Monday, February 08, 2016

The Deep and Discomforting Point of Populism (and Socialism, and Certain Sorts of Conservatism Too)

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Over the weekend, a friend of mine shared an article which had joined in the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders fight, a fight which may come to an end tomorrow in New Hampshire, but probably won't. The title of the piece is "Bernie Sanders Doesn't Know Diddly-Squat About Wall Street" (a claim which, from the author's limited perspective, is undoubtedly true), and it acknowledges the truth of great many of the critiques of Wall Street's behavior over the past decade which are being made by both the Clinton and Sanders camps. But the article's overall critical aim is clear:

It is unconscionable that Wall Street’s compensation system continues to reward bankers, traders, and executives to take big risks with other people’s money in hopes of getting big year-end bonuses...But Sanders never talks about the compensation system on Wall Street. In fact, he rarely mentions anything concrete at all. Instead, he dwells on bizarre and nebulous notions such as imposing “a tax on Wall Street speculation”....The candidate’s website does not really flesh out the idea, other than to say that the tax “will reduce risky and unproductive high-speed trading and other forms of Wall Street speculation.” If one goes back to a bill that Sanders introduced in the Senate last May, there is slightly more meat on these bones; still, the proposed legislation seems to have very little to do with actually taxing “Wall Street speculation” and more to do with taxing every trading transaction--the buying and selling of stocks and bonds and derivatives--that Wall Street and hedge funds engage in. This, of course, makes no sense whatsoever--why tax the very behavior the system depends upon?

In other words, there are clearly bad actors on Wall Street, so why on earth would someone want to burden the whole system of Wall Street, as opposed to doing something to simply target those bad actors? The idea that Wall Street itself--or at least the high-end, high-speed, huge-money, over-financialized skewing of it over the past few decades--might be the problem here simply never crosses the author's mind.

Let me expand on this somewhat discomforting point a little--discomforting because honest populists and socialists (and Sanders, though a career politician, is at least a little more honest than most) know that we are all far more affected by Wall Street practices than we'd like to admit. Indeed, we are all so affected by (and implicated in, and dependent upon) it that excavating the actual moral ideal at work in nearly all actually populist and socialist--as opposed to liberal egalitarian and redistributive--ideas is difficult, even though almost anyone who really thinks about it knows the point is there. Our profound inarticulateness over this point is owed, I think, to the fact that most modern leftism is bereft of the moral language which once animated anti-capitalist arguments generally, and thus those who advocate it--as Sanders does, however inconsistently--find it difficult to say what, on some deep and inchoate level, they clearly want to say. It is a point that, to their perverse credit, clear-eyed libertarian, propertarian, and other Lockean thinkers often recognize and put at the front in their attacks on actually socialistic ideas; some of them really delight in mocking their opponents for it, and those opponents fulminate usually rather hopelessly, because they believe in what they're saying but they're not entirely sure just what they're saying actually means.

What point am I getting at here? To be curt, it's simply this: "why tax the very behavior the system depends upon," you ask? Easy. Because us populists and leftists and other vaguely socialistic types actually don't like the system we're all affected by, dependent upon, and implicated in, and consequently want it to do less of what it does. A financial transaction tax may have a variety of revenue-raising and redistributive pluses and minuses, but from a genuine populist/socialist perspective its greatest effect will probably be to simply make it at least slightly less likely that something we don't like will be done. Both populism and socialism (and local traditionalism or distributism or what-have-you) can refer to a huge range of economic possibilities, but in the post-WWII, post-Cold War, globalized world, they both--whether their proponents realize it or not--basically mean the same thing: the elite generation and manipulation and moving around financial wealth has gone far enough. There ought to be less of it.

What would it mean for the Wall Street system (or, again, mainly the one which has emerged over the past generation or so) itself to see less activity? For taking on risk and collaterizing debt themselves to be seen as a less attractive means of generating capital? Well, as the article correctly points out, it would mean less absolute wealth would be generated overall (but that would also mean less inequality). It would mean investment would be less incentivized (but so would less ruinous speculation). It would mean less capital mobility (but that would also mean less community disruption). Thoughtful and compassionate liberals of all sorts, if they can be led to see clearly what exactly is being argued about here (which is not easily done), are rightly bemused or even infuriated by this idea: I mean, if you can tame the system so as to retain its advantages and generate enough surplus to pay for social programs that ameliorate its structural harms, why on earth would you want to do something that actually burdens the system itself? From Keynes to Krugman (though, to be fair, Krugman was once more willing to give a financial transaction tax some consideration) all these smart folk just look at the socialists, populists, and localists, confused and weirded out by such proposals. And since the language of sustainability and labor and community and other collective moral goods has mostly been in the ash heap for the past century, responding in any way which is actually comprehensible isn't very easy.

That lack of comprehension is a function of our times, of course. A century ago, the moral and communitarian--that is, the conservative (or as I prefer to call it, the "left conservative"--case against socially disruptive, collectively disempowering, but admittedly damn productive capitalist growth was pretty obvious, though by no means broadly accepted. William Jennings Bryan, the most nationally prominent spokesperson for this kind of more democratic, less banker and investor-friendly, more producer-oriented (and thus, inevitably, more localist and agrarian than urban and industrialist) vision of market economics, ran for the presidency--and lost--three times. The parallels between Bryan and Sanders are interesting, to say the least--among others, you can see in the complicated squabbles over whether Sanders counts as a "real" socialist the same sort of disputes over whether Bryan, in accepting the Democratic party's nomination in 1896, was selling out the Populist cause. And, of course, there's the argument that if Sanders actually manages the ridiculously unlikely feat of snatching the nomination away from Clinton, that he'd both be soundly defeated and will have forced class-conscious real changes into the Democratic party, as Bryan's nomination in 1896 (and 1900, and 1908), helped make it possible for progressives like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt to win the party's support later on. But mostly, I think, those similarities are overshadowed by a major difference: Bryan, and all sorts of other populists and socialists (and even some actual traditionalists) a century ago, could recognize that certain types of, and certain amounts of, capitalist growth were just socially bad, however many individuals such transactions may financially reward. Bad because they create inequality and division; bad because they encourage radical individualism and cultural fragmentation; bad because, well, to be frank, the whole Christian tradition has mostly opposed them. And while Sanders has shown himself more than capable of quoting scripture and popes when it suits him, he lacks the civil religion substance that could give the form of his anti-capitalist democratic socialism some real, populist, moral weight.

