Tuesday, August 13, 2019

26th on the 13th

26 years married, 13 years in Wichita, all beginning on August 13, 1993, and August 13 (or pretty close to that), 2006. I like the look of those numbers. 26 years is a good long time to be travel down the road of life with one person, and for all the accidents and bumps and detours and misunderstood directions along the way, I'm grateful for the journey. Love you, Melissa. Hope you have a wonderful day, and a wonderful next 26 years. That's my plan, anyway.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Local Socialism and Civil Society

[Cross-posted to DSA's Religious Socialism blog; parts of this post were previous published here.]

When The New Republic ran its package of articles on "The Socialist Moment" back in May, its cover art used Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to invoke the fictitious couple famously portrayed in Grant Wood's "American Gothic," almost surely solely for humorous reasons. But there is something to be said, I think, for why that juxtaposition seems humorous. Part of it is almost certainly that Wood's painting is tied in our collective popular consciousness with a homeliness and a particular kind of conservative Americana. And, of course, socialism in America is not so coded. Rather, "socialism" is understood as radical and cosmopolitan--not the sort of thing that can be reasonably associated with older, church-attending farming couples, right?

Let me suggest otherwise. Democratic socialism is, I think, at least potentially compatible with, and perhaps even capable of drawing strength from, the small towns and churches of U.S. society.

One reason to make this argument is to respond to false assumptions made by those who might otherwise be sympathetic to socialist principles. The two somewhat critical pieces included in the New Republic package are examples. Both Robert Westbrook and Win McCormick recognize the way that the extreme inequality of capitalist societies today threatens the basic freedoms that democracies require to function. But both are suspicious of democratic socialism's ability to deliver a certain type of positive economic freedom without also squelching the diversity and plurality that characterize truly free societies.  Instead of democratic socialism, they turn to the social democratic ideal of "property-owning democracy" advocated by John Rawls, or to the civic republican ideal of an economy firmly subjected to a communally (and thus culturally) articulated common good. In both cases, these writers are looking to push against oligarchic wealth in the name of defending the power and liberty of persons, institutions, and communities.  Democratic socialism, to their mind, rightly opposes capitalism, but does not take pluralism seriously.

There is some basis for that fear. After all, when you see self-described socialists like Sanders speak out on behalf of Medicare for All and other universal programs, you might question what, if any, space is left for distinct groups of people who want to do things—even socially just things—in their own communally-articulated way. (The debate over whether a justly socialized and democratized health care system would still allow for private medical providers or private health insurance programs is just one example of this.) Westbrook and McCormick are not alone in thinking that many socialists have answered that question with a much-too-casual "none" in the past. But other—I think better—socialist thinkers have long recognized the failures of doctrinaire Marxism and instead insisted upon the "primacy of politics." In Sheri Berman words, this means acknowledging the place of a pluralistic, localized civil society in the overall socialist order and for real democratic debate and diversity within it. It means abandoning the dream of a perfect, rationally-unfolding socialist moment in favor of what Michael Walzer called an always contested "socialism-in-the-making."

We serve socialism poorly by failing to recognize how much of the opposition of conservative people, rural people, and most particularly church-going people to democratic socialism is the result of the sense that there would be no space under the socialist order for their communities and traditions. Given that many of those traditional beliefs and local practices are inegalitarian or exclusionary, why should we take their fears seriously? Well, perhaps because, when properly understood, at least a few of their fears are similar to our own. For example, some conservative thinkers recognize that what most threatens their familial and traditional aspirations isn’t the promise of democratic liberation and socialist equality; rather, it is the homogenizing individualism and consumerism of our corporation-dominated world. As Alan Jacobs, one such conservative, put it: "What [we traditional Christians] are battling against isn't a form of socialism....I would argue rather that it’s the ultimate extension of the free market—a kind of metaphysical capitalism. The gospel of the present moment is...'I am my own.' I am a commodity owned solely by myself; I may do with this property whatever I want and call it whatever I want." This libertarian attitude, however much it may sometimes seem compatible with the freedom that democratic socialism delivers, is, I think, one that anyone who takes genuine social liberation seriously cannot accept. Thus in at least a few small ways, socialists and certain conservative thinkers may be said to occupy a similar space.

I am not suggesting some grand communitarian-traditionalist-socialist alliance here, at least not without a great deal of careful theoretical exploration and clear limitations (some of which I’ve attempted in the past, under the title “left conservatism”). However, I am insisting that advocates of democratic socialism hurt themselves in the realm of political debate, and misunderstand themselves in the realm of ideas, when they present socialism as too universal, and too rational, to ever be republican in the classic sense: that is, attentive to the res publica, to people where they live. Economically, that's a silly argument: democratic socialism is about freeing people from the social power that prevents them from being able to make the choices and live the places and maintain the ways of life that they choose and love. But structurally and morally, the question remains. Will socialism allow for local democracy, even if that local democracy reflects the belief systems of local, perhaps traditional, perhaps religious majorities? That's a hard question. It is easy for socialists to see the value of church communities that are purposively engaged in social justice; it is less easy for us to acknowledge that the social empowerment of people, their liberation from economic tyranny, is a good thing itself, even if the resulting political and moral choices of those of faith don't match the egalitarian ideal. To quote Michael Walzer again:

The true home of socialism-in-the-making isn't the government; it is the political space that exists outside the government....The space is always contested, and the locus of the contests is civil society. Civil society is, like the state itself, a realm of inequality, where the powerful get more powerful and the rich get richer. Every civil association, every organized group of men and women, is also a mobilization of resources....This is an obvious story, but it isn't the whole story. Civil society is simultaneously a realm of opportunity for democratic and egalitarian activists....More than half a century ago, the British social theorist A.D. Lindsay described the "dissenting" Protestant congregations of 18th- and 19th-century Britain as schools for democracy. They were that, but they had intrinsic as well as instrumental value--and that is true today of all the associations of civil society that engage the energy and idealism of their members.

