Friday, January 20, 2017

Friday Mid-Morning Inauguration Day Video: "The End of the Innocence"

For today, for many reasons. Most sad--but some, perhaps, a little bit hopeful. Just remember what Dr. Manhattan said: "Nothing ever ends." We get up, we get busy living, we keep on keeping one. Always.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Five Best Books I Read in 2016

As I said in my previous post, this wasn't the best of years for my book reading. I read a lot, though not as much as usual, and not a whole lot of that which I read stayed with me, moved me, provoked my thinking. Still, here are five which did. Hopefully I'll be back to my usual ten at the end of 2017. Anyway, as usual, in alphabetical order:

As has been the case for the past couple of years, I read a good many articles, chapters, and books this year having to do with urban life, city government, and the kind of community which may or may not be possible in a commercial, metropolitan context. Of all those Steven Conn's Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the Twentieth Century was the absolute best. Not only was it a finely researched and excellently written work of scholarship, but it enabled me to see connections between the many different efforts by many different reformers over the decades to deal with the exact same problem: the suspicion that the highly unequal industrial (and, later, post-industrial and even more unequal) city simply didn't have the ability to inculcate into its citizens the requirements of a genuinely democratic community. Planned neighborhoods, zoning laws, decentralization, federal policies, urban renewal, the "New Urbanism"--all of it, and all of the philosophical, sociological, and economic work which informed each of those efforts, flows from this central, enduring debate. Conn's book is a wonderful historical resource for anyone curious about the range of positions on this debate out there--and as nearly all of us are, to one degree or another, city-dwellers, that's a curiosity all of us ought to have. Read some more ideas of mine which were informed by this book here.

This book by China Miéville was a gift from a friend of mine probably more than five years ago, and its been sitting on my shelf for all that time. Finally, something prompted me to take it down and read it--and I was, as they say, blown away. Perdido Street Station is such a fun, frightening, and fantastic adventure story; it creatively weaves together, via the fascinating creation of the city of New Crobuzon--a steam-punk wonder of rival species, political corruption, and bizarre technologies--fantasy, science-fiction, horror, and other outright weird and unexpected genre borrowings, and puts them all to work in a terrific story that, at its heart, is really a big old monster hunt, a classic Dungeons and Dragons story. I look forward to reading more of
Miéville's Bas-Lang novels in the future.

I don't remember when I first encountered Glenn Tinder's The Political Meaning of Christianity: The Prophetic Stance; given the fact that my copy of this book, which was first published in the late 1980s, makes use of a title which doesn't even exist anymore, I suspect I picked it up while I was an undergraduate at BYU, perhaps in connection with some class. But that doesn't matter--what does matter is that I'd read, and assigned to my students, chapters out of this book many times over the years, but until this year I'd never read the whole book all the way through. In finally doing so, I discovered a fuller picture of a Christian worldview that I've long been persuaded by (indeed, maybe it was Tinder who persuaded me in the first place): I call it a Lutheran picture, though Tinder prefers to speak of the "Reformed" tradition, as opposed to the "Catholic" one. To put it as simply as possible, Tinder argues that serious Christian believers cannot authentically hold that any human movement towards justice or equality is fully compatible with God's work in history, because God's work in history, and our comprehension of it, is structurally incompatible with the kind of work which goes into social transformation. That doesn't mean we shouldn't work for justice and equality; we should! But we need to do so hesitantly and regretfully, knowing that any effort to build opportunities for the beloved community all Christians should seek will both inevitably fail and will sow harm along the way. It is a tragic sensibility, and while I'm not sure how much of it I agree with, I find it powerful all the same.

John Scalzi's Redshirts is a complete goof, a wonderful meta-nerd-romp through the Star Trek universe (or one similar enough to it for all the jokes to still work), which in the canon fodder of every sleazy sci-fi television show figure out what kind of universe they're living in and attempt to fight back. I could quibble with a few of the elements of the story's universe-within-the-universe (for example, Scalzi has the outside of this story take place in our contemporary world, but honestly, television these days is much better than the 60s-style Star Trek he's imagining his heroes as fighting against), but why bother? I was delighted by this story, all the way through--and then, in a surprise turn, Scalzi provides three epilogues to his story which lift it above entertaining, and all the way into the realm of actual wisdom. Great, great writing here.

I read the first of Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching novels close to a decade ago, and like so many others, I fell in love with The Chalk, this particular little corner of Pratchett's Discworld, and all the people who inhabit it, most importantly Tiffany herself, the young Witch of the Chalk. I worked through all the novels as they came out, and when, with Pratchett's illness and looming death, it became clear--at least from what I heard--that I Shall Wear Midnight would be the last Tiffany Aching book, I was satisfied: it wasn't the best possible ending, but it was another fine, funny, thoughtful fantasy tale. But then, wonder of wonders: there was one last book, The Shepherd's Crown, one that Pratchett has essentially finished at the time of his death, but which he had still wanted to work on some more before releasing it. Well, his publisher has released it, and I am so grateful. This was the ending I didn't know I was looking for, but upon reading it, I realized I was: the death of Granny Weatherwax, Tiffany's rise to witch leadership, her mending (sort of) the rift with the world of the elves which was opened in the very first novel, and along the way, a wonderful meditation on aging, maturity, change, responsibility, and living life to its fullest. This year, I needed this book, and thus truly treasured it. And besides, Pratchett's humor never failed him; this final book, among many other delights, brings forward a mostly forgettable secondary character--Mrs. Letice Earwig--and in a few short scenes sets her up for a Margaret Thatcher joke so good that 1) I can't believe Pratchett hadn't been planning it through all the previous novels, and 2) it had me pumping my first in the air. Yes, it was that good.

The Five Best Movies I Saw in 2016

As I've said over and over, 2016 wasn't my best years. Lots of stress and sad news, and one of the consequences of all that is my viewing time (and, perhaps, my movie-viewing attitude) was limited. So this year the annual list is cut back to five. Hopefully I'll be back to my usual ten next year. For now, as usual: these are my favorites of all the films that I saw for the first time this year, whenever they were originally released. In alphabetical order:

The Marvel Cinematic Juggernaut continues to roll forward, and old fans and new geeks continue to line up. This year's Captain America: Civil War was a great action film, and included the hugely anticipated entrance of Spider-Man to the MCU...but as time has gone by, I think Doctor Strange sticks with me as the better, more intriguing, more complete movie. The flaws I found with it (so, what Stephen Strange mastered the mystical arts in a couple of months?) originally have seemed less impressive, and its strengths (a genuinely cosmic perspective on what it means for some people to have access to powers that are simply inexplicable, with all the desire and fear that would cause) have grown more impressive in my mind. Yes, I'm curious as to how Strange will feature in the next Thor movie and subsequent Marvel properties...but I also really just want to see him sent out to explore more on his own.

Ron Howard's Eight Days a Week was a delight, mainly because The Beatles were, as individuals and as a group, a real delight: ambitious, funny, smart, and, of course, enormously talented--something that they knew and were proud of, but not especially self-conscious about, at least not for all those years when they were moving so fast, playing so often, and breaking so many records that they hardly had any time to think. By using "the Beatles on tour" as his focus, Howard was able to show me things that I'd never thought about, and lent new insight to all sorts of trivia that a Beatles geek like myself already knew well. The interviews with various stars (Sigourney Weaver, Whoopi Goldberg) should have seemed like a distraction from the more original archival stuff, but Howard weaved it into the narrative wonderfully, giving us a glimpse of stars as star-struck fans themselves, and that, too, was a delight.

I think I had heard something of the controversy over Gone Girl when it was first released, but whatever I heard I'd forgotten about by the time I watched the film, and thus I was surprised by the evil twists of this updated and vicious noir film. True, the actions of Amy confirm to all sorts of misogynistic stereotypes, but I don't think those stereotypes are just invoked for purposes of generating audience sympathy for Nick; on the contrary, I think enough of Amy's backstory is efficiently shown to help us accept her for what she is: a bad and unstable person, who married a man far too weak and self-involved to possibly enable her to escape her own crazy. I suspect that any of the great film noirs of the past--Double Indemnity or Gilda or other similar film from so many decades ago, all with their own femme fatale--were they updated to the 2010s, would play out similarly, and that's to director David Fincher's credit.