None of which is relevant to the author of the article in question, because there's no indication that he's cognizant of these questions of morality, community, and sustainability either. And let's give Sanders some credit: if you actually believe (as I do) that our market economy ought to be informed by, and even regulated by, greater collective concerns and democratic controls and moral limits than contemporary capitalism tolerates, than Sanders anti-Wall Street talk at least partakes of the shape of the reforms we need. And at the level of the presidency--or, more realistically, at the level of the kind of highly symbolic exchanges over political possibilities which a presidential nomination contest makes possible--being able to get clear on just what the (admittedly somewhat discomforting) point and the shape of one's differing economic visions are is no small blessing at all.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Mid-Sized Meditations #10: Soil and Sacrament in Certain Kinds of Cities

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

This past weekend here in Wichita, I participated in the Eighth Day Institute's symposium, Soil and Sacrament: The World as Gift; Rod Dreher has a couple of nice write-ups about it, here and here. For me, sitting beside and listening to and talking with and learning from culturally wise small-o orthodox Christians (whether I agreed with their ideas or not, or whether they agreed with mine) was a real pleasure. Also, preparing for my presentation--"Urban Environments, Urban Gifts"--gave me a reason to read a classic I've been meaning to read for a while: Harvey Cox's The Secular City, which turns 50 years old this year. After reading it, giving my presentation, going back and forth with some other symposium participants about it all, and listening to Rod's continuing explorations of the Benedict Option, I came home with a huge load of thoughts banging around my head. Here are a few of them.

Christianity has for a long time, particularly over the past century and especially in Protestant America, struggled with the city. Just over 100 years ago, the main outlines of what soon turned into modern Christian fundamentalism were laid out, and the movements those fundamentalist declarations gave rise to became deeply interwoven with disputes over all the other changes being accomplished in Progressive-era America. Clearly, the greatest of those changes was the fact that in the two generations since the Civil War, the country had gone from being primarily agrarian and rural, with the bulk of its population and its wealth tied up with farming, to primarily industrial and urban, with the bulk of money and people moving into America's cities (a steady movement that, in the century since, has continued without let-up). The Social Gospel was essentially an acknowledgment that Christianity needed to make its home and find its vocation in the midst of urban industrialization. But even the Protestants who followed that liberal, modern, urban tradition through the first half of the 20th century were apparently bothered by it, haunted by the fundamentalist worry--a worry which, for better or worse (I think mostly the former), is probably unshakable--that in making peace with the modern American city, they were risking something essential about their faith.

Harvey Cox, though, insisted that kind of anxiousness was nonsense. In careful but powerful prose, he made the argument for the city, and all the secularism its growth as the defining type of social order in the post-Industrial Revolution world implies. Cox's explanations are succinct, sketching out the privatization and diversification of belief which attends modern life--a topic philosophers like Charles Taylor have spent hundreds of pages trying to understand--in just a few short short lines, and then moving on. He touched on the idea that Christianity was essential to both the "universality and radical openness" which is necessary to the modern city (p. 10), and the destruction of the "magical vision...[in] which nature is seen as a semidivine force" which is necessary to modern secularism (p. 20). This is a profoundly Protestant history of Christianity, and fairly elitist one as well; I suspect Catholicism and Orthodoxy wouldn't accept Cox's enthusiasm for the "disenchantment of the natural world" (p. 21). But still, his grasp of a Christianity stripped of natural law and metaphysics did allow him to see what the last 50 years have admittedly made obvious: that the Christian faith can and often does flourish in the pluralistic city, that urbanism's anonymity and distinction between public and private really can allow for a more charitable openness and the "capacity to live responsibly with increasing numbers of neighbors" (p. 39). In short, the pragmatism of the city is, he argued, fully compatible with Christian virtues--or at least not an enemy to them:

We should not be dismayed by the fact that fewer and fewer people are pressing what we have normally called "religious" questions. The fact that urban-secular man is incurably and irreversibly pragmatic, that he is less and less concerned with religious questions, is in no sense a disaster. It means that he is shedding the lifeless cuticles of the mythical and ontological periods and stepping into the functional age. He is leaving behind the styles of the tribe and the town and is becoming a technopolitan man. As such he may now be in a position to hear certain notes in the biblical message that he missed before. He may be ready, in some respects, to "do the truth" in a way his superstitious and religious forerunners we not (p. 60).

There's a lot that I like about Cox's vision; what he wrote about economics, sex, and civil society in the life of urban-dwelling (really just modern-epoch living) Christians struck me as wise, or at least prescient. But again and again, his Kennedyesque boosterism, his optimistic embrace of technology and change, led him to insist upon a normative breadth to his arguments that was just untenable. For Cox, rustic towns and small cities are even worse than the "tribal" existence we had before the emergence of the city; what is needed is the mobility, choice, and innovation promised by the true "technopolis"; those older forms of life presumably encouraged static authority and reactionary traditions, whereas "the Kingdom of Jesus came when God's doing something wholly new coincided with man's laying aside previous values and loyalties....the emerging secular city entails precisely this kind of renunciation" (p. 98). It's no surprise that Cox titles one of his chapters "The Church as God's Avant-garde."