Note that this isn't an argument that civil bodies, once truly socially empowered, wouldn't be or shouldn't be changed by being more thoroughly economically integrated with the rest of society. They would be, and they should be—the most obvious reason for which being that no social organization, churches included, can ever, or should ever, fully go at their participatory tastks alone. And so the community group or faith organization that seeks its own approach to addressing social problems—housing the sick, treating the addicted, protecting the weak, listening to the ill—will be part of the larger network of other groups, large and small, doing the same thing, and such networks would profoundly—and democratically—shape practices and beliefs over time. But still, a recognition of the intrinsic value of what every church congregation, every faith-based community, every local or traditional body does when they become of part of socialism-in-the-making suggests that democratic socialism, unlike late capitalism, won't fundamentally homogenize all variety out of social life.

So, does that mean that a community, church, and local property-respecting socialism will be a patchwork, filled with distinctions and differences from one place to the next? Within limits, probably yes. Indeed, I'm not sure how one can admit that political debates will still exist under socialism and not admit to such actual public or regional or faith-based diversity. Those socialists who would restrict diversity solely to a specific set of identities and deny that social equality can accommodate religious or cultural or spatial diversity as well are, I fear, failing to understand the place of what could be—and historically often have been—one of our strongest potential allies in keeping anti-capitalist and genuinely social and egalitarian values alive.

Back in January, Erik Olin Wright, a brilliant and profoundly original socialist thinker, writer, and organizer passed away. His book Envisioning Real Utopias had an enormous impact upon me; when I first read it, I found myself explaining and re-explaining its ideas to myself and everyone I met for months. The most important thing it did was explain how the Marxist shadow over socialist and all other forms of utopian thinking has too often kept thinkers on the left from recognizing the obvious: that what we want to do is empower civil society. That is, we are looking to make the mutual support that communities provide stronger, and to make our social and economic worlds more democratic. Hence we leftists need to be guided, first and foremost, by a "socialist compass," and we need to recognize everything that falls within that compass, including what he called "interstitial" entities and strategies—what a non-sociologist might call the thousands of initiatives and organizations which provide spaces wherein civil society, and not capital, rules. He acknowledged that the more doctrinaire Marxist thinkers would see these as a distraction from the longed-for revolution, but insisted that their emancipatory potential is nonetheless real. And as for those civil associations that strengthen community and provide shelter from the hyper-individualism of liberal capitalism through particularist, sometimes exclusionary, religious means? Should the Salvation Army’s gift drives or the Catholic church’s drug treatment centers, both of which have socially empowered and shared wealth many hundreds of thousands, be crushed by the rationalizing and centralizing Red Guards of some new socialist state? Well...no. As Wright explained:

A vibrant civil society is precisely one with a multitude of heterogeneous associations, networks, and communities, built around different goals, with different kinds of members based on different sorts of solidarities....It is tempting to deal with this...by somehow defining civil society as only consisting of benign associations that are consistent with socialist ideals of democratic egalitarianism....I think this is an undesirable response....There is no guarantee that a society within which real power rooted in civil society predominates would be one that always upholds democratic egalitarian ideals. This, however, is not some unique problem for socialism; it is a characteristic of democratic institutions in general. As conservatives often point out, inherent in democracy is the potential for the tyranny of the majority, and yet in practice liberal democracies have been fairly successful at creating institutions that protect both individual rights and the interests of minorities. A socialist democracy rooted in social empowerment through associations in civil society would face similar challenges...My assumption here is not that a socialism of social empowerment will inevitably successfully meet this challenge, but that moving along the pathways of social empowerment will provide a more favorable terrain on which to struggle for these ideals than does either capitalism or statism (Envisioning Real Utopias, pp. 145-148).

I can imagine many socialists seeing the foregoing as a lot of murky meanderings. I find it beautiful: an olive branch to everyone who wants civil bonds to flourish, equal respect to increase, and communities to be strengthened. To voice such egalitarian goals in terms of community strength and stability might seem scarily traditional to some advocates of the socialist cause. They—we—should get over that fear. Democratic socialism, whatever else it is or could be, needs to be about taking root and building up a sense of equality and justice in particular places, through the beliefs and practices of particular people. Would that mean granting churches and communities that preach white supremacy or the prosperity gospel or conversion therapy or any other deeply unjust and unequal message the freedom to dominate others? Certainly not! But admittedly, distinguishing between churches and communities whose local empowerment has crossed the line into oppression (for example, a self-sustaining Amish farming community which declines to participate in a national health service on the one hand, an immigrant association that teaches female genital mutilation in its new parent classes on another) will not always be easy, or without the need for constant reconsideration as times and needs change. If, however, democratic socialists truly do wish to acknowledge the plurality of those human desires that real equality and respect will allow, working to find a way to make the most of the best which particularist communities and their believers can offer is necessary. And not only necessary, but beneficial, as the richness of civil society is, I strongly suspect, much more ennobling than many socialists may expect.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

The Wichita Mayoral Race: Winners and Losers

[For anyone interested, here is the original and somewhat more detailed version of my editorial on Tuesday's primary, which appeared in The Wichita Eagle this morning.]

The mayoral primary is over; let’s run through some of the winners and losers here:

Winner: State Representative Brandon Whipple. He was the first major challenger to Mayor Jeff Longwell to announce his candidacy, and as a longtime state representative, with a strong basis of support in his south Wichita legislative district, and a record as a moderate Democrat--or, more accurately, a fairly progressive Democrat on most social issues, and a fairly conservative Democrat on most fiscal issues--he had good name recognition and media exposure from the start. But of the three major candidates (Lyndy Wells being the third), he raised the least amount of money, though he had the most small-dollar donors. With both Longwell and Wells outspending him, and with the distraction of the small but sometimes angry fight between different factions in the local Democratic party (see below), resulting in some Democrats attacking the Whipple campaign, he probably had reason to worry about voter turn-out (also see below). In the end, though, the hard work of Whipple, his family, and his team paid off.

