.

Today my theme is the pernicious romanticism of the front porch, a central theme of the (I think pernicious) New Urbanism movement (which is more new than urban) and the driving image of the popular traditionalist-conservative blog Front Porch Republic. I will freely admit that I don't read that blog -- I don't have time for their romanticism -- but I did read a thoughtful post recently by Patrick Deneen, doyen of Georgetown's lone (traditionalist) conservative institution, The Tocqueville Institute, and from what I can tell, a very decent, thoughtful, good guy -- if sometimes victim to a pernicious romanticism.

Deneen writes thoughtfully about the image of the Front Porch. He says it evidences a kind of mediation between the public and the private, an interface. Sitting on the front porch, you are at home, but available to neighbors. A young couple -- notice the reverse here -- is in private, but within earshot of parents, so that they can court without withdrawing from the family and parental authority.

All of this, says Deneen, amounts to a fine image for what really constitutes a republic. Res publica means "a public kind of thing," something shared. It means that society, and life, isn't merely about individuals trading off private goods, but about a shared world, where my private good, my home, is defined by participation in common realities.

Deneen's ideal

All very beautiful, and I wholeheartedly endorse the central points here. (More on that at the end of this post.) The only problem is the front porch itself. I think a little history will manifest the problem.

First of all, note that the front porch has no place in traditional architecture. It was a fleeting fad in the United States, first getting popular after the Civil War (c. 1865) and disappearing after the Second World War (c. 1950). When America's republican institutions were being founded, there were no front porches. Traditional Christian society in Europe never had front porches. I'll include some lovely images in this post to jog your memory, and you can check out this Web page, where I found most of them, to see more of the American architectural tradition. (Let me acknowledge: the untraditionalism of the front porch does not make it bad -- but it should make us think.)

The front porch's decline casts an interesting light on its rise. A key cause of the decline of the front porch, front-porch historians agree, was air conditioning. Climate control made it nicer to stay indoors than sit outside. A second cause was cars, which, with their noise and exhaust, drove people away from the front of their houses. A third reason, perhaps, was conspicuous consumerism, and the sense that the front porch looked too humble and old-fashioned -- ironically complimented by the cheapness of modern architecture, with its haste to cut unnecessary corners. A fourth was surely television, which made the indoors more entertaining. And a fifth, at least according to Deneen, was the transitory nature of post-automobile culture, where it no longer seemed worth the effort to get to know the neighbors.

Ironically, these reasons for the decline of the front porch also describe its beginnings.

Air conditioning drove people indoors -- but it was the heat that had driven them outdoors in the first place. It is worth noting that the front porch is originally a Southern institution -- historians think it may have been introduced by African slaves. Why had no one thought of this before? Well, everyone I've read agrees that a central part of the nineteenth-century evolution of the front porch was the advent of cheap building: previously, homes had been built of stone, which is naturally cool, but when they started being built more cheaply, other ways had to be found to beat the heat. (This is not central to my argument, but I note that the front-porch folks are usually pretty down on cheapness.)

In automobile culture, it is said, people had to flee to the back of the house when they wanted to be outside. But again, this highlights a significant irony. Historians agree that porches were initially put on the front of houses, not to be friendly to neighbors, but to hide from the back of the house. In the nineteenth century, that's where you kept the stinky horses and the outhouse. What's significant here is the motive for building front porches: purely utilitarian and private, not social. That doesn't change the social value of sitting out front, of course, but it should give one pause.

Television drew people indoors. What drew them out in the first place? Again, historians are unanimous: it was not a desire to socialize, but a desire to commune with nature, consistent with the nineteenth-century romanticism that created the Hudson Valley school of art and other forms of American naturalism. This point deserves further reflection, but before we move on, let us note in passing the connection to Deneen's claim that front porches declined when society got mobile: the time of the front porch was a particularly mobile part of American history, and it flourished most, not in the more stable towns of the East Coast, but in the West, where people were always on the move. One only needs to pick up a copy of Laura Ingalls Wilder, or peruse personal histories (I recently looked over the history of my Midwestern family) to see that these people couldn't sit still and were remarkably unpersuaded by the value of living close to family and old friends.

What drove the popularity of the front porch more than anything, say the historians, was a love of nature -- in fact, a way of thinking that explicitly opposed the dirt of man to the beauty of uncorrupt nature. Front porches were built, not to put people in contact with neighbors, but to help them glory in a world without neighbors. The front porch was a proclamation of glorious isolation, not republican community. Thus it is ironically consistent with the later-twentieth century's back porch, or patio: it was a way to be outside without seeing other people.

Indeed, a remarkable aspect of the front porch is that it goes hand and hand with a yard. In dense urban places where people don't have yards, front porches are almost impossible. And, from what I have seen of city living, where there are lots of neighbors around, it seems less pleasant to build a whole porch. Republic or no republic, people want a place to sit where there is some boundary between us and the world: whether an urban fence, a higher stoop, a balcony, or a suburban yard.

Having recently done some field research -- driving around old towns on the Hudson River where Victorian neighborhoods are still intact (I've done the same on the Shenandoah) -- it seems to me that late-Victorian suburban front porches were designed not to interface with the community but to help almost-city dwellers pretend they're out on the range. That's why these Victorian homes are built so far from the street, usually at a different elevation, and with as much yard as possible. The front porch as interface with the neighborhood is a lovely idea, but in fact, it was always used as a way to enjoy the distance of neighbors, cloaked, more or less perniciously, in the idea of nature's unsullied (that is, un-neighbor-ed) beauty.