But the problem with the avant-garde is that it almost always ends up being a friend to the impersonal and the authoritarian, and Cox wasn't free of that. In his view, the Christian in the city needs to fight the "stubborn residue of tribal and town ideology which prevents the technopolis from being realized," and that means challenging the "decentralization," the "fragmentation of power," and the "anarchy" in cities in favor of supporting "the power structure" so as to gain "political mastery over technical society" (pp. 116-117). The "defamilialization of work" has been a great, emancipatory thing, "sever[ing] once and for all the umbilical cord connecting family life and work life" (p. 148). The goal should be to direct our Christian efforts towards self-contained, rootless organizations that are "flexible," "future-oriented," "secularized," and "limited" in its claims on its members--which means, of course, that one shouldn't form attachments to those professions which resist such specialization and individuation (old-school industries and farming, mostly); "cybernation" is going to make them all go away, anyway, and with appropriate state planning those who are "emotionally attached to certain occupations" can be re-trained and moved into the service industries or simply subsidized: "We can easily," Cox added as an endnote, "afford to keep certain people in agriculture as a kind of occupational therapy" if necessary (pp. 152-153, 162-163, 166). What started as a realistic appraisal of the fate of the Christian faith in the modern era of urban individuality, diversity, and anonymity, ends up being a broad argument for happily accepting constant mobility, professional and personal transient-ness, and state-maintained procedural rationality as perfectly compatible with the Christian faith. That's a conclusion I find both socially unhealthy and scripturally untrue. But so what?

This is where Rod's Benedict Option comes in. Rod's presentation at the Eighth Day Symposium didn't add a great deal to much that he's written about the subject before. But, perhaps inspired by Hans Boersma, a Reformed theologian and historian who was also here in Wichita (and who is praised further in this thoughtful post by Rod here), he did sketch out a positively sacramental argument in favor of the idea of forming communities of practice, ritual, tradition, stability, and memory, as a tool to conserve in a truly equitable way the goods that we can know together. His various points all had their own significance, but they could be summed up, I thought, in one pithy comment of his: "Matter matters." Things--the gardens we grow, the animals we raise, the food we cook, the products we fashion with our hands, the rituals we physically enact, the arts we make and share and pass down, the stories we preserve in books, all of it--matter as part of a gifted, sacramental reality. It put me in mind of Martin Heidegger's "es gibt," the notion (which really is ultimately Pauline, though Heidegger himself was reluctant to acknowledge that connection) that all entities and all relationships are things revealed to and given to us, as opposed to abstract objects whose being and meaning is entirely a product of our choice to turn our efforts upon them. (It isn't surprising that Cox thought Heidegger was "entirely wrong in believing that the escape route [from our modern theological predicament] lies in returning to a kind of primordial mythical thinking," since that "would deny that God has made man responsible for nature and that politics is the sphere of human mastery"--p. 219.) And it also made me realize: I think most people, at least most people who are familiar with the sort of issues Rod is struggling with, probably have some sense that matter matters too. And that's what worries them.

It is rare for Rod to write or speak about the Benedict Option without him feeling obliged to push back against the idea that the communities he has in mind must be isolated, rural, restrictive, sectarian, agrarian communes. That's not it at all!, he says and writes over and over again. But why must he always repeat himself? In part, I came to think during the symposium, because the sort of people he's sharing his ideas with mostly live--as nearly all people nowadays live, myself included--in cities, as members of a near-completely urbanized civilization. And on some level or another, they recognize at least some part of themselves in Cox's description (and celebration!) of the mobile, changeable, transitory city. Perhaps they work in advertising, trying to create ways to sell social media apps over the iPhone. Or they're a project manager for some corporation, responsible for charting performance reviews and job training so as to hit some government agency's quota. Or they handle financial derivatives. Or they process purchasing orders for online marketers. Or they collate information for hedge fund managers. Or they do one of a million other jobs which the diversity and anonymity and wealth of modern urban existence makes possible, and they read about the Benedict Option, and they think to themselves, even if Rod doesn't put it this way explicitly: there is no matter to what I do. There's no there there, at least not a real, sacramental, thingy there. And that worries them--as it worries me, city-dweller that I am.

A few years ago I pushed Rod on what I called the "undertheorized agrarianism" in his writings about community. That may have been a bit much--but it wasn't, I think, essentially wrong. No, Rod's Benedict Option does not have to be a rural, self-sufficient, agricultural monastery. But still, some of the very best arguments as to why one should be open to understanding the challenges of modern life such that Rod's counter-cultural communitarianism seems an appropriate response to them cannot help, I think, but at least hint at preferring such a monastic life to the busy, globalized, trade-and-banking-and-service-economy-dependent, thoroughly monetized city which most of us know. Because Cox is right--there is so much about urban life which points, even a half-century ago, towards exactly that kind of abstraction, privatization, and context-less rule-making. What do cities make? What is the productive ground which their inhabitants can actually take in hand, the matter which they can hold in common? Rod's urbanized readers, particularly the Christian ones, who are worried about the same things he's worried about and who want, like him, to connect with communities where matter matters, may be forgiven for perhaps often looking around themselves and thinking "Well, maybe I can't do it here."

There are, of course, numerous possible responses to that worry, even assuming it applies (amazingly enough, there really are still are cities in the United States where actual things are built). Rod's forthcoming Benedict Option book is sure to offer its own responses, and in a way, my own presentation did as well. On my reading of Cox, the real breakdown between the correct observations he made about the Christian possibilities available in the city, and his later acceptance of a religion and an economy entirely based on abstract choice, came with his embrace of the cult of mobility and innovation, and his (I think quite flawed) attempt to read a complete rejection of "place" into the Biblical story. If we take Cox's legitimate insights seriously but decline to go as far as he did, and instead say that we need to be attendant to the virtues of stability even in urban places, we may notice that not all cities are made equal. Some cities--smaller or mid-sized ones, ones that still have within their local economy the resources for real material productivity and within the reach of their local ecosystem the soil for growing real food--have a bit more stability than Cox's technopolises.

That kind of steadiness is a precarious condition in the world of global capital flows, obviously; it requires careful, thoughtful, long-term work to fight against the cult of zoning and save productive exurban (or even urban) land for farming, or to pull together the support necessary for small-scale artisanal manufacturing when the big city players (both banks and governments) usually just want to build a new mall--or, as Rod himself has noted in his praise for Wichita's Eighth Day Books, simply build a community-centering small business (which really isn't a simple matter at all!). Perhaps through and in the midst of that kind of work, the possibility for truly urban Benedict Option communities, urban places that can keep their connection to the matter that matters even in the midst to the many mixed and abstract distractions and anonymous blessings of modern cities, could be possible after all. Since that's where most of us live, after all, such needs to be our hope, or else pondering the future of the Benedict Option (for those of us so inclined, whatever our reasons) is done for.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

"No Doubt."