Losers: certain Democrats. Of course, city elections here in Wichita are (unfortunately, in my view) officially nonpartisan. But for all sorts of obvious reasons, party politics remains central to most serious candidates' abilities to raise money, develop a message, and connect with voters. And so, predictably, people invested making those connections always have their own opinions and priorities, and want to make certain party connections serve as a vehicle for their priorities, not someone elses.

As it happened, in this election there was a small but bitter fight–conducted almost entirely behind the scenes; with the exception of a single article in The Wichita Eagle, if you weren't a professional activist or politician or part of certain social media networks, you likely missed it entirely–over whose priorities would guide those voter connections. It isn't easy to tell exactly who was responsible for what being said or done in this fight (though there's plenty of accusations going around); hence my reference to “certain” Democrats. The point is, there were Democrats who supported Whipple’s campaign, and there were Democrats who supported Wells, or even Longwell, despite both being Republicans. Part of the reason for the fight is clearly ideological, rooted in ongoing arguments within not just the local Democratic party, but the state and national one as well, going back to the Clinton-Sanders fight of 2016 and dealing with, among other things, how (or if) the party should push its increasingly progressive priorities in conservative parts of the country. Looking at it this way highlights some real curiosities--for example, the fact that Whipple, who has a doctorate, wrote his dissertation on exactly this topic.

But ideology may only be a small part of the fight; more likely, what happened was mostly generational, with Whipple and many members of his team skewing young (the fact that his election night party was held at a downtown LGBTQ-friendly bar is just one indication), while some of the prominent figures who opposed him being people who have worked with the party for decades. Or if its not about the old guard and the new guard, then it's about personal and campaign styles, with some Democrats confident in their longstanding approach to Kansas's mostly conservative voters, and others wanting to flip that script. These are all serious issues, and it’s unfair to reduce it to a couple of paragraphs. But however you read it, the facts remain: going into the general election, certain–not many, but definitely at least a few–prominent local Democrats are going to be feeling angry, embarrassed, or frustrated; whether they stay on the sidelines, jump ship, or eat some crow and join Team Whipple remains to be seen.

Winner: Getting out the vote. GOTV operations are, for all their permutations over the decades, pretty much inseparable from the whole mystique of mass political parties throughout American history. And yet, there has hardly been a single election cycle over the last 20 years when someone hasn’t made the claim that the ground-game of politics is passé. Certainly it is easy to be convinced by expensive advertising campaigns, by the omnipresence of social media, and by massive party polarization, that perhaps the day of door-knocking is finally, truly over.

While primary election contests are different from general election contests in a dozen ways, I think one can nonetheless count this tiny election--with less than 10% of registered voters bothering to cast a ballot, which is unfortunately typical--is evidence against that thesis. Longwell had the advantage of incumbency and his record as mayor to promote, and Wells enjoyed the endorsement of many major players and organizations throughout Wichita (including the Eagle!). The big money and “establishment” narratives were nearly all on their sides. But GOTV cares little about narratives; it cares about making sure potential voters are “touched” by campaign workers directly, again and again. That operation, probably more than anything else, enabled Whipple to squeak by Wells, and advance to challenge Longwell in November.

Winner and Loser: Mayor Jeff Longwell. Obviously he’s not really a loser: he not only was one of the two winners of the primary, he was the one with the most votes–32% for him, compared to Whipple’s 26%. And that was with the mayor’s campaign very much in low gear (in contrast to what it will surely be the case for the general); he spent less than half of the money he raised for the race, after all. But nonetheless, you have to see the big picture: his record as mayor inspired a major challenger from within his own political party, and he barely had the support of 1/3rd of the primary voters. True, he can look back at his 2015 primary win, when he advanced with only 28% of the vote, and went on to be elected mayor. But in that case, he wasn’t the incumbent. By comparison, incumbent mayor Carl Brewer won 77% of the vote in the 2011 primary, before cruising to re-election, while incumbent mayor Carlos Mayans came out of the 2007 primary with only 26% of the vote, and went on to an embarrassing loss.

None of this takes away all the obvious advantages Longwell will enjoy in November. His record as mayor is obviously positive to many (it's probably not a coincidence that a ceremony honoring the completion of one major part of the baseball stadium which, for better or worse, is bound to be Longwell's greatest legacy, took place the day after the election). But looking at the results on Tuesday night, I suspect our mayor didn’t feel quite like the winner he would have prefer to have been.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Listening to Macca #7: Press to Play

Mid- to late-1980s McCartney was, I suspect, trying really hard, and just getting frustrated with what he likely thought were paltry results. He was in his 40s, media opportunities and technology was exploding all around him, and he surely wanted to be a part of it. He wrote a slight, over-synthed (though with a fine bass line) pop number, "Spies Like Us," for what was anticipated to be a big hit comedy in 1985, but the reviews were terrible (deservedly so), making the song something of an embarrassment. He was recruited to be the final performer at the British half of Live Aid, the biggest pop and rock concert spectacle ever up that time (and maybe ever since), and for two full minutes his microphone wasn't properly turned on (not to mention that the stars who played his back-up singers couldn't--or wouldn't--harmonize on "Let it Be"). The story that I remember hearing at the time was that it solidified his determination never to tour or play big concerts again. (At that point, it had already been nearly 10 years since he'd last gone on tour.) Obviously I'm imposing a narrative upon a diverse events more than 30 years in the past--but still, to me it makes sense. The decade that had started with him apparently finding some new creativity and resolve as Wings finally dissolved, unfortunately seemed to be slogging towards its end with Macca just not able to do what once came naturally, or so I imagine it must have felt to him.