The very best thing about the wonderfully written and acted Spotlight is that, with only one exception I can think of, it never played out like your typical "striving journalist challenging the system" movie; instead, again and again the movie shows the journalists at the Boston Globe doing their jobs, following through on mundane details, and thus being reminded, again and again, that seemingly everyone already knew about the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal--even themselves! But, until the right combination of misfortune, persistence, and journalistic ambition combined, they never put it together, never took it seriously, never were willing to tackle such a difficult story, which was exactly the situation that dozens, even hundreds, of victims and parents and administrators and enablers had found themselves in for decades. If Spotlight and its horrible yet banal story tells us anything, its a reminder of George Orwell's dictum: telling the truth is a matter of seeing clearly that which is right in front of your nose.

There were a lot of fine animated features that I saw this year: Moana, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Little Prince. But Zootopia was my favorite, for several reasons. First, because it was just so, so dang funny, and much of that credit goes to the brilliant voice actors they had behind these animated characters. Second, because some real consistent thought went in to designing the premise of the movie; from what I hear about a possible sequel, I wonder if the pursuit of a cute plot (look, Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde are a couple!) will lead them to disregard that good thinking, but even if they do, it doesn't undermine the careful imagination--different environments, different technologies, and different mores for different species!--which went into designing a world where intelligent non-domesticated mammals could all live together peacefully. Third, and most importantly, it not only didn't shy away from, dove right into questions of racism (species-ism!) that would of course plague such an imaginary city, and very cleverly build them into a smart and compelling cops-and-robbers plot. Yep, a great, great little film.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

After Trump #2: Getting Populism Right

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Coming to grips with what the 2016 election means many things, especially for those of us who are hoping to find in Trump's victory a wake-up call to think again, and better, about how to commit to and build up communities and connections which will strengthen our ability to govern ourselves in our respective places. But surely one of the most important is articulating, to ourselves and to our fellow citizens, just what we mean by "our places." This was an election that was won, after all, because the set up of the Electoral College enabled a small plurality of voters in a few states to shape the overall outcome, and those voters, whatever else may have or have not happened, were apparently moved to a significant degree by Trump's promise to "make America great again." But of course, depending on who you are (white or black, straight or gay, Christian or secular, poor or wealthy, immigrant or native born), that promise may well make no sense whatsoever--because for many residents of the United States, going back to whatever hypothetical point in time may or may not have been in minds of that plurality of voters would be anything but making America "great"; on the contrary, it would be, within their world of experience, making America worse.

Now America's a big place, with hundreds of millions of people; thus, it might seem reasonable to expect, when confronted with such a plurality of perspectives on what constitutes greatness and what doesn't, for politicians attempting to build a winning national electoral coalition to develop a moral argument, a claim about a unified (or unifying) virtuous path, an insistence upon a truly common good. But that, of course, would be giving American voters--and the very idea of deliberative democracy--way too much credit. Trump certainly didn't do anything like that. (Neither, for that matter, did Hillary Clinton, at least not consistently. The only presidential candidate who actually did regularly speak in comprehensive moral terms, Bernie Sanders, failed--partly due to the opposition of the Democratic party establishment, for certain, but also due to the plain fact that his message, in the restricted context of the Democratic party's caucuses and primaries, simply wasn't persuasive enough to key parts of that electorate.) Instead, his strategy was, to borrow from a fine but flawed book by Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism?, Trump engaged in a "moralist imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified--but ultimately fictional--people against elites....[C]onsider a remark by Donald Trump that went virtually unnoticed....At a campaign rally in May, Trump announced that 'the only important thing is the unification of the people--because the other people don't mean anything'" (What is Populism, pp. 19, 22, italics added). Trump, to his credit, knew where his people, his voters, were placed, and he did a superb job promising greatness to them...but perhaps not to any other people or any other places, anywhere else.

I call Müller's book fine but flawed because, while it really is an excellent, thoughtful, and incisive examination of crucial political developments in America and Europe in 2016, it fails in the rather straightforward task in showing why these developments ought to be called "populist." That they are, in common discourse anyway, recognized as "populist" is not much disputed--the number of Google hits which associate Sanders, or Trump, or Brexit with "populism" must number in the hundreds of thousands--but what that label means, and who it really applies to, and what voters and citizens (particularly those concerned about, as I said, self-governance) ought to think about it all is very much a matter of argument. Müller wants to settle those arguments, and to that end he has presented a coherent, persuasive diagnosis a development that ought to concern anyone who cares about democracy. But is that development, in fact, "populism"? Müller insists it is, but I am doubtful.

In his view, populism is a "permanent shadow" which arises along with and proceeds to haunt all complex systems of representative government under capitalism, where creative destruction and its resulting economic inequalities will invariably entrench divisions between socio-economic groups. It is not merely anti-elitist, but authoritarian and anti-pluralist, a demagogic insistence that there is an unrepresented and alienated part of population that possesses a moral authenticity which all other parts of the electorate lack, thus justifying the construction of clientelist movements and parties to reward "the people" with what is supposedly properly their own, through the top-down transformation of governing institutions so to better respond to their particular demands and sideline as inauthentic or unconstitutional or immoral the demands of all other groups. Müller further insists that this act of moralistic imagination does not arise from any kind of popular articulation or civic participation: "the populist...can divine the proper will of the people on the basis of what it means, for instance, to be a 'real American.' More Volksgeist, if you like, than volonté générale--a conception of democracy in which 'substance,' 'spirit,' or, put more straightforwardly, 'true identity' decides, and not the larger number" (p. 29).

That claim of Müller's is as good a place as any to dig into the assumptions his overall thesis depends upon, because most people--at least most politically informed people--reading the above sentence, just a little more than a week after the Electoral College officially cast the votes which assured Donald Trump's election, will likely find it hard to avoid thinking about the fact that Trump did not, in fact, win the "larger number" of votes, as well as the fact that many Trump partisans insist that the popular votes he did win reflect the wishes of an America which, even if numerically smaller in terms of citizens, deserves to loom large for reasons of territory, history, or culture. So does that mean the Electoral College is, itself, a populist institution, designed to invoke the spirit of America? That seems obvious wrong, both because it runs against the most obvious root meaning of the term populism--namely, an idea or cause or a candidate that is actually "popular"--and also because those who, however much they may dislike Trump as a person, are grateful Hillary Clinton was not elected president are quick to insist that the whole point of the Electoral College is prevent someone from becoming president by winning the popular majorities, and substitute republican deliberation in its place (something which, strictly speaking, hasn't formally been true since the 12th Amendment changed the function of the Electoral College, but that doesn't stop people from saying it). This confusion points, I think, towards the conclusion that while Müller's depiction of populism may intellectually hold together, actually employing it as a description of Donald Trump, or any other populist politician, requires us to cut across multiple other political concepts that have their own valence: constitutionalism, republicanism, democratic activism, and more. Müller essentially admits this at one point:

[T]he debate about liberal constitutionalism and populism suffers from several unfortunate characteristics. First, the discussion often becomes conflated with the controversy about the merits of majoritarianism (and, conversely, judicial review). Second, there is no clear of even discernible distinction between popular constitutionalism on the one hand and populist constitutionalism on the others. And third and most important, "populism" serves as a very imprecise placeholder for "civic participation" or "social mobilization" (and, conversely, weakening the power of judges and other elites). Quite apart from the vagueness of the notions used (or perhaps because of this vagueness), there's the additional fact that debates about populism and constitutionalism--especially in the United States--quickly turn emotional, with accusations of elitism or "demophobia" flying about and theorists accused of having bad "attitudes toward the political energy of ordinary people" or of promoting "ochlocracy" (p. 61).