Rest in peace, Mr. Rickman. So many of your performances on stage and screen were wonderful, but my favorite role of yours was Colonel Brandon is Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility. My single favorite line from that movie--indeed, from any Austen adaption I've ever seen--was when Brandon revealed his sad past to Elinor. Mr. Rickman, you drew more sadness and wry wisdom out of this short scene--indeed, from those two words, twice spoken, more humor--than I think any equally skilled stage and film actor ever could. I can't find an embed, but we can watch it here. Look up Mr. Bowie, and have a fine drink with him, will you? Godspeed.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Assessing the Freedom Of, and the Freedom From, Cities

[Cross-posted to Bleeding Heart Libertarians]

Jacob Levy's Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom is a superb work of political theory and intellectual history. It introduces, in clear and compelling language, a new way of making sense of the development of liberal ideas, by distinguishing between what he labels "rationalist" (consistent, transparent, state-centric) and "pluralist" (variable, private, culture-dependent) responses to the threats to individual freedom which have arisen throughout the history of liberalism. And then, as an encore, he uses all that his analysis has suggested to shed some new light on contemporary theoretical debates. Overall it's a great book, one that I hope will have a long life.

What is there to criticize? Not much. I'm sure defenders of the rationalist approach to ensuring personal liberty (Jacob makes clear his own preference for the pluralist approach) might take issue with some implications of how he sets up and describes these variations within liberalism. And fans of Charles Taylor (like me) might think that Jacob’s suggestion in the conclusion that Taylor’s history of modernity wrongly attempts a synthesis of rationalism and pluralism is a simplistic reading of Taylor's philosophical aims. But all that is rather small potatoes, especially considering that such nits arise in the beginning and ending of the book, and skip over its central, and best, section, which deals with the history of intermediate groups in the West and their relationship to liberalism.

For myself, the most interesting way to engage that section is through Jacob’s (too short!) treatment of the rise of towns, cities, and provinces, and how seeing those bodies as associational forms presents different types of pluralist challenges to our understanding of how best to define and defend individual freedom. He begins by asserting--relying here primarily upon the scholarship of Harold Berman--that cities and towns are essentially non-contractual entities. Rather than emerging through some hypothetical social contract or actual historical process of constitutionalization, they are bodies of individuals that ratified their own collective existence in particular places (along rivers or trade routes or mountain passes) through “real acts of mutual promise” (p. 96): in other words, through the organic realization of, the participatory recognition of, a community. This distinguishes them, when one speaks of local governing bodies, from counties or provinces, which usually were “geographically far larger than cities...not surrounded by a wall...primarily rural...certainly not founded by equals committing to one another by oaths...[but rather were] in large part the leftover geography of the processes of state consolidation” (p. 108). Jacob’s tracing of the different forms and norms of law which emerged as relevant to these different types of local bodies–Germanic or “gothic,” in the first case; Roman or republican in the second–opens up multiple lines of argument within political theory.

For example, his idea that the “Germanic legal model of law [was] tied to personal status” is only truly effective in “mostly homogenous” contexts, whereas something different was needed for “the arms’-length interactions of strangers engaged in long-distance or urban trade” (p. 101), parallels the arguments of the sociologist Lyn Lofland, who in A World of Strangers contrasted the pre-industrial city, whose inhabitants informally ordered themselves through signs of personal recognition (what someone was wearing, for example), with the industrial, commercial city, where that informal order was provided by recognizing the--often authoritatively determined and imposed--rules of one’s location (the part of the city where one lived or worked). There is also the sense in which these distinctions can deepen our understanding of the intense connection many throughout American history have made between freedom and independent ownership, and the socio-economic and spatial context (urban vs. provincial/rural) relevant to the intensity, or lack of such, felt for that connection. Jacob observes that “the paradigmatic city for the humanists and republicans was a sovereign city-state, maybe sitting at the head of its own empire [though a limited one, presumably]...the independence of the city was a prerequisite to the freedom of its citizens. The Germanic tradition that Stadtluft macht frei [“city air makes one free”] rested on no such assumption” (p. 133). Seeing these bodies as part of ongoing arguments over association freedom, lends important light to ongoing arguments about how public policies ought to be constructed, on the one hand, in regards to the tangles of political and economic obligations and opportunities which so often characterize modern capitalist urban life, as well as towards the (more often idealized than real) clear rules and spatial authority supposedly associated with private property ownership on the other.

That is light which Jacob himself is, perhaps, not entirely aware of. Jacob is to be credited with having been among those political theorists who recognized early on the great value of James Scott's arguments about state and market-based forms of rational, organizational oppression, but he's been ambivalent about accepting Scott's insistence that it is the modernist logics of the market and the state which push this oppression, not something that only happens when the latter appropriates the former. Some of this reluctance might be discerned by looking at what is not particularly discussed early in the book, when Jacob writes about the value of "associations that resist the state" and explores Adam Smith's warning about the "man of system," without making any comment about, say, the rational reformer who wishes to get rid of inconsistent trade barriers and idiosyncratic excise and sin taxes, all in the name of maximizing the benefits of creative destruction (pp. 59, 67). But is important that we make use of the light Jacob has provided in his book exactly in regards to these matters. .