All this is essentially an introduction to my giving Press to Play, his way overproduced 1986 album, a D+--a lower grade than what I gave his barely-there first solo album McCartney or his somewhat desperate final Wings albums, London Town and Back to the Egg; the only work by Macca I think is worse is the embarrassing McCartney II. And that really makes no sense! McCartney was genuinely sweating it in the studio with this album, collaborating with some great pop/rock musicians--The Who's Pete Townshend, Genesis's Phil Collins, 10cc's Eric Stewart. And the album's 13 songs cover a lot of territory; this isn't Macca noodling around with a couple of loose ideas and themes and calling it good. I can recognize the work here, and I've tried to respect that; I've genuinely tried harder to like this album more than any other McCartney production I've listened to all year (I've certainly given it more listens, at least, than any of the others). But I'm sorry--I'm sure the album has its defenders, but to my ear, the hooks just aren't there. It is far, far less than the sum of its parts.

Sure, there are moments of really cool instrument work or surprising melodies throughout the album. The soaring bridge in the midst of the sappy ballad "Only Love Remains"; the propulsive beat at the beginning of "Move Over Busker," before it gets lost in an busy wall of sound; the great wacka-wacka guitars buried by a bunch of unnecessary strings towards the end of "Tough on a Tightrope"--all very good. But overall, few of the songs leave you with anything after they're finished. "However Absurd" probably has a wonderful, introspective song somewhere inside all the hollering and synth horns. I wish McCartney had come up with "Angry" when he'd been working with Stevie Wonder a couple of albums previously; he might have been able to brings its vague R&B feel forward. And I wish the delightfully poppy "Feel the Sun" had been fully developed, instead of being tacked onto the end of the unmemorable "Good Times Coming." I'll admit his vocal work on the Memphis-style burner "Stranglehold" is pretty wonderful, but the saxophone honks drive me nuts. "Pretty Little Head" is, well, clearly trying to be a Peter Gabriel song, so why not just give it to him to sing it? And the album's sole radio hit, "Press"? It's got a groove, but mainly I just remember the video.

In the end, I was frustrated by Press to Play; it should have been at least a decent album, but it really isn't. There's nothing on it that I could fairly call "bad," yet all of it is, I think, completely disposable nonetheless. A wasted effort. So what next for Macca? Well, I'm going to end this entry with just one album, because it seems to me the obsessively productive McCartney, circa 1988-1993, needs an entry separate from this misfire. What did he do? In short order he got back to touring; he released albums of electronic music, classic rock-and-roll standards, acoustic recordings, and a classical oratorio; and he hooked up with a song-writing partner who, by all accounts, was the first person to actually constructively challenge McCartney in the studio in more than 20 years. August will be a busy month, but it'll get the taste of Press to Play out of my mouth.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Listening to Macca #6: Pipes of Peace and Give My Regards to Broad Street (Album and Film)

After multiple re-listenings, I can't help but feel that these two albums give us a McCartney that is fully of the 1980s; that's just the best way to put it. Pipes of Peace has its roots in leftovers from the recording sessions of the amazing Tug of War, but as he continued into the decade, it seems like the hungry, sometimes funky, sometimes brassy, spirit of that album was smoothed over, as Paul got leveraged and diversified and streamlined with the corporate mood of the times. That's unfair, of course, but still--once he was jamming with Stevie Wonder, now he's making syrupy, lite-funk pop with Michael Jackson? Once he was seemingly in recovery from the exhausting attempts to get more out of Wings than it might have been able to give (or he might have been willing to accept from it), now he's making movies and cartoons (it's not bad, actually) and is all over MTV. That's probably unfair, but I just couldn't help but see Macca, circa 1984, as a product. It'll be interesting to see if that impression lasts.

Pipes of Peace didn't get harsh reviews, for the most part, but it didn't get good ones either, and I concur with that sentiment; it's a C album, maybe C+ at most. The title track has grown on me some; its middle section, in particular, has a wonderful martial melody to it, with a good use of pipes and percussion. But it's still ultimately just an okay pop song, the same as can be said for "The Other Me" or "Average Person." "Keep Under Cover" has a nice funky groove, and "So Bad" is almost sultry, something McCartney really almost never achieves (I think the effect is primarily due to Ringo's steady, subtle, pressing drum sound). Other than that, I just don't think "Say Say Say" has worn well at all, and "The Man" doesn't use MJ's talents particularly well, in my opinion. (If you're going to turn a song into a hand-clappy, chorus-heavy number, then Macca should have gotten the whole Jackson 5 involved.) I think the best cut in the whole album is the jamming number he composed with Stanley Clarke; considering what I said last month about McCartney's skill with the bass, it's fun to hear him trade licks with Clarke, a jazz-fusion bassist extraordinaire. (Also, "Ode to a Koala Bear," another bit of Macca silliness which he actually turned into a pretty great number, should have been on the album, rather than a B-side.)

Give My Regards to Broad Street is just kind of a limp project, I'm afraid--not terrible, once again, but also not very good."No More Lonely Nights" was deservedly a solid pop hit, but the only other new songs on this soundtrack album, are "Not Such a Bad Boy" and "No Values," both of which are forgettable. McCartney obviously was more enveloped in the actual movie and in producing new versions of previous hits; of all of those, the only one which really is really pretty wonderful is "Ballroom Dancing," which gets turned into a fabulous, jamming, classic rock and roll number. "No More Lonely Nights" itself (or at least segments of it) appears on the album in three different versions, as both a country-western tune and, in a long close-out to the album, as an extended disco number. It's not bad, but not really worth the price of the album. But if you want to hear every version there is of "Silly Love Songs" or  "For No One," it's not worthless. Maybe a C-, I say.

Oh, and the movie? Kind of terrible. Jokes that don't work, line-readings that are unconvincing, and extended dream sequences that are more goofy fan-fic than anything that propels this half-ass film along cinematically. (Did we always want to see Paul, Linda, and Ringo play out a Sherlock Holmes drama in Edwardian garb? Yes, of course we did.) I watched the whole thing, but that's so you don't have to.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Where Does "Restoration Christian" Authority End, and "Mormon Christian" Authority Begin?