Müller doesn't like things turning emotional; he wants to clinically diagnose populism, and show why it's a threat to democracy. But he's also a man with strong egalitarian (if not necessarily anti-capitalist) sympathies, and thus he is always at pains to show that he actually doesn't have any hostility to people democratically organizing around the idea that their class, their community, their way of life is being oppressed, and that they deserve leaders and policies that actually share in their wishes and experiences. So for Müller, folks like Bernie Sanders who really did speak moralistically about how the "billionaire class" was undermining hopes and dreams of "hard-working Americans" aren't actually populists, because they are wise enough to never make the "moral claim" that "they and only they represent the true people" (pp. 40, 93). By the same token, other advocates of challenging entrenched economic elites and special interests on behalf of sharing the wealth with the downtrodden masses were not populists--or at least, the ones Müller is politically sympathetic to weren't. Populists engage in "an aesthetic production of  'proximity to the people'" (p. 43)--so do President Roosevelt's contrived (but effective!) "fireside chats" count? Apparently not (though he does eventually grudgingly admit that the New Deal was perhaps "a form of 'neo-Populism'"--p. 91). In fact, not even the Populists of American history--the original People's Party--count as real populists in Müller's view. Yes, they claimed to speak on behalf of "the plain people" which they saw as the class of people from which the American republic originated, but they never "claimed to be the people as such" (p. 90) their moralistic self-presentation was never exclusionary or xenophobic in real populist fashion. So who, actually, counts as a "real" populist in American history? Well, Joseph McCarthy. George Wallace. The Obama-era Tea Party. And, of course, Donald Trump.

Frankly, I find all of this dissatisfying. Müller hasn't, I think, actually defined a set of ideas that have been employed to politically empower and enlist people in "popular" movements, but a particular type of quasi-fascistic outlook that makes use of populist trappings. Now, if that is what, in his judgment, European and North American democratic states are facing today, then I suppose the label attached to it doesn't matter as much as being able to properly recognize and respond to it, and his argument is very helpful in that regard (his observations about the role communication technology, identity politics, and more play in the growth of this kind of political program are highly insightful). As I wrote six months ago in connection with the populist rhetoric employed--I think sincerely--by Bernie Sanders and--I think, at best, clumsily, and very likely in fact insincerely--by Donald Trump, "terms evolve, just as intellectual packages do" (if you don't believe me, just go check in on the original opponents of the proposed U.S. Constitution, and see how their concern for defending "federalism" was working for them), and so "maybe populism now, unfortunately, can't be rescued from assumptions about a bottom-dwelling faux-democratic  (but actually authoritarian) style."

But as I also argued then, "terms have their own history," and the history of populism as a movement in American history revolved around a producerist vision of economic sovereignty that incorporated communitarian and egalitarian concerns in equal measure. That's a vision which Müller gives little credence too (p. 23), but which localists trying to build sustainable economic connections between communities, so as to enable them to govern themselves democratically in the absence of reliance upon often dysfunctional or easily co-opted national or global systems. The power that populist rhetoric has to follow through on Ernesto LacLau's insistence that "constructing a people is the main task of radical politics" is something which Müller acknowledges, but thinks is too dangerous to make use of; to his mind, renegotiations of the social contract is to be preferred to anything potentially transformative, since "a claim [by populists that] 'we and only we represent the people'...make[s] securing the long-term stability of a polity all the more difficult" (pp. 69, 98-99). Those warnings are certainly vital to keep in mind, grounded as they are in centuries of very legitimate arguments against majoritarian tyranny.

And yet, is it really the case that any democratically articulated program of transformation always depends upon a singular vision of the people, and thus an exclusionary one? By Müller's telling, yes--but there are accounts of populism which suggest otherwise, the most obvious being the original American People's Party which, as Müller does not deny, "united men and women, and whites and blacks to a degree that arguably none of the other major parties did at the time" (p. 90), which is, of course, one of the reasons Müller doesn't want them to count. I would be better, I think, to focus one's definition of populism not upon the implications of its rhetorical character, but shared substance which all populist movements are at least partly characterized by: a democratic demand, made by a particular people or profession or community or class, for economic respect, independence, and sufficiency, made under conditions of exploitation and alienation which result from the actions of elite economic interests. Such demands have a politically dangerous side to them, absolutely; anything that is informed even indirectly by Rousseau's observations about the democratic limitations of the social contract can't but allow for the possibility of such abuse. But to make that danger the center of one's definition, use it thereby to stigmatize an entire category of demands, and to take successful examples of such demands and redefine them so that they do not partake of the political danger...well, the result may well make for a tight and educational book of political history and ideas. But it doesn't, I think, get populism, and its potentially pluralist side, right.

Monday, December 26, 2016

After Trump #1: Getting Urbanists and Localists Together

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

So at the beginning of the month, when I finally got my election reflections out of my system, I concluded by re-iterating what I said back in November: that whoever won the presidency, the localist alternative to national dysfunction and decline will continue to exist as an option to be explored--or, better, as a demand that must be responded to. Since Trump's victory, the truth of that observation has been reflected in cities across the country. Urban centers, by large margins, did not go for Trump, and it's not hard to guess why: besides the fact that cities are, almost by definition, more religiously and racially diverse than rural areas, they are also the self-perpetuating engines of both global finance capitalism and the education meritocracy, both of which are synonymous with the sort of pluralistic, neoliberal system which Clinton, for better or worse, embodied. So it's not surprising that multiple large American cities--or at least multiple agencies, both public and private, within these cities--have called to resist Trump's agenda (particularly as regards immigration), and that there are people are looking seriously at how urban areas could both legally and financially pull off that resistance. Perhaps this is an example what a Front Porch Republic commenter called the left's "strange new respect for localism" (a respect which is much needed, that's for certain!)--but if so, is it a respect that the usual defenders of local government and local economies will support? My suspicion is that they'll need some persuading on that point--and the nature of city governments, and urban cultures generally, are part of the reason. So, as one small effort to try to organize my thoughts about politics in the Trump era, let me see if I can make the case for why urbanism should, and usually does, comport with localism, and thus why urban-sympathetic conservatives and radical and democratic localists, as we all face 2017, have much in common. 

Let's begin with the basic complaint that so many people have with city government--namely, as the old adage about "City Hall" puts it, you can't fight it. The assumption is that you'll have no voice there, no influence, no way to make your case, no way to seek any kind of reasonable compromise: you're just going to be subject to their red tape, their arbitrary rules, and that's the end of it. As someone who actually serves on a public advisory board here in Wichita, KS, I can testify that's not really true--I have, in fact, seen more than a few determined citizens and citizen groups work with government, make city leaders aware of issues, press their case, and come out winning in the end. But I also know that those circumstances stand out because they're unusual. The more usual model is the random citizen, diligently going about their lives, working at their business, doing their job, raising their kids, pursuing their goals--and running smack into some ordinance or rule or law, one they'd never heard of before and couldn't possibly account for. And when they turn to the relevant authority, such accountings are not forthcoming--just an edict to obey. The understandable frustration which this causes is magnified when the source is not the distant capitol, but a group of people just right downtown. So the anger of the restaurant owner dealing with city agencies, the construction company facing zoning regulations, the solitary individual trying to figure out why they're suddenly subject to the costs of their house being included in a re-drawn flood plain district--yes, that really is common enough to give life to the proverb.

But should we allow such proverbs, however unfortunately accurate they may sometimes reflect our all-too-human sensibilities, to guide our thinking? Especially if one takes seriously localist or republican ideas, if one believes that there is a real value in making use of local knowledge or in civic engagement within one's community, the fact that random inhabitants of a particular place may often find themselves flummoxed by the rules which organize said place doesn't seem like a sufficient reason to complain about either the place or the rules themselves. Unless, that is, one's underlying assumption is some variation on Robert Nozick's (or Ron Swanson's?) nightwatchman state, where the general goal is to minimize all government, no matter what it's basis. In which case, since presumably it will usually be some form of local government that one will most often run into--and hence have it called to one's attention and ire--and since over 80% of Americans live in some sort of urban environment, whether city or suburban, its predictable that city governments get the brunt of this libertarian frustration. And as much as we might prefer to think in terms of populist economic sovereignty or democratic subsidiarity, a plain old pseudo-(but not, I think, actual)-Jeffersonian (or Calhounian) defensive libertarian frustration plays a role in much American localism.