Why? Because, as Jacob superbly demonstrates in his brief history of the Western political understand of cities, these bodies are often much more than--using Oakeshottian terms--civil associations, but rather are enterprise ones, complex and purposive bodies which offer "local and distinct lifestyles to mobile populations, letting people sort into local communities, whose distinctiveness then becomes reinforcing" (p. 289). In connecting this observation to his larger analysis of liberalism, Levy gives added theoretical heft to arguments--made by Jane Jacobs, Richard Sennett, and many others (including me)--about the anarchic-yet-ordered potential of economically sufficient cities. While one can certainly fill whole books with accounts of localities throughout history being threatened by state-mandated "rationalizing" projects, in the name of ethnic cleansing, ideological punishment, or political homogeneity, surely one needs to at least acknowledge that in the modern and (mostly) law-abiding Western societies of today, the greatest threat to the survival of the purposive, economically sufficient, culture-forming capacity of cities is, in fact, the dominance of global finance capitalism. A dominance which is, of course, abetted by economic elites: elites whose propertied position and business revenue tends, more often than not, to be situated in provincial, state, or international contexts, rather than in the local urban communities they are part of; elites who, consciously or not, consistently favor making their lived environments as amenable to those remunerative, globalizing processes as possible.

Note that I acknowledge the remunerative character of these processes. There is no denying that there is a strict utilitarian, economic argument for the individual empowerment which generally arises from the capitalist rationalization of cities, making those bodies, and the consumers and workers who live there, into, as much as possible, enriching nodes in the global finance and capital flow machine. The question is: is liberty always best served by the liberation of individuals from obligation, community, and want which specialization and efficiency often (though not always) provides? Jacob's own preference for pluralism suggests that, despite his own libertarianism, the answer may not be a clear "yes." Still, his overarching thesis is that there can be no resolution of the rationalist-pluralist divide in liberalism, nor any moral judgment as to objective superiority of one over the other, so he really doesn't answer this question--indeed, he doesn't even broach it in these terms. But he shines a new light upon the question nonetheless, and that is valuable enough.

In the end, the great accomplishment of this wonderful book is that it provides a language to help us see (for many of us, for the first time), and thus think productively about, the history and significance of the rationalist-pluralist divide in liberalism. If Jacob himself didn't use that language to address, say, city-county relations, or local versus global markets--well, that's a small loss, but not a great one. Because he's now shown us all a better way to go about doing exactly that on our own. Freedom indeed!

Monday, January 11, 2016

"I Thought He Had One More Regeneration Left in Him"



Five Farewells to Our Thin White Duke

Innumerable tributes will pore forth today for David Bowie, who passed away yesterday from cancer, just two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his final album, Blackstar. That's appropriate, because Bowie's influence as a musician and a performer was as extensive, as protean, as wildly diverse and interpretive, as anyone's. Probably only Bob Dylan, among all modern pop, rock, and folk pioneers still living, could compare with the man's groundbreaking range. So in the midst of the oncoming flood of words, remember this tribute from Will Gompertz:

David Bowie was the Picasso of pop. He was an innovative, visionary, restless artist: the ultimate ever-changing postmodernist. Along with the Beatles, Stones and Elvis Presley, Bowie defined what pop music could and should be. He brought art to the pop party, infusing his music and performances with the avant-garde ideas of Merce Cunningham, John Cage and Andy Warhol.

He turned pop in a new direction in 1972 with the introduction of his alter ego Ziggy Stardust. Glam rock was the starting point, but Ziggy was much more than an eyeliner-wearing maverick: he was a truly theatrical character that at once harked backed to pre-War European theatre while anticipating 1980s androgyny and today's discussions around a transgender spectrum.

He was a great singer, songwriter, performer, actor, producer and collaborator. But beyond all that, at the very heart of the matter, David Bowie was quite simply--quite extraordinarily--cool.


Here, in memoriam, are five slices of the man that come to my mind this morning.

Appropriately enough, let's start with 1971's "Changes":



And follow it up immediately with Bowie, who was so often treated as some kind of the theatrical alien, owning his own reputation with 1971's "Life on Mars":



But Bowie would only allow his audiences to stick with an image of him as long as he wanted them to; when it came time to bury the 1970s, he did, definitively, in "Ashes to Ashes":



In the 1980s David Bowie re-made himself into a fashion and acting icon--but predictably, he's already preceded the meta-commentary on his own transformation with "Fashion":



Thirty years on from what many considered his peak, did Bowie still know how to rock? Oh yeah. Let's end with a holiday he almost lived to see a 70th time, "Valentine's Day":

Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Year's Eve Live Music: "Touch of Grey"

A good way to ring out the old year, as we all just keep getting older, and yet life doesn't slow down or stop happening. Happy New Year's, everyone.

A Year of Hard Love

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

I've joked for years about being a closet Lutheran--joked about it for so long, in fact, I can't remember when I first started doing it. I know it wasn't because one day I read and found myself converted to the Lutheran Book of Concord or any such thing (though over the decades I have read and found myself agreeing with its contents a whole lot more than I disagree). It may go way back t my childhood, back to reading scriptures like Matthew 18:7, in the King James Version: "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" (A nearly identical passage can be found in Luke 17:1.) There was a terrible, yet comforting, logic to those passages as I understood them, so long ago: first, that this will be world of offenses, of horrors, of hardness, and there's nothing anyone can do about it--and second, that God will still hold by whom those offenses, those horrors, that hardness comes accountable. This was a God, I thought, with whom you can know where you stand.

The KJV reading of those scriptures isn't the best, I know that now. Those passages actually show Jesus speaking specifically about those who create temptations or stumbling blocks to faith in the hearts of others; He wasn't speaking of the brokenness of the world in general, much less morally situating all of us in regards to it. But learning a better reading of those scriptures never altered, I think, my sense that the KJV version really captured so much of what Paul supposedly wrote--and which, much later, Augustine and then Martin Luther would teach about as well. What is that teaching? It is about sin, about its omnipresence, about the way it infects and twists our every perception and action, and the fact that we are called to somehow love one another in the midst of it. We will fail, of course, and stand condemned for that failure--but God by His grace will also save us in that failure and condemnation. The experience of that grace in such a context isn't an experience of lightness; it is, rather, hard. It is something that, all things considered, we would rather have not needed in the first place. But need it, I think, we actually, most assuredly, do.