[I recently was invited to speak about Mormonism and authority at local ecumenical Christian conference here in Wichita, sponsored by the Eighth Day Institute during their annual "Florovsky-Newman Week." I've done stuff with Eighth Day a few times before, but this was a real challenge, talking about Joseph Smith and the Mormon doctrine of apostasy in front of a mostly Catholic and Orthodox audience. The following is an expansion of my comments.]

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

The question of "secularism" in the (formerly?) Christian world today is often expressed as one of authority. It is one thing to place one's faith in the existence, teachings, and salvific promises of Jesus Christ, but another thing entirely to trust that one is in an "authorized" relationship with Him. The guiding assumption of this conference, grounded as it is in the legacies of John Henry Newman and Georges Florovsky, is that such confidence is to be found by orienting oneself--whatever that may mean--to the Church Fathers. As the conference's own announcement describes it, "by returning to the common Tradition, by learning to read the Fathers as living masters, rather than as historical documents...[we] deepen [our] understanding of the authority by which the Church grounds her faith and morals."

This description immediately prompts the question: what the hell is a Mormon doing here? Because for committed, orthodox, church-supporting Mormons (which, to be frank, I am not, at least not entirely), the very language used here, even the capitalization, is a problem. To assume the normative value, much less the salvific authority, of an enduring Christian “Tradition,” or a single Christian “Church,” whose parameters were definitively explored by Christian "Fathers"--all of it runs smack into the current official doctrine of "the apostasy" in Mormonism. Specifically, the Mormon church teaches that: "After the deaths of the Savior and His Apostles, men corrupted the principles of the gospel and made unauthorized changes in Church organization and priesthood ordinances. Because of this widespread apostasy, the Lord withdrew the authority of the priesthood from the earth. This apostasy lasted until Heavenly Father and His Beloved Son appeared to Joseph Smith in 1820 and initiated the Restoration of the fulness of the gospel." This would seem to suggest that Mormonism includes no substantive theological connection to or agreement with the idea of 1) a continuous Christian tradition, or 2) the importance of early articulators of that tradition, or 3) a universal church body that we have a portion of. We are, or at least long have been, when it comes to speaking theologically about the authority of our claims, a highly exclusive bunch.

This does not mean Mormonism has no capacity to articulate any coherent notion of Christian authority. But it does mean that when we Mormons argue among ourselves about that which is "authoritative" and that which is not, as every other Christian denomination does also, we have some additional wrinkles to smooth out. Without going into great detail here, we struggle continually over conflicts between such rival sources of authority as: duly ordained leaders held to possess priesthood/ecclesiastical authority over set populations of the faithful (ranging from local Sunday school classes all the way up to the whole church; those individuals on the latter end of that scale are usually referred to as "general authorities"); the scriptural canon (which we hold to be the Bible plus three books of writings produced by Joseph Smith, all of which are accepted as "revealed" to one degree or another) and the ability of individual members to engage in what one Mormon scholar called “dialogic revelation” by studying them; and finally the promise of general, authoritative inspiration via the Holy Spirit to all, particularly those who make and are faithful to covenants with God--both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, it is worth noting, regularly quoted the passage from Number 11:29: “would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”

Now two of those three elements appear to be inseparable from Mormon teachings about the apostasy. First, the assumption (in line with Catholic teachings) that God, through Christ, established a specific line of authority for His church, meaning that with the corruption of the church, said line had to be restored through the power of God, giving us Mormons the claim of priesthood authority tied up with latter-day prophets. Second, the assumption (in line with most Protestant teachings) that God reveals His authoritative word in such a manner as to be available to all people through the reading and study of scripture, meaning that the restoration of lost Christian authority had to involve the revelation of new scripture, giving us Mormons the Book of Mormon. This isn't the only way Mormons understand these two claims, obviously--but by and large, they seem to fit what is broadly accepted within my church. Hence, the origin and character of the Mormon claim to Christian legitimacy--or a good two-thirds of that claim, anyway--would seem to arrive via the doctrine of the apostasy, and through no other route.

But that gives rise to a different question: does the aforementioned definition of apostasy, taken directly from the Mormon church's website, actually fit what lays at the roots of Mormon notions of authority? Might it be that those components of the Mormon argument over Christian authority which I just laid out do not actually require the assumptions which are understood as attending them? In other words, maybe what has long been called "The Great Apostasy" in Mormon circles doesn't, and needn't, mean what most Mormons think it does? I am not saying that I, or anyone, can simply redefine words or rewrite doctrine willy-nilly; I am not a historical relativist. But neither am I a philosophical Platonist or Augustinian--rather I am, like everyone reading this, a modern individual, whether I claim to approve or such or not. And that means that I experience a world characterized by individual choice, interpretation, will, and agency; as Charles Taylor put it, in modernity the world has lost "the power to impose a certain meaning on us" (A Secular Age [Harvard, 2007], 33). So with that interpretive freedom in mind, I would like to ask if my own situation as a Mormon seeking Christian authority is, at least insofar as my relation to the Church Fathers and the larger Christian tradition goes, necessarily quite as theologically exclusive as may have been long assumed (by both Mormon Christians and non-Mormon Christians alike).

The first thing to note is that the key issue here--the claim to "apostasy"--is hardly unique to Mormons. On the contrary, the "apostasy" of the Christian faithful, and the need to "restore" authoritative Christian teachings, has characterized the reflections of many pious Christians for centuries, even before the "secular age" which Taylor explored could be said to have fully arrived. You have the Brethren of the Common Life, John Wycliffe and the Lollards, many aspects of the Radical Reformation, the Puritans, the English Separatists, and perhaps most relevantly here, the American Restorationist Movement: an evangelical, revival-based Christian social movement which radically shaped the Baptist and Methodist churches in the United States, gave rise to Disciples of Christ, the Church of Christ, and the independent Christian Churches of America--and maybe, depending on how you look at it, my own Mormon faith as well.