Anyone who has really looked at the history of American political thought knows this. Jeff Taylor's massively detailed Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism almost never mentions cities (his focus is almost entirely on the constitutional debate throughout American history over the power of the national government versus that of the states), but when it does, they're depicted as sources of a centralizing, regulating tendency, which was essentially the position taken by Thomas Jefferson, William Jennings Bryan, and many others sympathetic to the mostly agrarian, mostly pastoral (and, in practice, states-right-based) yeoman vision of American freedom. As he puts it early on: "Urban areas include their fair share of decentralists and big-city anonymity provides liberty of a sort, but agrarianism remains foundational to the dispersal of power and independence from the state" (p. 6). So if the true aim of liberty is to free the individual from the sort of sovereign restrictions and complications which states impose, one might correctly assume that cities--with their economies based on trade, manufacturing, and other kinds of financial innovation, thus prioritizing a concentration of distinct laboring individuals and commercial interests over the shared maintenance of productive land, all of which results in conflicts over property and privacy, which in turn necessitates that distributive and divisive arrangements be made--will inevitably be a major site of such restrictions, and thus are to be avoided by friends of liberty. The fact that, in the 20th and 21st centuries, those restrictions have at least nominally moved in an egalitarian direction doesn't make things any better, and in fact more than a few traditionalists might say it has made things even worse. All of which means that urbanism can't really be a legitimate expression of localism, right?

Except...wrong. Consider some caveats--first and most obviously, as I've written about before, there is the fact that cities are almost never, in fact, themselves sources of sovereign authority. As such, their authority may be experienced as centralizing and state-like--but it isn't, at least not entirely. It is, rather, based at least in part upon assumptions which are significantly more organic, historical, pragmatic, even anarchic and "appearential," than could possibly be the case in the imagined community of a modern nation-state. State power acts along lines that are justified constitutionally or contractually (or so we hope!), with a--usually, mostly--accepted civic identity and history aligning with the legal validation of its use of coercive power. While the edicts of a city borrow the form of such justifications, they nonetheless function in the lives of those of us who live in them (which is, as noted above, almost all of us) differently. Why? Because an urban context is rarely experienced as a national or state one, or even as a subset of such. Loren King, in his essay "Cities, Subsidiarity, and Federalism," noted that "when we imagine the coherence of a city, and when we identify with that city and our fellow residents, our imagined coherence and identity are grounded in visceral experiences of the elements of the city....the spatial integration typical of cities is not merely dense but multifaceted and often characterized by subtle forms of interdependence, both of which help to establish an imagined coherence, even a widely accepted identify of some sort, to the city as such." In other words, unless is already ideologically committed to the aforementioned libertarian minimalism, it is simply a social fact that the conceptual operation of urban organization and centralization is different from that of the state. You actually can go to city hall, it is a place that can actually be entered, and city council meetings are contexts where people can actually speak and (at least in theory) be heard--whereas Congress allows no such option to those who visit it, and is on solid constitutional ground in doing so.

The experience of urban interdependence and identification clearly is of a particular sort. Usually involving a degree of anonymity (which Taylor allowed was a not insignificant aspect of personal liberty), often not involving a deeply shared cultural frame of reference, urban interdependence instead fosters a kind of "cosmopolitan ethos." Now that very idea, if you take seriously the observation that an ethos can only be developed by a defined people who express and practice it, and that a defined people--a polis--necessarily have to be possessed of a place, may seem incoherent, not to mention in tension with what I just wrote about city hall. But perhaps that is the complicated truth which so many localists (perhaps in particular those of us reluctant to admit how thoroughly the developments of industrialization and capitalism have transformed our categories of thought) have a hard time admitting to ourselves: that cities, as sites of plurality and commerce and transformation, can have cultures, can have identities which function in at least a pseudo-communitarian way to make up for absence of a sovereign language or historical consciousness or cultural frame in terms of enabling all those city regulations to operate. Sure, the police officer's warrant and city hall's threats of fines enable them to do their work too--but not all of it. Those of us who take seriously the decentralist tradition Taylor writes about assume that Jefferson and Bryan and thousands of other advocates of localized, producer-based economies and communities were not wrong about the idea that, in rural and small town environments, there can be fewer, and thus more effective and less alienating and more humane, forms of government, because the people who make them up and are subject to them are more likely to known to one another, and share certain community-wide perspectives and expectations--they have local knowledge, in other words. Perhaps in cities that local knowledge is somewhat compromised by size and density. But the sense of the place, the shared and participatory identity which the patterns of urban life inculcate, the urban "crews" that Susannah Black has so thoughtfully described, and the foundation for understanding (and at least a minimal level of trust) which both supports and follows from all that? Just because the people in question came together for cosmopolitan reasons rather than due to traditions rooted in village history doesn't mean attachments aren't experienced anyway.

Will those attachments implicitly justify city governments in understanding themselves as serving a body larger than the individual, and one expected to impose a rational order upon its individual residents? Probably often. Yet those attachments will also guide the way that order will be conceived. In his delightful history of urbanism and its discontents, Americans Against the City, Steven Conn makes the argument that cities provide a home for cosmopolitan values which can take on an enriching and even rooted life of their own in opposition to the anti-urbanism more common to American life. Now pick up that idea, and combine it with the argument Jacob T. Levy laid out in his article "Federalism, Liberalism, and the Separation of Loyalties" (which later became a component of his excellent book). In that article, Levy emphasizes that an important aspect of the struggle for individual liberty against centralizing governments--and thus, presumably, the real point of any real  (as opposed to merely Confederacy-addled or individual-liberation obsessed) localism--is for individuals to connect themselves with distinct loyalty-generating and interest-establishing political bodies, which would then lead to effective resistance to larger patterns of governance. For Levy, this meant making a defense of those provincial bodies which have historically characterized federal arrangements--and which have, of course, regularly antagonized those committed to more creating a more efficient, more rational and national, system of rule. Levy originally wasn't very sympathetic to the idea that municipalities could play such a counter-veiling role, though not out of any anti-urban animus; he simply didn't see them as having a large enough population, a grounded enough constitutional legality, or a distinct enough economy to serve as a rival concentration of interests to distant and distancing states. As he commented, "if interests don't crystallize into something like an identity or ideology...it seems unlikely to suffice in [presenting an alternative to centralization]." However, Levy hedged on that claim somewhat in his later book, especially as he came to recognize that provinces, states, and counties often reflect a jurisdictionally and constitutionally generated point of view, and thus are often dominated by elites who have an interest in that perspective, rather than reflecting organic local agendas and priorities.
 And that comports with Conn's historical research, which makes very clear just how distinctive the cosmopolitan focus and urban patterns of city life have been in the United States. Maybe, in a country with a thoroughly nationalized media and economy, where rural provinces have been often bankrupted and de-populated by many of those same national trends, yet still possess the constitutional power to present themselves as competitive participants in the national game, perhaps it is cities and city life, and the distinctly cosmopolitan community attachments they arguably generate loyalty towards and identification with, which may provide the strongest challenge to centralization, and the most fruitful source for new localist energy and ideas. As Conn concluded:

[T]he cities that will do well in the next generation...[will be the ones that] have not lost their "cityness--they make room for a sense of civic identity that transcends the boundaries of race or class or ethnicity or religion....[The lessons they teach] in civility and diversity aren't simply feel-good exercises, either. They are essential for a functioning democracy. One of the real strains on our political system now is that, while Americans are mobile, or rootless, or disconnected (whichever your prefer), our political system is still structured geographically....If we want a democracy that works more effectively to define and then address our common good [and, I would add, that means the local common good], then we need to recognize the ways in which cities function to foster that. (Americans Against the City, pp. 303-304, 306)

One of the great obstacles of the post-Marxist left in the Western world has been its debilitating pre-occupation with and internal struggle over whether or how to attempt to build "socialism in one country"--or, to escape dated Cold War terms, how balance global struggles for justice against local needs for community. In this, the internationalist bent of many on the egalitarian side of things has been unfortunately abetted by individualists who see no need to recognize any economic borders whatsoever, much the political salience of localities. This needs to change. Defending urban areas as valid sites for the political expression of localist attachment and thus as a source of counter-veiling identity and democratic power is hardly a solution to global problems (despite the well-intentioned but goofy yammering of a few). But it is, I think, key for people who are rightfully concerned about what 2017 may bring, whether from the left or the right, to learn to recognize that the idea of urban resistance has more in common with the traditionalist defense of local spaces against centralization than they might at first realize (which is not necessarily a defense of all local traditions!), and similarly that urbanism's generally equalizing acts of regulation and organization are, no matter what Joel Kotkin and other defenders of suburbia say, simply not the same as state actions (which is not necessarily a defense of all urban regulations!). Many conservatives have prided themselves on mouthing decentralizing or subsidiarian truisms, without actually practicing themselves; too many liberals and progressives and socialists have, in my view, perhaps because of the aforementioned attachment to thinking in grand and international terms, taken them at their word and simply rejected the lessons which localist ideas have to teach the effort to build up strong communities. In the wake of the election, perhaps the ideologically capacious concept of localism will finally be recognized as not something simply agrarian, or simply urban, but something essential for getting through the systems break-down all around us.