Here, on the last day of 2015, I look back on a year and see a lot of this kind of difficult grace, this kind of hard love. Maybe you've seen a lot of it as well--hard decisions about the saving or ending of weak and desperate lives, about the rescuing or fleeing of marriages, about opening oneself up to and learning to love a stranger in need or shutting out and accepting the hurt done to a loved one who has become a stranger to you. Whatever your experiences have been, I suspect you feel divided about them, just as I do. I'd be lying if I talked about how "grateful" I am for them, because I'm not: rather, as Frodo confessed to Gandalf, I wish these things "need not have happened in my time." But I'd also be lying if I pretended not to recognize the wisdom of Gandalf's reply: "So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." I look around, and I see offenses of every sort--intentional and unintentional, against loved ones and strangers, against adults and children. I would rather I was free of all of it, just as everyone does. And yet, sometimes I really am kind of happy for that hardness--because, if nothing else, it helps me (and others, all of whom need it just as much as me) see the difficult grace around us better than we could in a world wherein offenses and evils and complications did not come.

Martin Luther, speaking as a Christian prophet should, put it well: "This life is not godliness, but growth in godliness; not health, but healing; not being, but becoming; not rest, but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way; the process is not yet finished, but it has begun; this is not the goal, but it is the road; at present all does not gleam and glitter, but everything is being purified" (Luther, A Defense and Explanation of All Articles). That purity, as so many have put it, will hurt. Chosen or not, we stand here as God's children, committed to it. So here's to God's long and difficult love, a love which comes slowly and inevitably through and I think necessarily as a part of the brokenness and condemnation and failures of these lives we live. And let's wake up tomorrow, with the new year, and keep on keeping on.


The Ten Best Books I Read in 2015

This year's top ten reads reflects my interests pretty well: only one work of fiction, one memoir, one work of scripture, and the rest all research or theory related. I'm boring that way. In alphabetic order:

Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, translated with commentary by Robert Alter. I've spent the entire year continuing to make my slow way through the Old Testament (Revised English Bible version), and I've gotten further than this essential companion book covers--I've also knocked off Chronicles, Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and Job, as well as the Psalms (which I didn't love, but found surprisingly meaningful all the same). But this book will stay with me, I think, because I'm now into the literature and prophecy of the Old Testament, whereas Ancient Israel covered the crucial, and fascinating, period of both real-time and after-the-fact (re)constructions of Israel's collective memory, of how myths and legends and stories centuries old--all the tales from the Patriarchs to the Passover--became a part of their narrative of conquest, triumph, corruption, and defeat. A wonderful work of intellectual archaeology, one which helped me see crucial elements of ancient Israel's world in an entirely new light.

Community and the Politics of Place and The Good City and the Good Life, both by Daniel Kemmis. Departing from strict alphabetical order here, I read both of these books because I needed to--Kemmis's work had been siting on my shelf for too long, and while I'd read parts of both these books before, I couldn't remember having read them both all the way through, and I decided I needed to. Ultimately, that was a great decision, and not just because both are very good books. Reading them both also enabling me to see connections between them and other communitarian arguments from the 1990s which I didn't remember picking up on before. Community and the Politics of Place situated civic republican concerns and questions in the context of the sparsely inhabited American West, and thus brought forward ways in which resource-extraction and dependency, as well as broader ecological concerns, are important to our construction of community. The Good City and the Good Life extended upon that idea, linking the idea of community to the small democratic polity--in Kemmis's view, the small cities that he knew best, like the city of Missoula that he was mayor of--in ways that, I realized as I thought more about it, showed a way communitarianism could have developed that might have avoided the state-centric problems that hampered it's intellectual development. Anyway, two very good, thoughtful books.

The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America and The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, both by Alan Ehrenhalt. Once again departing from strict alphabetical order, these were another two books that I picked up, after only have ever read parts of them before, intending to see what going all the way through them together would teach me. I wasn't disappointed, though there was a greater drop-off in the level of analysis from Lost City to The Great Inversion than was the case with Kemmis's two books. Still, Ehrenhalt had some really great observations to make in both cases; really this is a case of books that inspired me in terms of the theoretical connections between them, and the concepts which I saw being spun off by them, much more than in terms of the stories they actually told. In brief, Ehrenhalt makes wonderful observations, but behind all those observations lurks a concern with authority, identity, solidarity, and community in the context of urban life. They are related concepts that he saw as having been built and buttressed in many diverse ways two generations ago, then taken apart, and now (perhaps) being recovered in equally diverse and unexpected ways. Would any of his observations stand up to rigorous sociological analysis? Perhaps not. But they were greatly thought-provoking at the very least.

The Martian, by Andy Weir. A plain old delightful bit of hard science-fiction; in fact, maybe the purest bit of hard sci-fi I've ever read, because it closes off any and all of the larger possibilities of science-fiction by fitting its sci-fi premise (the near-future exploration of the planet Mars) into the fierce strictures of a survival story (can stranded astronaut Mark Watney survive alone on Mars, and can NASA figure out a way to save him?). Some of the characterizations were plainly taken right from the first-time-novelists file, but I didn't mind: what was matters was that Weir kept me guessing, and rooting from Watney, desperately using science and technology to do the impossible. The film version is often very good, but it doesn't hold a candle to the book.

Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, by Jacob T. Levy. Written by an old friend and intellectual inspiration/goad to me, Levy's book is a serious, straightforward work of Western political theory, laying out the philosophical and the historical arguments for his construction of liberal ideas, and ably defending his own position regarding them. In a nutshell, he introduces his own spin on the classic "positive (freedom-to-do)/negative (freedom-from) liberty" argument, presenting the "rationalist" view of freedom as one which seeks to establish consistent, predictable, limited laws (which means, inevitably, the establishment of a reliably authoritative and therefore distant state), and the "pluralist" view as one which seeks to escape the disciplinary force of predictability by maintaining and strengthening local governments, traditional bodies, and independent sources of authority (which, in their closeness to out own lives, increases the likelihood of small infringements on liberty). Lining up John Stuart Mill and Lord Acton on the rationalist side, and Alexis de Tocqueville and Montesquieu on the "pluralist" side, Levy makes the case that we can't ever resolve liberalism on one side or the other (though his pluralist preferences are clear). I'll be writing more about this book for Bleeding Heart Libertarians soon, so stay tuned.

Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America's Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World, by Catherine Tumber. I'd never heard of this book before about three months ago, and now I think it's one of the absolutely essential books to my whole research project on mid-sized cities (I wrote some about the book here). Tumber is a journalist and scholar from upper-state New York, who mourned the struggles cites she knew like Rochester, NY and Lowell, MA, have been going through over the past two decades. As the conversation about cities have changed in our adult lifetimes (hopeless cesspools in the 1970s, the future of the planet in the 2010s), she wondered: where do small cities, the cities that aren't linked into and benefiting from the financialization of global capitalism, the cities that once were the backbone of American manufacturing and agriculture before corporate farming and outsourcing destroyed them, fit in? Her answers are thoughtful, well-researched, and to me simply inspiring.

So Anyway..., by John Cleese. This autobiography/memoir continues my ongoing engagement with the legacy of the people and productions of Monty Python, the greatest team of comedy writers and performers in the whole history of the English language, or at least so I think. I've spent a lot of time thinking about Michael Palin, and this year I had the wonderful opportunity to think a lot about his most frequent acting partner and the dominant figure behind Python, the endlessly fascinating and frustrating John Cleese. If Palin was Python's surprisingly normal and patiently observant and kind-hearted Yin, then Cleese was Python's regularly angry, never satisfied, constantly striving Yang. A delightful and insightful read--I can't wait to dig into Gilliam's autobiography next.

The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction by Matthew Crawford. more than six years ago, Crawford's first book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work simply blew me away: I thought it was the best and most original work of political and social philosophy that I'd read in years. Combining the insights of Marxist economics, Aristotlean moral thought, and a Heideggerian-influenced phenomenology, Crawford constructed a Laschian defense of manual labor and practical, artisanal skill. In this book, he dives even deeper into the phenomenology, adding too it research on cognitive psychology and the way in which such perspectives are deepening our understanding of the way humans make choices and process information about the world. His basic argument? It's almost impossible to summarize in a single sentence, but if I must, it's this: contemporary technology and economics have pushed us to accept as normal moving through constructed environments in which our ability to think steadily and productively about the sort of habits and forms of action which might actually add to our own individuality and thus to the richness of our social worlds have been crowded out, shouted down, made seem quaint and silly, by a constant stream of advertising, information, and noise. How's that? How to respond to this problem, and rediscover real individuality and connections with the real world? Read the book and find out.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Mid-Sized Meditations #9: Sustainability in Cities that Hold Steady

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Wichita, KS, is a large city, a regional center for manufacturing, medicine, finance, and the arts. It's also a politically conservative place, which means that you don't hear a lot of talk about environmentally sustainability coming from our elected leaders, and even less action. Still, there are numerous organizations out there, doing what they can at the margins of our local political culture. For all their worthy efforts, though, they can't avoid struggling with one basic conceptual dilemma, a problem which is tied up in Wichita's own largeness and situatedness.

Specifically, Wichita's size, its reality as a significant regional city upon which the surrounding farmland and farming communities depend, means that it can't--despite the wishes of some--imagine itself as revolving around local, agrarian, and independently sustainable practices. But as a city removed from the large urban megapolises, the global cities, the huge conurbations wherein the real nodes of international systems of finance, information, and energy use are located, it is also removed from the huge flows of people and productivity which shape the big global debates over climate change and other environmental issues. It's not Paris, in other words, nor is it a dedicated small town like Greensburg or rural collective like Dancing Rabbit. As is so often the case, when it comes to sustainability Wichita, like so many other mid-sized cities spread around the country and the globe--cities whose population totals in the billions overall, but who in each of their particulars hang around in the low-growth hundreds of thousands--finds itself wondering where it stands.

Last October, at a Front Porch Republic conference in Geneseo, NY, I met someone who had a possible answer. Catherine Tumber, the author of the wonderful Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America's Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World, spoke at length about the possibilities for local sustainability in places where, on the one hand, the local city leadership, much less the organized citizenry, has no voice at all likely to be heard on a national or global scale, but also where, on the other hand, there is far too much traditional economic development and far too much infrastructure-dependency to simply go green in some radical, self-sufficient way. As she spoke, and as I read her book, lights came on in my head. And when, about two months later, I had the opportunity to speak about sustainability at the Peace and Social Justice Center here in Wichita (presentation here, video here), I turned those lights back on our city, and every other city of similar size and situation that may be wondering what, if anything, they can do collectively on behalf of this particular common good.

My presentation linked questions about sustainability into broad concerns about Wichita's often fearful political culture, its slow-growth economic forecast, its resistant demographics, and its overall self-understanding--but the real focus of Tumber's argument, at least I see it applying to urban communities of this size, is the relationship between nature, food, and land which their physical and topographic context provide. In summary, her argument is that America's inevitable a low-carbon future (whether as a result of the hard and costly realities of peak oil and climate change, or because of a general cultural shift in the direction of greater environmental consciousness, or both) is simply not going to be best managed by the expensive technological innovations that large and wealthy cities are most likely to attract, thanks to their money and likely political receptivity. Instead, the biggest and most consequential alterations in our environmental habits are going to have to be those which involve how we feed ourselves.

