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Two Books: A Conversation, Part VI

Redesign the Board(game)

Book One: My name is Lotería by Karla Arenas Valenti. What is yours?

Book Two: My name is Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life by Eric Klineberg. Nice to meet you. Where are you from?

Book One: The question is not exactly where I am from, because in my case ‘I’ is a ‘We’, the bond of life and death. Nor is the question where we are from but where are we now and why. I will refer to us as Life and Catrina, our lady death.

Book Two: Okay. I’m willing to accept that. In my observation ‘life’ and ‘death’ can have varying definitions as they are observed, they define each other and exist in layers. What brings you here?

Book One: We are still processing our most recent game of lotería. In this game, we reveal cards and observe their effects, but a young girl surprised us. Previously, “Life believed that people created their own destiny. He argued that choices could be made freely, regardless of one’s past experiences.

Catrina, on the other hand, argued that choice was an illusion. Free will was something people wanted, so they tricked themselves into thinking it was something they actually had. The truth, according to her, was that everything that happened in life was the natural and inevitable consequence of what came before, and it led—naturally and inevitably—to everything that followed. . .

She pointed at the deck of cards. ‘It’s no different than you and me playing this game. We’re not choosing the cards that determine the girl’s fate; we are only witnessing the cards as they are played. And so it is with people. They are merely witnesses to their own destiny as it unfolds before them.’” (53)

Book Two: So, we are speaking of participants and their ‘game boards’. In your case it is possible that both the universe and humanity unpack them. For me, it is only the latter. The universe is an invisible stack of cards scattered around by our own choices.

Book One: So, you would characterize your work as one of observation as well?

Book Two: Yes, and lotería would be infrastructure.

Book One: Nice to meet you. It seems you are also answering the question of where you are now and why. Please explain more the concept of infrastructure.

Book Two: Of course, I can provide a brief history. Infrastructure is "by definition invisible" (14). Vanderbilt anthropologist Ashley Carse notes the word from late 19th century France. It became a buzz word after WW II. "Infrastructure was more than a word," Carse claims. "It was world-making," because it justified "specific visions and theories of political and socioeconomic organization" that Cold War planners advocated." The concept became very popular in 1980s as foreign policy objective for developing countries "the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way." (15)

Book One: You definitely remind us of the aforementioned girl. Let us repeat the conversation for the benefit of all.

“The girl has surprised me,” she (Catrina) admitted. “I did not anticipate her courage.”

“I don’t think she anticipated it, either,” Life replied. He pulled out the tablas and the cards.

“I suppose we all need help seeing the truth within us.” Catrina smiled. “Even if that help comes in painful ways.” (163)

Book Two: Yes, I admit, she does sound as if she could be a student of mine. I would go so far as to say that she understands the distinction very important in social infrastructure with is "bonding social capital" versus "bridging social capital" (152)

Book One: Please explain.

Book Two: Well, this girl seems to have stretched herself beyond both her environment and her relationships. She in fact gives me hope.

Book One: Yes. I say our surprised had an element of hope embedded in it as well. Tell us more about your assessment.

Book Two: "As a sociologist, I have grave concerns about the powerful trembling of these social fault lines. As a citizen, I can't help asking how we can rebuild the foundations of civil society in the kinds of diverse, democratic, nations we find throughout the world today." (11) So, with her type of actions, seeing the truth within herself and allowing this truth to become action is hopeful.

Book One: This makes sense. Our previous closest example was drawn from ourselves, but we are already bonded in a close relationship. This clouds the action.

Book Two: Please provide details of your conversation.

Book One: Of course. “Wouldn’t you say I exercised my free will just then?” Life asked. “I acted contrary to what my past suggested I would do.”

“True, but there is a reason you made this choice,” she said.

“Because I care about you.”

Catrina returned Life’s smile. “And I appreciate it. Especially because it proves my point.”

“How is that?” Life’s silver walking stick clicked softly on the road.

“It’s simple. When we care for someone, we have no choice but to follow our heart, regardless of whether or not we want to.”

Life chuckled. “So, given that I care for you, I am forced to make a choice in your best interest.”

“Exactly! There is no free will where love is involved,” Catrina said. “It’s like night and day. You cannot have both at the same time.” (189)

Book Two: Hmm. Love. This is important, but in many instances, not enough. If certain barriers are in place, there are still consequences.

Book One: “Do not mistake the consequence for the choice,” Life replied. “. . .choice was never to suffer—that is the consequence.” (221)

Book Two: Schools are great examples of this. Well intentioned, ‘love’ often expressed in word. Love of children. Love of learning. Love of success even, but not always successful.

"Schools are organizations, but they're also social infrastructures. They way they're planned, designed, and programmed shapes the interactions that develop in and around them. For students, teachers, parents, and entire communities, schools can either foster or inhibit trust, solidarity, and a shared commitment to the common good. They can also set boundaries that define who is part of the community and who is excluded. They can integrate or segregate, create opportunities or keep people in their place." (40)

Book One: It is nice to meet you. It seems you are fluent in a language we have only begun to learn. Our conversations have debated in different ways ‘free will’ or ‘circumstances’. You, it seems, have the vocabulary to bridge the two. Could you share another example?

Book Two: What kind of example?

Book One: Perhaps another with children.

Book Two: I’ll give you an example first of the types of interactions we observe and describe in regards to children.