To those unacquainted with the language of men like Barton Stone, Alexander Campbell, William Thomas Moore, Walter Scott, and other trained ministers (usually but not always Presbyterian) who, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, pushed for a radical democratization and open-ended rethinking of Christian principles in line with the experiences of white (and, on rare occasions, black) Christians across the frontier of the newly independent United States of America....well, let me share some passages from their writings (all are taken from The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History [Chalice Press, 2013]):

“As celebrated as the era of [Protestant] reformation is, we doubt not but that the current era of true restoration will transcend it in importance and fame, through the long and blissful Millennium to come....Our quest for the ancient gospel and the ancient order of things distinguished us from every other cause plead on this continent or in Europe since the great apostasy”--Campbell, 1825.

"Those who call themselves disciples of Jesus Christ have been called today by Divine Providence to meet this emergency, to bring forth the restoration of apostolic Christianity, as part of the onward course of Christianity around the world"--Moore, 1832.

"Any candid person who reads the history of [the Christian] religion as it has been practiced in the world from one period to another would find nothing but a mixture of folly and wickedness from one end of the earth to the other....except among that portion of mankind who received direct revelation from heaven"--Sidney Rigdon, 1834.

Who is that I just slipped in? Sidney Rigdon, an ordained Baptist minister who found himself drawn into Campbell's orbit and became persuaded of the need for a restoration of true Christian teachings and authority--and then he encountered Joseph Smith, and the movement that Campbell himself referred to contemptuously as the "Mormonites." Rigdon later became, for a short time, a major leader in the Mormon church, without much apparent need to rework his original restorationist sympathies. Not that the claims of this new church, in the midst of so many other newly established or separated or transitioning churches, weren't unique--or at least, it is easy to reconstruct them as having been today. Consider how Smith described the revelatory experience he had as a 14-year-old boy in 1820, the vision of God and Jesus Christ--two separate personages!--in response to his question about where true Christian authority was to be found, and which of all these churches Smith should attach himself to:

“I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.’ He again forbade me to join with any of them; and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time.”

But the thing is, it is not clear that the anti-creedal theological exclusivity which characterizes this account of what we Mormons refer to as "the First Vision" was, in fact, what people like Rigdon heard in the early 1830s, as Smith's church began to grow in the midst of the Restorationist revivals all around him. The above account was written and published in 1838, 18 years after the 1820 event. Smith's earliest description of his vision does talk about the "apostasy"--but only in reference to the moral condition of the whole Christian world, and not as a specific condemnation of the reigning confusion over Christian authority:

"By searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith, and there was no society or denomination that was built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament. I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world....I was filled with the spirit of God, and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord. And he spake unto me, saying, ‘Joseph, my son, thy sins are forgiven thee. Go thy way, walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments. Behold, I am the Lord of glory. I was crucified for the world, that all those who believe on my name may have eternal life. Behold, the world lieth in sin at this time, and none doeth good, no, not one. They have turned aside from the gospel and keep not my commandments. They draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me. And mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth, to visit them according to their ungodliness and to bring to pass that which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and apostles. Behold and lo, I come quickly, as it is written of me, in the cloud, clothed in the glory of my Father.’”

Now of course, you do not have to accept that Joseph Smith actually had this vision. Similarly, you do not have to accept that the charismatic gifts, the fiery preaching, and the spirit of restoration which forms the foundation of more than a dozen Christian churches during this era were all, in fact, the genuine work of the Holy Spirit and the will of God. But no one disputes that the Disciples of Christ, however distant from the Church Fathers they may be, are nonetheless certainly part of the Great Tradition. So just who decided that Mormon claims to Christian authority are categorically distinct and separate from all these others, especially given that the early language of Mormonism regarding apostasy and restoration is not obviously all that different than the same language used by other, more widely accepted Christians, who similarly confronting a Christian world that was seemingly filled with corruption and confusion, and similarly searched for God's authority?

The answer to this is not entirely clear. We can't even really be certain, at least insofar as I can tell, the Smith himself was emphatic about this distinction or separation; for example, it's hard to make sense of his comment, "we Latter-day Saints are Methodists, as far as they have gone, only we have advanced further," when one insists that, as his later description of his vision suggests, he had had a set of theologically exclusivist assumptions divinely impressed upon his mind. And Smith was not alone in making connections with other Protestant searchers and radicals in those early days; as one scholar observed, reflecting upon the many Campbellites and others who joined with the new Mormon church in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio in the early 1830s: "for many, John Wesley and Alexander Campbell rhetorically became a John the Baptist, crying in the wilderness to prepare the way for the advent of Mormonism." (Both quotes taken from Standing Apart: Mormon History Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy, Miranda Wilcox and John D. Young, eds. [Oxford, 2014], 66, 71.)

Was the problem the Book of Mormon itself? That's plausible; after all, while disagreements within the broader Christian tradition about the legitimacy of any particular church or movement conjoining its search for religious authority to angelic visitations and divine visions have nonetheless been ecumenically accepted, claiming a whole new addition to the story of the Risen Christ might be beyond the pale. Except that those who embraced Smith's teaching and church at the time do not seem to have taken the specific content of the Book of Mormon terribly seriously, which suggests that they would not have assumed that the book itself necessitated a complete separation from the main Christian tradition. On the contrary, the revelation of a new book of scripture was mostly taken, from what letters, journals, and sermons of the day tell us, as evidence of the power of God, of spiritual gifts and the ministering of angels--something revivalists all across early 19th-century America were calling for, and frequently claiming. So perhaps the practical genesis of the exclusivist articulation of the Mormon theological position was simply the state of competition which existed at the time? Certainly Campbell viewed Mormons less as a radically new heresy and more as an upstart challenge. He wrote once about “the conversion of a Mr. Booth, a Methodist preacher of very considerable standing, many years on the circuit, to the New Bible [meaning the Book of Mormon],” dismissively adding that Booth's conversion may have, at best, “prolonged the existence of this new religion a few weeks” (cited in Mark Lyman Staker, Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations [Kofford, 2009], 287-288).