Food, obviously, much be grown, harvested, raised, slaughtered, and prepared--and then (and this is crucial) shipped. For all the energy and enthusiasm which goes into local food production, and for all the possibilities of urban agriculture, the truth is that the great bulk of the human race is going to remain specialized urban-dwellers, not rural DIYers, and thus will depend upon others to supply their food for many years to come. And of course, this applies just as well to a great many that do live in rural environments, as they are often prevented from feeding themselves by the monopolistic economic structures of industrial agriculture and the restrictive patterns of property ownership in consequently results in. So a genuine, environmentally sustainable model of food production is going to need urban spaces that provide broad opportunities for commerce and trade, but not spaces so large that the costs of shipping sufficient food in to the people who live there (thinking here of the gasoline, the roads, the exhaust, the waste, etc.) cannot fit into the new reality. Where could those models be found? Well, there's one right here is south-central Kansas, for instance. As Tumber put it:

[T]he sparsely developed, more proximate, and often highly fertile land surrounding smaller industrial cities could be preserved for a revival of market farming....Compared with both recreational farming and traditional commodity agriculture, small and adaptive farms have the best chance of surviving in metro areas. They are better able to accommodate the haphazard, unplanned popcorn development of a city’s outskirts, and their presence helps control it. (pp. 52-53)

In other words, mid-sized cities potentially provide a practical response to those scolds who condemn agrarian thinking with the claimed truism that "sustainable agriculture can't feed the world." Granted that such critics are correct that "recreational," boutique farms, as valuable as they are to your local farmers market, can't produce enough food to keep the population alive--but traditional commodity agriculture is helping to kill off the planet's resources just as well. As many have argued over the past decade or more, it is the "agriculture of the middle" that is in desperate need of a route towards economically feasibility. Figuring out ways for slow-growth regional cities to orient their local food markets around the immediately available agricultural possibilities right there on the outskirts of their suburban and exurban developments, and replicating such methods across the country and around the world, is the sort of perspective which could flip the equation: rather than mostly distant, mostly progressive, mostly thoroughly urbanized elites talking about how places like Wichita need to embrace sustainability, it is just as possible that the whole sustainability project needs places like Wichita, because it is mid-sized, land-locked, regional cities like them which can productively "ruralize the countryside," as Tumber puts it (p. 42), in a way that massive global cities and extended urban agglomerations, however commanding a position they may hold over global finance, cannot.

What stands in the way of mid-sized, mostly steady-state cities embracing this approach and perspective? Lots of regulations, habits, political preferences, and questions of funding and economic transition, most obviously--but Tumber, in particular, points out two. The first is the fact that so many Americans are still captured by a certain kind of suburban dream. The dream she targets is a contemporary commercialized version of the environmentalist's idolization of "untrammeled wilderness," which results in developers selling the myth of pristine nature to their buyers. The suburban and exurban forms are, as Tumber very cleverly puts it, "greenly aestheticized" (p. 40): fountains and paths and nicely contained lawns and woods are built into these developments, using up space that could be used for small to mid-scale farming. So the people who want to pursue the manifest possibilities of more sustainable and localized food systems often find themselves confronting their supposed environmentalist allies, and having to make the case for an inhabited nature, for a truly rural economy, as opposed to pointless, prefabricated green spaces that may provide a home for some Canadian geese for suburbanites, but not cows or poultry or potatoes. Weaning people--and thus local political leaders and business investors--away from their (our!) low-density fixation, thus allowing for genuine mixing of not just urban forms but one's on the urban edge as well, is long-term goal here.

The second is working with government to get it to be responsive to this patchwork approach to sustainability, rather than falling back on the property-centric defaults that business interests prefer. As Tumber points out, developing food-based sustainability policies in slow-growth cities means dealing with "resistance from politicians and developers based on the long-established assumption that commercial sprawl is good for the bottom line" (p. 56). We see that here in the Wichita area quite clearly. The struggle to attract employers to the area results in some governing bodies making a fetish of "property rights" (as if the whole point of this particular struggle wasn't to create sustainable practices that are also economically sustainable and profitable to owners!), and looking suspiciously upon any local urban governmental practice that they think might "kill a development" of any sort, in any place.

The obvious fact that cities require tools that provide "a mechanism for informing neighbors about development projects and promot[ing] healthy communication among builders and residents" is ignored by these folks (embodied locally by the conservative-libertarian majority on our county commission); what they see in attempts to use zoning rules in a way to preserve a patchwork of spaces that could be turned to sustainability practices or at least ought to be protected from monopolistic building agendas are "city-centric" attitudes infringing upon the "personal property rights" which they see as foundation to our "constitutional republic." But struggles between county and city governments aren't anything new, and they won't go away anytime soon, since the agendas of those tasked with making productive use of the urban resources which power the economic and cultural lifeblood of a region, and those tasked with taking care of the interests of owners who want to flee the complications of city life while still making use of its off-shoots and resources, will almost always conflict. There is no easy way to avoid that conflict, and so our only option is to go through. That can be frustrating, especially when one is thinking in global and environmental terms; as one writer put it (unknowingly echoing Max Weber, I think) "the hard stuff of building nuanced and reciprocal relationships with people who can arbitrarily exert a lot of power" is never a pleasant task. But if we think that real, practical solutions to the looming low-carbon reality are going to spontaneously emerge from international agreements, as opposed to making real use of the landed resources right outside the windows of so many millions of people who live in small and mid-sized cities, then we are, I think, in denial.

A true local, mixed, food-oriented economy is one that would make use of--quoting Tumber here one last time--"the liberal populist-progressive tradition of decentralization, with its conservative instincts of independence, preservation, and fair play" (p. 140). It's a way of bringing up the need for local sustainability without driving people into a panic about government overreach and meddling outsiders. It's a way of thinking about the smaller, land-locked, agriculturally and naturally grounded urban environments so many of us live in as providing "strength in a truly democratic, environmentally sustainable national culture--not in competition with global cities, but with a fair claim to [their] respect" as well. Is that happening in Wichita, and can it happen elsewhere? I recently had former student of mine come and speak to my Simplicity and Sustainability class, and what he talked out was the small-scale agricultural and lumbering work he's involved himself in, and the entrepreneurial activity that he's contributed to and which he sees all around himself. Those who think only in terms of filling up Wichita with big developments attracting major investors will find his example pointless; those who think only in terms of fighting the huge battles over climate change on a global scale will probably think the same. But it is people like him, and dozens, hundreds, thousands of others, in cities of mid-size across the country and the world, who I think really are demonstrating the reality of local sustainability, and why it is our steadiness, our middling character, which is allowing all that to happen. The world will always need radical local examples of sustainability, and we'll always need elites that will try to responsibly address the macro issues. But in the meantime? Those of us who live in around the wonderful small and mid-sized, the decided non-global, cities of the world get to work.