Friday, December 23, 2016

What Christmases with Dad Taught Us (Occasionally Even on Purpose)

For us kids, it’s our first Christmas ever without our father, Jim Fox, around–because he really was always around, even if we were far away from him. He would be on the other end of the telephone line, and he would be in our prayers, and we would be in his. And for Mom, of course, it’s the first Christmas without Dad in over a half-century. There’s a gap in all of our celebrations, in all of our thoughts this year, whether large or small (probably both, depending on what else in on our mind at any particular point in time). I don’t want to add to that gap. Instead, I want to fill it, fill it with memories and reflections of Dad at Christmastime that are happy, funny, ridiculous, at most bittersweet, and almost entirely non-fictional. Going around to all the children, asking for things they remembered about and things they learned from Dad, associated with this season, this is what I came up with. It's my Christmas present to my family, to Mom and to all nine of us kids: Samatha, Daniel, Russell (that's me), Stuart, Abraham, Jesse, Philip, Marjorie, and Baden. And, of course, for anyone who remembers Jim Fox and who happens to read it, I guess.

December 23, 2016

Sam

“I remember the love we all had for the Osmond Christmas album [Sam is, of course, referring to the original 1976 double-LP version, not the later, truncated, no-Merrill CD version], and how we would listen to it all through December. Dad would say that their recording of ‘Sleigh Ride’ was not appropriate for the Sabbath...but we all still listened and danced to it. We still listen to that album today.”

When I describe Dad to other people, as I have done often over the past months, I use words like charismatic, confident, commanding, and so forth; I talk about his determination, his focus, and the clarity of his vision of life. The conclusion which most people immediately come to is that we were raised in a strict home–and that’s always a little hard for me to process, because while others may have experienced differently than me, I never really saw Dad as strict, as a hard-nosed rule-enforcer. Rather, there were the certain things just absolutely had to be done–like all of us going to church, for example–and then a whole lot of stuff which Dad was...well, maybe a little too busy to follow up on. He clearly had opinions about music, movies, books, art in general, but he was not Puritan, not someone who was going to make a federal case about a rocking Christmas song or two, even on a Sunday! In a surprising number of ways, Dad really did follow Joseph Smith’s dictum: teach them correct principles, and let them govern themselves.

Dan

“One of the great Christmas memories is the time of THE GREAT SNOW FORT up at Foxhill.  What an incredibly fun time we had building this awesome fort that you could literally stand up in.  In the end it was something like ten feet tall!”

After some investigation, we’ve determined that this was the winter of 1999, when Dan and Lori’s family, and Abe and Betsy’s, joined Marjorie and Baden and Mom and Dad for the first Christmas up at Foxhill. What an appropriate occasion for the storm! Everyone agreed that Dad may not have actually enjoyed cold weather itself, but he enjoyed the challenge of snow. He took pride and pleasure out of plowing up, helping others drive in it (multiple memories of Dad leading the way up to Foxhill in his truck as the children slowly followed in their cars, occasionally with him chaining the cars behind him to his vehicle as he confidently drove up through the snow)–and he loved being able to enable his kids to play in the snow, whether that was plowing a massive sledding hill at the house on Saltese Rd., or getting together, as Daniel remembers, with his kids to make a snow fort. Dad was a builder, and loved the challenge which nature posed when he aimed to impose his constructive will upon the world.

Russ

Of course, “imposing his constructive will upon the world” doesn’t have a perfect track record, because, you know, sometimes the world doesn’t want to be imposed upon, and resists. And sometimes you just have to declare a draw. So one year, at the house of Saltese, Dad really came through: he came home with a tall, sparse pine tree that had to have been more than 15 ft. tall, maybe more than 20 ft. As the living room in the Saltese home had an open ceiling that went way up high, we had room for it...the problem was, how on earth to get it into the living room in the first place? Taking the front door off its hinges wouldn’t give us any more space then just opening it; what about removing the sliding glass doors on the deck? Alas, that would involve some serious damage to the siding. So instead, we just bent back the branches and rammed it through, shedding thousands of needles and hundreds of tiny twigs everywhere on the living room carpet. But at least it’s inside! Then there’s the problem that we don’t have a tree stand that can handle a monster like this. So, get the ladder and some twine, and we’ll connect lines of support from the to the ceiling beams that ran across the room. It was very difficult to decorate, because our step ladder was limited in its ability to get us up close to the branches the higher we went, and I don’t even remember if we got a star on top (I’m not sure we could see it if there was one, anyway). In the end, we lost probably a third of the walking space in our normally huge living room, and the ceiling looked like there were giant spiders living there, but hey: Dad got his way! As he usually did. (Whether it was a way worth pursuing is, well, a different question.)

Stu

“One Christmas Eve at the Timberlane house, I was three or four at the time I think, I remember being half asleep late at night and thinking I heard Santa downstairs. I recall having the covers up to my nose, afraid to look at the doorway--I slept on the bottom bunk in that upstairs room. Finally I got brave enough to turn my head, and there was a massive shadow in the door. SANTA WAS LOOKING IN MY ROOM! I turned quickly away, a little scared--but also reassured. Santa was here--he was watching over me--and there would be presents. All was well in the world.”

I wouldn’t want to compare Dad with Santa Claus, or Jesus for that matter–but he really was a watcher, wasn’t he? He was a recorder of the family, always keeping track of what we were up to, following up on us, knocking on our bedroom doors, asking us about our thoughts and plans and activities. Dad geeked out over the VHS camera, just as he had geeked out over the 35mm film camera he’d had before that. He would sit and record our Christmases, just as he would record our family vacations, the trips he and Mom would go on to pick up their children from missions, and so much more. He was not, to be sure, the most skilled of cameramen; Phil or anyone else who has gone through the hundreds of ours of videotape which have survived the decades will testify of that. Similarly, he probably wasn’t necessarily the most skilled or compassionate or open-minded or witty of interlocutors; there are few experiences that any of kids could relate that wouldn’t, sooner or later, be brought back to a well-worn gospel lesson or something Dad learned from a business deal or a golf game. But so what? He was watching, listening, recording, responding–he was there. We always knew Dad was going to be there. As that really did mean that, “all was well in the world.”

Abe

“One Christmas that I remember very well was the one when Dad let me stay up WAY LATE with him, both of us watching The Sting on Christmas Eve.....me watching more than he because he was putting together Marjorie's MASSIVE Strawberry Shortcake Dollhouse....and it took the WHOLE movie. That’s a cherished just Dad and Abe memory of mine. I seem to feel like it was just the two of us there in the room, watching....but maybe another older person or two were with us. But definitely no one younger than me was there. It was special that he let me stay up with him.”

Dad was a busy man, we all know that. (I can remember quite clearly thinking, when I was just a child, way back when Dad was in a bishopric for the first time, “Why is Dad so busy all the time?”) And yet, his busy-ness never stopped him from, every once in a while, without warning, choosing to throw the “rules” to the wind and treat us with something special–maybe something one-on-one, something we didn’t expect, something which we treasured all the more because it was so unlike Dad. I can remember Dad shocking Daniel, Stuart, and I one time by offering to play a game of Dungeons and Dragons with us–we all have stories like that. Abe’s memory fits with this element of Dad. For all of us who have stayed up late assembling our kids’ presents before: can you picture Dad, with the instruction manual laid out beside of him (but of course he’s not looking at it, because he never did; it was just a way to get it out of the way), the movie playing on the television set, the rest of the room quiet, with Dad diligently going about Santa Claus’s work...and Abe–being judged instantly by Dad as old enough, and responsible enough–being invited to sit down and be part of the late night project? I can picture it–and it bugs me that I think I’ve never done the same for any of my children, instead preferring to send them back to their beds. Sometimes, you just need to be willing to change things up, I guess.