Mormonism obviously lasted longer than a few additional weeks; we're on our way to our 200th birthday in a little more than a decade. Through the growth and changes of those two centuries, the language by which we explain ourselves--both to others and to ourselves--also grew and changed. Late 19th-century and early 20th-century Mormonism in particular moved away from emphasizing the role of miracles, angelic visitations, and spiritual gifts (all of which fits well with the standard Weberian arguments about the "routinization of charisma"), and gradually extended a kind of mid-20th-century professionalism and bureaucracy into our self-understanding (within Mormon circles, this decades-long process is called “correlation”). During these years, the imperatives of missionary work and general branding led to an increased reliance upon extensive scholarly arguments to clarify what "apostasy" and "restoration" actually meant. The arguments made by 19th-century mainline Protestant historians about the corruption of Catholic, Orthodox, and later Protestant traditions came to be widely cited by church leaders (thus supporting the assumption that of course other churches are wrong; they are bad apples which fell from a bad tree). And among the church's intelligentsia, much European philosophy became an equally important part of an argument against the Church Fathers, with Greek philosophy being presented as having undermined the covenant basis of original Christianity, thus justifying the need for God to begin entirely again with a newly restored church.

But in recent years, a small but growing number of Mormons are recognizing the problems with those articulations. For one thing, those Protestant histories are now recognized as having been mostly wrong, or at least highly tendentious in how they presented early Christian history. And more serious philosophical reflection upon early Christian texts reveals not a single “original” Christianity that is subject to being lost or restored, but rather a multiplicity of Christian perspectives, whose rapid evolution involved interpretation, negotiation, and even councils--something that actually isn't unknown in our own church's history. I do not mean to suggest that Mormonism is about to collectively abandon correlation and routinization and a way of thinking about its own authority that was consistently and emphatically embraced for more than a century. But it is undeniable that the old reliance upon “apostasy” is fading (though hardly disappeared) in Mormon circles. The realization that the apostasy foretold in the New Testament involves not the replacement of Christ's gospel with apostate beliefs, but rather a turning away from godliness and from being willing stand before God as one who accepts His covenant (suggesting more a need for general moral reformation than doctrinal restoration), to say nothing of the simple fact of Mormonism's increased recognition of the humanitarian and moral goals it shares with so many other Christian churches, is slowly--though maybe not surely--suggesting a need to rethink our claims to Christian authority. The Mormon scholar Miranda Wilcox summaries this rhetorical and conceptual situation well:

"Mormonism's 20th-century Great Apostasy narratives constructed exclusive and narrow boundaries between the true [Mormon] Church and apostate Christendom. Such division was not the case in earlier Mormon narratives, which depicted Joseph Smith’s revelations as building on and adding to the truths of traditional Christianity....The Hebrew Bible illustrates ways in which Israelite narrators--prophets, psalmists, historians, scribes, and editors who formulated, transmitted, or edited sacred texts--widened boundaries in retelling stories of their ancestors’ exodus from Egypt as they reshaped their collective identity during periods of cultural transition....Are [we] confident enough to refashion their separatist narrative into a narrative of interrelation?....If [Mormons] were to complicate the ending of their story, their category of self might widen, and they might come to imagine restoration as an unfolding process in which [we] are still engaged--a process that has involved and will continue to involve dynamic interactions between divine and human agents beyond the scope of just Mormon institutions"--or, I would add, just Mormon historical references (cited in Standing Apart, 104, 106-107).

Imagine if we Mormons gradually, creatively, interpretively, turned aside from our church’s long history of tying our claims to Christian authority to the salvific exclusivity of Mormon conceptions of priesthood and ecclesiology in the midst of an apostate Christian world. What would remain? A history of miracles, revelations, gifts of the spirit, the ministering of angels, even new scripture. Would any of those have to be articulated as a entirely disjuncture from the overall Christian tradition, or would any of them have to be accepted as such by other, non-Mormon Christians? Just how necessary in the Christian tradition is the insistence upon a closed canon, upon the end of revelation, particularly as regards accounts of Jesus Christ? That is not a question I can answer, but it is a question we Mormons probably will not be able to avoid struggling with in the years to come. Whether or not a reconsideration (and perhaps a retreat) from exclusivist understandings of Christian authority are likely in the near future, Mormons are struggling with new questions of identity which cannot be easily extricated from it.

My church is probably better known through our missionary program than by anything else, and for many decades that program, and its presumed necessity given the apostate world around us, was embraced as central to our self-understanding. But now many our asking: how do we justify our missionary program, how do we articulate ourselves in light of the Great Commission, when the long-standing appeals that the Mormon church has depended upon (which could be reduced to either "other churches are not baptizing in a way that will be accepted as authoritative by Christ" or "we can authoritatively guarantee you eternal family happiness") increasingly no longer make sense to the world we are called, as Christians, to save? I don't imagine that this presentation will successfully address all such questions, but maybe it can add something helpful to those who struggle with them.

I end with another quote from Alexander Campbell, whose accepted place in the Christian tradition perhaps opens a door to Mormonism's place as well. Speaking the subject of Christian unity, he wrote: “No mortal need fancy that he shall have the honor of devising either the plan of uniting Christians in one holy band of zealous co-operation, or of converting Jews and Gentiles to the faith that Jesus is the seed of, in whom all the families of the earth are yet to be blessed. The plan is divine. It is ordained by God; and, better still, it is already revealed. Is any one impatient to hear it? Let him again read the intercessions of the Lord Messiah, which we have chosen for our motto. Let him then examine the two following propositions, and say whether these do not express Heaven's own scheme of augmenting and conversating the body of Christ. First. Nothing is essential to the conversion of the world, but the union and co-operation of Christians. Second. Nothing is essential to the union of Christians, but the Apostles' teaching or testimony.” That, I presume, might not be acceptable to everyone as a full summation of the debate over Christian authority. But, might it not be acceptable to everyone as at least a start?