"The concern about the loss of civic skills may be surprising, since we rarely think of spending time on swings and slides or playing in sandboxes as preparation for democracy. But when Hart and his team go to the playground, they focus on behavior that most parents treat as secondary: How does a child decide when it's time to give up a swing so that another can have a turn? What happens when the wait feels too long? When do kids include strangers in their games and projects, and when do they set boundaries? How do they manage disagreement and conflict? Context matters. . . They believe that social dynamics among children change when they explore new places and encounter different people and groups. Kids are especially likely to develop interpersonal skills that will help them in civic life when they wander into 'foreign' places and have to navigate the new social situation on their own. But that's the kind of thing that happens less often now that parents monitor their children so closely, and they get little opportunity to roam." (140)

Book One: Well, we did have a young boy inadvertently shoot an arrow that pierced the heart of a young single mother. We argued extensively about if we could assume he had other options.

“that he chose to stand where he did.”

Book Two: Tell me more.

Book One: Well, you see, Catrina “pointed at the water beginning to gather in rivulets down the street.

“See here—the path the rain is following is not arbitrary. It is entirely dependent on the shape and size of the cobblestones, the dirt or debris in its way, the particular slope of the street. It depends on many factors, some of which we cannot even perceive but all of which were in place long before the storm arrived.”

“That’s true, about the rain. But how does that apply to the boy and his arrow? Rain does not have free will. It couldn’t choose a different path, even if it wanted to.”

“And what does it mean to ‘want’ something?” Catrina asked. “Where does that desire originate?” (78)

So, please tell me more about these choices. This infrastructure and how people move through it.

Book Two: "Statistics do not convey the differences between poor, minority neighborhoods that are cursed with empty lots, broken sidewalks, abandoned homes, and shuttered storefronts, and those that are densely peopled, busy with foot traffic, enlivened by commercial activity and well-maintained parks, and supported by strong community organizations. As I got to know the rhythms of life in various Chicago neighborhoods, I learned how much these local conditions mattered, both every day and during the disaster." (4)

Book One: But these choices still stem from ideas. Let us consider the boy. He may be the more standard example since the girl was surprising.

“The idea may have come to him unexpectedly, but broad though his imagination may be, it was still inspired by something. It wasn’t an arbitrary decision plucked out of thin air.”

As she spoke, she plucked a petal off her crown and released it into the air. The petal folded into a rose-scented butterfly.

“You see, a person can never know what they don’t know. Which is to say, there is a limit to what they can imagine—or reason, for that matter.” (130)

Book Two: Yes, I see, and the infrastructure, the social infrastructure, does just that, it inspires the ideas. "By the end of my research, I'd discovered that the key difference between neighborhoods like Auburn Gresham and others that are demographically similar turned out to be what I called social infrastructure: the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact. . . When social infrastructure is robust, it fosters contact, mutual support, and collaboration among friends and neighbors; when degraded, it inhibits social activity, leaving families and individuals to fend for themselves." (5)

Book One: Again, you remind us of the girl we knew. She changed us. Her final words to her friend most of all.

“Listen,” she told Esteban. “And remember this: we may not have a choice about what happens to us. We didn’t ask for any of this.” She extended her arm, pointing across the lake. “We didn’t choose to end up in this dark and broken place. But there is nothing we can do to change the fact that this is where we are.”

Esteban sobbed quietly.

“The thing is, even if we had no choice about what happened to us, we still get to decide what to do about it.” Clara pointed at the butterflies blinking overhead. “I choose not to let the terribleness of this place be the end of my story. Or yours.” (274-75)

Book Two: I’m glad to hear you were open to the change. "We are living in different political universes," writes the Harvard political scientist and legal scholar Cass Sunstein. "Of course mixed groups are no panacea. . . But mixed groups have been shown to have two desirable effects. First, exposure to competing positions generally increases political tolerance. . . Second, mixing increases the likelihood that people will be aware of competing rationales and see that their own arguments might be met with plausible counterarguments." (153)

Book One: Perhaps our language has always been the same as yours, but we are beginning to understand implications of expanded meanings.

“Death smiled. “We have been playing this game for an eternity, constrained by what we thought to be its strict rules.”

“The rules are unchangeable,” Life said.

“In the same way that the children’s present circumstances are unchangeable.” She pointed toward the children’s islands. “These circumstances may describe the moment, but they do not define it.”

“So what defines it?”

“The choices they make.”

Life looked past Catrina toward the dots of islands in the distance.

“This place is what it is: a cavern of squalor, despair, and hopelessness,” Catrina continued. “But the girl’s choice also makes it a place of beauty and wonder. In so doing, she has given these circumstances a different meaning.” (280)

Book Two: What a great example of the power of social infrastructure!

"Before we lift the next shovel, we should know what we want to improve, what we need to protect, and, more important, what kind of society we want to create. Political officials often claim that infrastructure projects are too technical for citizens and civic groups to understand, let alone debate meaningfully in a democratic forum. They ask that we trust engineers and experts to manage things, which ultimately means letting authority flow from the top down. But no president or cabinet member should have the power to make unilateral decisions about how to rebuild the critical systems that sustain us, and history shows that when this happens people rarely get what they want. What we need, now more than ever, is an inclusive conversation about the kinds of infrastructure--physical as well as social-- that would best serve, sustain and protect us." There are two phrases you should continue to pay attention to, though it seems you are more open to them now more than ever: 'active participation" and "local knowledge and wisdom". (232)

Book One: Perhaps we could design a new lotería game together.

Book Two: "The question is when and where we will begin." (233)


Book One: Valenti, Karla Arenas. (2021). Lotería. Alfred A. Knopf: New York.

Book Two: Klineberg, Eric. (2018) Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can

Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. Crown: New York.


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