Jess

“Three years ago we had the idea to cut down a tree on Foxhill for our Christmas tree. The first year we went out was a success and we found a perfect tree. To our surprise and enjoyment, Dad had just made a batch of vegetable soup with sliced sausage. We were all cold and tired from the hike and cutting down the tree, and so our whole family happily devoured the soup with Mom and Dad. They loved listening to our kids talk about the experience of cutting down the tree, etc. Anyway, things went so well the first year we decided to make it a tradition and go again. The following year, Dad had the soup all prepared and we loved the whole experience again. We even came across a tree that had fallen and was blocking the trail. I and a few of us stayed behind after we chopped down our tree to clear the path. When Dad heard that we were still on the path cutting up a fallen tree, he jumped on a four wheeler and came to the rescue with a chain saw. He cut up the tree swiftly so we could all come back to the house and enjoy his soup.”

Going along with Abe’s memory above–Dad knew that there were things expected by us kids, and he knew that sometimes he needed to challenge us in our expectations, goad us, encourage us, push us...and then sometimes, he knew (especially as we got older) that he just needed to be there, and play his role, and allow the expected memories to happen. Dad was our ringleader in so many ways, but sometimes–in the same sort of treasured, unexpected moments such as Abe mentioned above–he would become a supporting player, someone who was ready to serve and support us as we went after our own goals, with our own families and our own plans. For someone with as inexhaustible energy levels as Dad, it must have been an odd transition for him to move in the direction of letting his kids decide things, with him being an enabler of us kids, rather than an instigator. That’s something which Melissa and I struggle with today, as I’m sure all of the older children (one of whom is already a grandparent herself!). But Dad sometimes knew he had to do just that, and did it very well.

Phil

“I am not 100% confident in this memory, but I believe my love for The Story of the Other Wise Man came from Dad’s love for that story as well.”

Dad’s approach to the gospel wasn’t doctrine and scriptures, doctrine and scriptures, doctrine and scriptures, all the time, even if it sometimes seemed that way. No, Dad also had a sentimental, even cheesy side–and sweet, simple stories like van Dyke’s (which other families confirm Dad did know and like, and would share with his grandkids on occasion) were an important part of his faith, along with all the books written by general authorities and all the books those general authorities themselves would often cite. Can anyone else remember the stories he would read, when we older kids were young, from He Walked the Americas? A bunch of Native American folktales, re-told and re-purposed, into something that he could weave into gospel lessons that he would draw out of the Book of Mormon. Ditto for this quaint, lovely, faith-promoting story of Christmas; it’s the sort of thing that fit that less remarked upon side of Dad’s own testimony of God very well.

Marjorie and Baden mentioned the same memory, or at least the same context for the Christmas/wintertime memories they shared, so I’m putting them together:

Marj

“Those one-on-one chairlift rides while skiing were so memorable. We had wonderful one-on-one conversations. I remember being on the chairlift with Dad once, just talking, and he told me that, for him, it was never a question of ‘if ‘ he was going to make $1 million; but ‘when.” He taught me about having the right mindset. And also, those trips showed us that Dad was the hard worker with the right priorities. One time, I found out that Dad had been at the office working until 2 AM, getting everything done that he needed to, so that he could take the following day off, to take us skiing. It made me feel so loved, that he would work so hard, so that he could spend an entire day with us.”

Bay

“Probably some of my more fond memories with Dad, winter, and Christmas are wrapped up with our skiing trips. I am scared of thrills in general so there was a lot about actually skiing that scared me. But Dad always stuck with me. We went slow but we had fun. Whether it was at Heavenly, Big Sky, or Park City, he was always with me, going slowly along, steadily. I think I finally left him behind for uncharted powder at Heavenly one year; it was only then that I was brave enough. Of course, it wasn’t just the skiing. I remember one time driving up to Mount Spokane in the red, old, stick shift Subaru. I was 15, I think. There is a spot on the way up where there is a long curve that meets up with the intersecting road. There is a stop sign before the road connects. I remember slowing a little and then just running it because there was no one around. Dad just said ‘no!’ with his low serious tone and I think I said ‘Sorry, I won't do it again!’ But we still had a fun day skiing.”

Dad was a constant teacher, even while doing something fun, something outside, something in the cold weather! But maybe even more important than what he taught all us kids, was how he taught us. Dad modeled for us the kind of teaching (patient, observant, conscientious) we should strive to make a part of our lives, and the kind of work (determined, efficient, responsible) that would be an essential part of that teaching–and, last but not least, the kind of disciplining (“reproving betimes with sharpness” indeed!) we might need to make use of in connection with that work and teaching as well. How well have any of us absorbed all these lessons which Dad taught us, and the example he provided for us, on those ski slopes and throughout all these Christmases over the years? (Particularly those of us old enough that we mostly missed out on the skiing years, grumble, grumble?) Almost certainly the answer is: not as well as we should. But we’ll keep trying–and fortunately, we have these memories to help us along the way.

Merry Christmas, Mom and everyone. And merry Christmas to Dad as well! Whatever else he may be doing, I’m sure he’ll spend the holiday watching, and working, and laughing, as he always did. Let’s all do the same.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

What I Learned from the Old Testament

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Recently a friend of mine shared a story with several of us about how he, while on vacation and with some spare time on his hands, decided to re-read some parts of the Old Testament. His strongest impression of what he read, he said, was that these were the records of a people struggling to understand what it means to no longer be God's chosen people--or, if they were still chosen, why being chosen did not protect them from being defeated, occupied, and driven into exile, their temple desecrated and their community destroyed. He commended a reading of the Old Testament to us all, saying that it would remind us of the importance of humility, and endurance, and maintaining faith and hope even while our assumptions about the world all around us are being shattered.

(Please, no 2016 elections jokes. I've heard enough already. Besides, my friend is a Republican.)

It took me two and a half years, but about a month ago I finally completed my long trek through the entire Old Testament (the Revised English version, with an assist from a lot of commentaries by Robert Alter along the way), one chapter at a time. My thoughts on it all? Overall, I would say my friend's recommendation was correct, casual though it may have been. I would add, though, that the best way to draw out that homily--in my pedantic opinion anyway--isn't to take it from the apparent authorial intentions of the narrative itself (as if there was only one authorial intent or narrative line in the OT!), but rather to recognize that, to a very great extent, the marvelous, meticulous, convoluted, confusing, millennia-long literary product which is the Old Testament is itself an important source for our concepts of "humility," "endurance," "faith," and "hope" in the first place.

Not that other ancient literary sources didn't also help lay a deep foundation for the gradual emergence of a real moral subjectivity, whereby we human beings are simultaneously conscious of both our own pleadings outward and upward and of the condition of our own heart as the source of those pleadings. Truth is, this remarkable psychological and ethical evolution had many ancient parents. (Which is, itself, part of the reason why reading the Old Testament in light of critical scholarship on the myths of other ancient Mesopotamian and Near Eastern peoples is so valuable). But because the historical Jesus, and thus Christianity, came from Palestine and out of the Hebrew religious tradition, the Old Testament's liturgical and prophetic literary legacy was carried forward through all of Christian and Western and modern European civilization. So that means the legends of Adam, the pains of Abraham, the dilemmas of Moses, the boldness of Miriam, the mourning of Aaron, the triumphs of Deborah, the sins of David, the perversions of Ahab, the warnings of Isaiah, the strategies of Esther, the crankiness of the Preacher, the madness of Ezekiel, the machinations of Zerubbabel, the haplessness of Jonah, the cursings of Jeremiah--and more importantly, the belabored, overlapping, inconsistent, sometimes simply fragmentary but often nonetheless powerful translations which relate all of the above to us, in all their messy, haunted, one-step-forward-two-steps-back repetitiveness--have shaped the way Christians like myself morally conceive of the world. The very facticity of these records obliges us to reconsider our beliefs, and then reconsider again. Or as the finest scriptorian I have ever known, Jim Faulconer, often reminded his students: as believers, we ought to "read, read, read, work, pray, and reread." Doing that stretches our acts of faith out--and given the canon of the Old Testament, that stretching will be lengthy and humbling indeed.