I very much like Patrick Deneen's reasons for promoting the front porch, his ideas about life in community, an interface between public and private goods. But historically, I think the front porch better fits in with what the Greek political philosophers called "democracy" than with the idea of the res publica. Democracy means "mob rule," and the classic distinction is that a republic is about a common good, where individuals find their happiness in communion, whereas a democracy is about the majority snatching up private goods as fast as possible.

The front porch -- like the back porch -- is, historically, democratic, not republican. It's about individuals seeking pleasure through withdrawal from community. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the Victorian era, when the front porch was really popular, also saw the rise of progressivism, with its emphasis on destroying tradition and community in favor of a new kind of mass consumerism.

In place of the Front Porch, I submit the Sidewalk. In her magisterial The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs lays out truly republican institutions. The chapter-headings of her first section make the point:
The Uses of Sidewalks: Safety
The Uses of Sidewalks: Contact
The Uses of Sidewalks: Assimilating Children
The Uses of Neighborhood Parks
The Uses of City Neighborhoods

City sidewalks are about people watching out for each other, people being in contact with one another, children getting to know the neighbors, and seeing fathers at work.

Mrs. Jacobs explicitly limits this discussion to big cities, but I've studied old small towns across the country -- from places like Pippen, Wisconsin (on the Mississippi, the town closest to Laura Ingalls Wilders's Little House in the Big Woods), to Putnam, Connecticut (a nineteenth-century mill town), to Staunton, Virginia, and Harper's Ferry, West Virginia (in the Shenandoah), to Bath, Pennsylvania (a farm town near the Applachians), to Newburgh, New York (on the Hudson) -- and one thing they all have in common is "urbanism." No matter how small, old towns are built around a dense core, where people give up their yards in order to live close together. Although it's a bit of an anachronism, we could say that what all old towns, small or big, have in common is the centrality of the sidewalk.

It is the sidewalk, not the front porch, that performs the republican functions Deneen so desires. It is the sidewalk, and the stoop, no matter how small, on front of the houses crowded against that sidewalk, that makes people neighbors.

The problem with the front porch is that it only exists where people are not crowded together. No yard, no porch -- and the yard, more than anything, shows a people who value privacy and separation from the neighborhood over communion and public life. Indeed, the problem with the yard is that it creates a world where no one walks. An urban environment, no matter the size, is defined by density and the close interface of work, leisure, and home -- so that people can walk from one place to another, and meet one another on the sidewalk.

Yards -- the almost-inseparable companions of front porches -- define neighborhoods where housing is separated from work and leisure (no one puts a yard in front of their store, or law office, or theater) and people define home by distance from other people. Yards add up quickly, killing the density that makes a neighborhood walkable and public.

And so the front porch, like the back porch, its successor, is not a republican institution, but a democratic one. However high-minded, the romanticism that fails to see this practical reality is the romanticism that has torn apart our vibrant urban neighborhoods.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Bumper Stickers

On a family car trip over the holidays, we were passed by a car with a pleasant bumper sticker about Jesus: nothing crazy, but clear, something like, "Jesus is Lord!"

As long time readers may remember, I am concerned about the anonymity of cars. We're so used to it that we don't notice, but sometimes it strikes me how truly nightmarish the highway is: surrounded by metal and glass, the world flying by at such a speed that we can't focus on anything, and only huge metal objects standing in the place of people. Science fiction could hardly conjure up a more dehumanized world.

So it momentarily struck me: perhaps bumper stickers are a good effort. If we can't talk to people, at least we can make clear that we are more than "Hyundai Elantra." Maybe in that depersonalized world, it's good to at least say something positive, and something that points to the transcendent. A bumper sticker could be a small step in the right direction.

But then it occurred to me. Little as I get to interact with other people on the highway, I am not entirely depersonalized. People see me driving the speed limit, and I see some of them crane their necks to see whether I am a little old lady or a middle-aged Chinese man. As little as I get to interact with them, they do see that I am neither of those things, and at least, perhaps, I raise the momentary question whether being a normal looking American requires that one ignore the law.

In that brief moment as they flash by, I think they get enough time to see the three car seats lined up across the back of our little hatch back. And I hope it at least raises a question, at least reminds them that some people still believe in family -- even choose family when it means we won't be able to afford a gigantic SUV.

I don't know what we look like from behind, but I think, during that minute it takes to get by us, that some people can see through our hatchback window the little wheelchair with my son's name emblazoned on it.

And I think, even in those brief glimpses of our humanity, it is perfectly clear that we are Christians.

Of course, I think it's all a lot healthier when we are pedestrians. Everyone on our block knows that we attend daily Mass: they see us, and talk to each other. (I know, because they tell me, in the bakery, where I actually talk to my real live neighbors.) Even if they've never talked to us, they know that we live by a different set of values, and they can guess pretty clearly what those values are.

So there's my bumper sticker, my "Jesus is Lord" t-shirt: my family, and the way I travel. Nothing against the guy with the bumper sticker, but I think we say it a lot more loud and clear.