In other words, it seems to me, having read the whole blessed, boring, remarkable, ridiculous thing, that having the Christian story of salvation and judgment be connected to the OT's monumental and contradictory literary burden--a burden which most Christians either proof-text to death or ignore entirely, as I did for so many years--can give those who believe in that redemptive story an awareness of carrying a great historical weight. The salvation of Jesus is presented in the New Testament terms of a sacrificial lamb, a priestly office, a purifying fire; centuries of literary echoes and arguments inform each of those theological imaginings, and when we strive (or are forced by the hardness of life) to see something beyond the simplistic, we find that our hopes in Him cannot be disentangled from those forms either. And that, I think, means we cannot help but turn in upon ourselves and ask just where we have placed this story of Jesus's grace in our hearts, and more importantly why. We are the sorts of modern Christian believers we are--or, at least, many of us are led to being the sort of humble, enduring, faithful, hopeful, believers we ought to be--in part because the Old Testament, the bare fact of the whole strange and awesome thing, with all its commandments and condemnations and curiosities, its insistently distancing and yet drawing presence, won't let us be otherwise.

Well, anyway, that's that. I'm not a scholar of the Old Testament as history or literature; I'm just a reader. I already accepted the basic assumptions of historical criticism in approaching the text, so realizing the ambiguity and unreliability of many of these tales didn't bother me any. Mine is a faith more based on community and continuity that history and authority, and the OT gave me plenty of the former, even while complicating even further the later, so as a reading of scripture it served me well. Your mileage may vary. Still, would I recommend it? Of course! I mean, the election is over, at least insofar as the Anglo-American blogosphere is concerned, so what better thing could you do with 2017 (and possibly 2018, and perhaps longer), than sit down and read, from beginning to end, hundreds of interwoven accounts of the world's creation, its promise being vouchsafed to a particular people, and their constant interrogation of, enjoyment of, abuse of, abandonment of, and attempted reclamation of, that gift? (There's a lesson in that, surely.)

Oh, and all right, you want a ranking? Top Ten list? Fine, here it is. I mean, if Mormon apostle Bruce R. "Job is for people who like the book of Job" McConkie can do this, so can I.

The Top Ten Books of the Old Testament:

1. Genesis
2. Job
3. Ecclesiastes
4. Exodus
5. 1 & 2 Samuel
6. Micah
7. Ezra-Nehemiah
8. Isaiah
9. Esther
10. The Psalms

Feel free to disagree with my listing in the comments (though you'll be wrong).

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Election Reflections, 2016 (Part 2)

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Yes, I know the election was a month ago. What can I say; I needed time to recover from getting everything entirely wrong, didn't I?

1) Except, maybe I didn't quite get everything entirely wrong. I mean, all my predictions were wrong insofar as the national contest was concerned, but here is in Kansas it was a different matter. Governor Brownback's financially blinkered conservative Republican majority in the legislature continued the shrinkage which worried Kansas Republicans began to deliver in the August primaries, with over a dozen new Democratic faces elected, and leaving him overall with perhaps 30 fewer reliable votes in Topeka--not enough to overcome any vetoes he may issue, but enough to cause him serious (and much deserved) headaches. Solidly partisan states like Kansas go through periodic corrections in their dominant parties slowly, so I didn't really expect for much more than than what we saw, but that didn't stop me from being pleased. Certainly, for myself at least, it was a bright spot in an otherwise perplexing night.

2) Bright not simply because, as much as I'm willing to grant validity to the populist concerns that Trump and his followers crudely and clumsily piggy-backed upon, Trump himself--a self-aggrandizing tycoon and political neophyte with a history of narcissistic, undisciplined, self-serving, and sexist behavior-- is an appalling person to be installed in the White House. No, bright also because it provides a small bit of counter-evidence to the depressing reality that many political scientists and journalists coming to document: that local and state politics are driven by national concerns and trends, and not just in terms of the partisan incentives which guide so many seeking office, but also in the awareness of voters themselves. As Craig Ferhman observed "state races correlate largely with presidential politics--whether the voter approves of the president and whether the legislator belongs to the president’s party." So the fact that in a state where registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats two-to-one, in an election where Trump won beat Clinton by over 20 percentage, we could still see the largest swing against the supporters of an incumbent Republican governor in 25 years, suggests that there still can be circumstances where local and state politics are not entirely dependent upon what party leaders and media bigwigs cook up in Washington D.C.

3) All of which, unfortunately, doesn't change the fact that a clown car is going to arrive in the nation's capital on Friday, January 20, 2017. We've seen indications of what we can expect already--some smart promised appointments, some predictable ones, and others that range from goofy to sleazy to frightening. Tweeting falsehoods late at night, foreign leaders buttering-up to the president-elect's real estate holdings, and trumpeting state-provided tax-breaks as part of his plan to defend the working class (a prospect frustrating to both the left and the right): this is what the election of 2016 has brought us. One of my fellow Front Porch Republic scribes see Trump's victory as signaling, to at least some limited degree, the triumph of "Buchananism," which strikes me as a pleasing prospect only if one is confident that plenty of troops exist to support one's side in the culture war Buchanan so defiantly diagnosed decades ago; furthermore, the notion that Trump's election expresses the Buchananesque, populist, working-class, rural and isolationist sentiment that "our country is a real thing, not just an administrative unit and place holder until the global superstate can unite us all in perpetual peace and harmony" seems to me at least a little like the weird expression of top-down nationalist, patriotic, communitarian optimism that I remember many of us (myself included) being swept up in after 9/11, as President George W. Bush took us on a well-intentioned but atrociously planned and essentially unjustified pious crusade down a Middle Eastern rabbit hole. Under Trump, maybe it'll be East Asia? He's got a head start...


4) The arguments over the flawed political science and predictions (my own most definitely included) which left so many flustered that night and somewhat hysterical in the month since are far from resolved, and academic arguments being what they are, probably won't be for years to come. Obviously race and gender played a role in Trump's election, but what role and to what extent remains a source of dispute. Given Trump's harsh words for undocumented (and, it can't be denied, invariably non-white or non-Christian) residents of the United States, and given Trump's history of words and actions that often appeared to be anything but respectful of women as sexual equals, the assumption that this election would see a massive doubling-down of the coalition (African-Americans, Hispanics, single women, college-educated urban cosmopolitans, etc.) that had a lot of us, eight years ago, thinking about the emergence of a new "liberal America." Well, that didn't happen (though to what degree it didn't happen remains a matter of much dispute). The Obama coalition, for better or worse, didn't show up for his anointed successor, now matter how strongly he pushed for her. Misogyny? Voter restrictions? A case for the explanatory power of both exists, and I don't dismiss them; I want to remain conscious of my own blindness when it comes to evidence for certain explanations that I don't at first see.

5) Beyond the arguments over voter suppression and Clinton's lack of appeal as a candidate to a great many voters, though, there remains, I think, a key transformation in America's political culture that the Democratic party, nationally at least, has still failed to connect with, and which Trump only accidentally benefited from this time around. Until there is a party platform that can really give it life on the national stage, we can't know how pervasive the support for it may be, though the Sanders campaign obviously at least touched upon it. Two years ago, I mused that "There is a different mix of the progressive-libertarian and the populist-egalitarian out there, a different mix of what seems to be done best locally and what needs to happen universally." Keep in mind that, at the very least, overlapping majorities of voters in various states (though not overall) chose embraced the Republican Trump for president, and embraced what most of us would presume to be decidedly non-Republican policy changes by referendum: effective minimum wage increases in five states, and marijuana decriminalization or legalization in eight more. Many people are frustrated by systems--global and governmental--that continue to empower the few and exploit the many; maybe not a majority of the people, at least not everywhere or all the time, but a solid and electorally significant number of people who want change nonetheless. So until such a time that these views can be articulated broadly--and that time may never come; maybe technology and economic stratification have just changed the structures of our political culture too much for parties to perform that work any longer--we just have to put together localist defenses of those programs and opportunities which can allow for those kinds of creative, cooperative changes as best we can. As I concluded my post a month ago: "The localist alternative to federal decline will exist whomever wins tomorrow." Now that we know the winner, our angle of approach, as people concerned with building neighborhoods and communities of real mutual support, should change as needed--but not our direction. My old friend Matt Stannard put it well:

We have to keep building, building, building. Keep creating and converting worker-owned cooperatives. Keep creating and strengthening eco-villages, income-sharing communities, and community land trusts. Keep reminding cities and states that public banks offer independence from a federal government owned by Wall Street. Keep fighting every attempt to privatize the commons. Keep building cooperative culture, local currencies and time exchanges, strong social service networks and resource-sharing programs. Every time we demonstrate that cooperation works, the forces that gave us President-elect Trump lose.

Localists, unite! (I mean, what else can we do until the 2018 midterms, right?)

Thursday, November 24, 2016

"For We Are Here, But Little Time to Stay"



Yes, it's been an awful year for many of us, my own family at least partly included. But, thankfully, only partly. We still have many blessings. We have each other, we still have our jobs, we still have our extended family and friends, we still have--we think, we hope, we pray--a loving God who mourns the awfulness that we endure and sometimes, just sometimes, "appoint[s] unto them that mourn in Zion...beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord" (Isaiah 61:3). No planting lasts forever, of course--but for the moment, it's an experience worth being grateful for. So happy Thanksgiving Day, everyone. Remember to count your blessings, one by one by one.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Election Reflections, 2016 (Part 1)

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

With the exception of one big think piece on our almost-certainly-soon-to-be-POTUS, Hillary Clinton, I've been quiet this presidential election. I think that's because, in the midst of all the outrageousness and gutter talk, all the hysteria and invective, all the anger and angst, I usually haven't felt particularly upset. Engaged, yes--but not distraught. And that feeling of reflective calm has increased over the past week or so--it's not that I feel good about what tomorrow will bring, but I'm not particularly anxious about it either. Here's why, I think.

1) I've never really been convinced by any of the downright-apocalyptic talk we've seen this election. Not that I haven't worried about it; ramping up political disagreements to the point where both sides see the other as a world-historical threat to one's life, freedom, family, faith, future, and civilization itself simply isn't healthy; it makes respectful disagreement, and really any kind of civil discourse that much harder to maintain. But that's the sort of civic unhealthiness we've unfortunately had to endure for a couple of decades now. I can recall (as can many of you) the furious invocations of moral Armageddon from Newt Gingrich and the First Things crowd during Bill Clinton's sordid--but for all that, not too shabby--eight years in office; I can also recall the shoe being on the other foot, and many of my fellow leftists and liberals talking about how George W. Bush's re-election was nothing less than the end of the republic and the beginnings of an imperialist theocracy (which I guess didn't take, somehow). It is now routine for folks on the left to believe that the white Evangelical Protestant minority in our nation wants nothing more than to round up all the Mexicans, Muslims, and gays in America, and force them all into internment camps, and for folks on the right to believe that the college-educated agnostic minority in our nation wants nothing more than to round up all home-schooled children in America, and subject them to sex change operations. I'm sorry, my friends, but that's nonsense, all of it. The government of the United States of America is suffering from several slow-motion catastrophes, in the form of congressional dysfunction, party insularity and corruption, executive overreach, meritocracy-driven divisiveness, and an addiction to kludgey work-around solutions that have little democratic legitimacy and even less rational sense. Neither Clinton nor Trump are the climax of these many bad developments; they're both symptoms, that's all.

2) Which isn't, by the way, some milquetoast, High Broderistic sigh about how "both sides do it." They both do, of course, but the burden of the incivility and anti-democratic fury this year is absolutely on the Trump side. Clinton may well be--even when one tries to be as sympathetic as possible to her record and point of view as possible--an unimaginative, unethical, condescending creature of an elite, statist, progressive political machine, but she's at least serious and predictable, and at least appears to genuinely respect the institutions she wishes to direct toward what she conceives as the public good, while Trump is none of the above, and apparently has no sense of what would be good for the public whatsoever, and probably wouldn't have any interest in achieving such good ends even if he did. Hence the paranoia from so many of my friends about the polls: America's about to elect a sexist, ignorant bully and a hot-tempered Know-Nothing to the presidency! That paranoia is also misplaced; we're not. Sure, data can be read wildly wrong (just ask the Bright Young Things surrounding Romney in 2012, for example), but in all honesty, even if the FBI had indicted Clinton in for something having to do with her endlessly hapless e-mail behavior, as opposed to just letting her off with a warning, she still would be a favorite tomorrow, because being part of the Establishment means, well, knowing how to campaign, which is something Trump clearly never thought he needed to learn.

3) You want specific predictions? Okay, here:



(Yes, the likelihood that Utah will break the half-century dominance of the Electoral College by Republicans and Democrats by giving their vote to Evan McMullin is looking increasingly tiny; still, electoral geekiness and Mormon hope springs eternal. In the end, I think Clinton will end up with an even greater popular vote majority than Obama ever did, and totaling up the EV count tomorrow night, after North Carolina and Florida both go for Clinton--though admittedly, that latter may take a while to be sure about--will be just be a simply matter of running up the numbers.)

4) How will I vote? Writing in Bernie Sanders, I suppose. I'm too fond of my particular mix of republicanism-localism-populism-socialism to symbolically embrace with my single vote a dynastic representative of a liberal establishment which I happen to think gets many policies right, but achieves them in ways mostly wrong. Besides, the only pro-Clinton argument that I've heard which actually reaches past the Electoral College all the way into Trump territory here in south-central Kansas is one that insists Clinton needs a huge popular vote majority to repudiate "Trumpism." But that assumes I see everything about Trumpism as worthy of repudiation--and I don't.

5) Trump was a bad populist, in every sense of the word--but he did become, in his own self-indulgent, irresponsible, probably-never-really-actually-intended way, a voice for anti-financial globalism and anti-bureaucratic elitism, and thus a voice for community empowerment. His attacks on trade agreements and immigration policy were often racist, usually ignorant, and overall both toxic and demagogic--but at least he made those attacks. If it wasn't for Trump, the Republican party wouldn't be what it is today: a party trapped in a much-needed death-struggle over how technology, global capitalism, resource depletion, social and economic inequality, and demographic change are changing what we mean by community and the common good. I would have far preferred that death-struggle take place on the Democratic side, through the Sanders presidential candidacy, because then the possible bad results (and there are always possible bad results) wouldn't nearly as frightening. But you always need to look for silver linings, and so while the results of Clinton's election to the presidency and the Republican party's civil war are unlikely to present anything like what this nation needs, and risks exacerbating a few of our multiple slow-moving catastrophes even further, they are, on the whole, at least slightly better than most of the actually politically viable alternatives.

6) What does the nation need? Well, Charles Marohn has put it well: "We will have a strong and prosperous nation only when we have strong cities, towns, and neighborhoods. That kind of prosperity cannot be imposed or engineered from the top; it must be built slowly from the ground up. Scale our economy to those working at the ground level and we will see a true prosperity emerge from the fear and acrimony that is our national dialog." Which means, far more than the presidency, what I'm watching tomorrow is our state legislative and county commission races here in Kansas: because those are the people I, and everyone else involved in local politics, in citizen initiatives, in fights over food trucks and bike paths and school funding and all the rest, will need on our side, or at least will need to understand better when we oppose them. Is it arguable that Trump or Clinton might be a better prospect for local engagement? Perhaps. But neither president can do anything for thatching together our socio-economic fragments if there aren't citizens connecting with one another, organizing and fighting and celebrating together, in their still-existent communities, on behalf of such a rebuilding project. The localist alternative to federal decline will exist whomever wins tomorrow; while I'm happy about my prediction, I'm even happier--or at least even more unworried--knowing that there will be people whom I can meet with and work with locally, tomorrow and next week and next month and next year, regardless of what happens in the meantime.