Friday, May 31, 2019

The Wonderfully (if Perhaps Insufficiently) Radical Bill McKibben

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

I've been a fan of Bill McKibben's writings for close to 30 years. That doesn't mean I've agreed with, or even enjoyed, everything this endlessly prolific journalist-environmentalist-activist-pundit-essayist has produced over the decades (he's had at least a couple of complete misses, in my opinion). But when, back in April, I heard he was returning to Wichita, KS, to promote his latest book, Falter: Has the Human Game Finally Begun to Play Itself Out? at one of our delightful local bookstores, Watermark Books & Cafe, I knew it was a presentation I couldn't miss. Though Falter, and the case McKibben made both for and in that book, isn't one I'm likely to be madly repeating or repeatedly recommending to my students or others, I'm glad I was there.

Like plenty of folks who recognize--whether for reasons scientific or spiritual or social or all three--the environmentally and culturally destructive consequences of modernity's relentless insistence upon economic and technological expansion, my relationship with McKibben's (usually) thoughtful writing began with The End of Nature, his short and, I think, profoundly eye-opening extended essay from 30 years ago. Long before anyone, so far as I know, was using terms like "the Anthropocene," McKibben was presciently leading his readers--like myself, an early 90s college student, someone with little scientific knowledge and only a small sense of how important terms like "community" and "sustainability" would eventually become in my life--through an argument about how the post-WWII human impact upon the climate, the oceans, and the soil, is both greater and more lasting than any previous human intervention. It was, and remains, a beautiful book: "When I say that we have ended nature, I don't mean, obviously, that natural processes have ceased--there is still sunshine and still wind, still growth, still decay. Photosynthesis continues, as does respiration. But we have ended the thing that has, at least in modern times, defined nature for us--its separation from human society" (The End of Nature, Anchor Books, 2nd ed. [1999], p. 64). The hundreds of billions of tons of carbon dioxide we have put into the atmosphere, the hundreds of millions of tons of industrial fertilizer we have put into our farmlands and watersheds: all of it was then warping, and today continues to warp, ecological processes which had evolved over billions of years in a direction reflective of humanity's most short-term and utilitarian preferences. And as for the better human interactions with those natural processes--practices which had been able, in a less expansive and technological era, to become (to quote Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson) "native to their place"? They were being warped, being made crude short-term and technological, too.

Someone familiar with these arguments as they have played out over the decades might notice an imperfect fit here, and they wouldn't be wrong. McKibben and Berry and Jackson all recognize each other has compatriots in the effort to articulate a more sustainable and local way of life, one that is disconnected from the rat race of endless growth and change. Their mutual admiration is well documented. And yet, the place (both geographically and metaphorically) that McKibben is native to is one very different from the agricultural environs and mentality which grounds the reflections of thinkers like Berry and Jackson. McKibben is a Vermont writer, a mountain-climber and a cross-country skier, an organizer of protests across the nation and reporting expeditions around the globe; his adoration for, and his mourning for, nature is grounded not in husbandry but in observation. That is, of course, one of the reasons he has the readership he has: he can take his readers, as he does in Falter, from Alberta's tar sands to Greenland's melting glaciers to the accidentally protected (thanks to the land claimed by Kennedy Space Center) sand dunes along the Florida coast and take it in as a reporter, an admirer, a visitor--which is, of course, all the most of us will ever be.

I don't put this forward as a criticism, but rather as a way of appreciating what McKibben has accomplished with his activism and arguments, while also noting what he, perhaps, can only occasionally authentically grasp. Falter is a fine book, with typically lyrical writing and sharp observations. In my judgment, though, it stumbles occasionally. Much of the anticipation over the book was due to it presenting itself, in part, as an update to The End of Nature, a reflection on the gains and losses of the argument which McKibben, as much as anyone, started 30 years ago. McKibben does not disappoint on this score: the first section of the book, "The Size of the Board," is unsparing (and sometimes uncomfortably earnest) in its description of the complex, entwined environmental, economic, and political crises which rising ocean temperatures, increasing weather extremes, and local ecosystem collapses present us with in 2019. But in the middle portion of the book, McKibben's thoughts lead him in different directions.

First, he takes us through a long polemic against the Koch brothers and a handful of other oil company executives, libertarian economists, and Republican politician whom he holds all but solely responsible for the relative lack of action on climate change over the past 30 years. (I have no problem with the targets he's chosen, but am less than thrilled by the simplistic--and sometimes unsupportable*--ways in which assumes that choices by big money actors automatically control all electoral contests.) Next, he turns to a fascinating excursion through genetic engineering, transhumanism, and other obsessions of the Silicon Valley elite. This is great stuff--and includes many arguments that, in a world with a fierce and well-funded race to perfect in vitro, gene splicing, and AI technologies, deserve a more thorough theoretical unpacking. How it all connects to the "faltering" of the human game is, unfortunately, only inconsistently made clear.

What McKibben needs--and, to be fair, the book's wonderful concluding section, "An Outside Chance," occasionally provides it--is a strong argument about what human being is. Nature and wildness, community and connection, and a sense of both physical and temporal space (and hence an acknowledgement of the limits inherent to such)--all are necessary components of a flourishing human existence; that his writing makes, in my view, a strongly persuasive case for. But how to tie it together, such that it makes sense to say that, in the face of all of the above, the "human game" is "playing itself out"? That's a deeper theoretical project, one that McKibben, an inveterate observer and experimenter and writer, perhaps can only gesture towards. That's no small thing, to be sure--and when your gestures are as striking and thoughtful as McKibben's often are, then his valued role as a much-needed seeder and agitator of ideas is assured.

Two gestures--just random implications that struck me as I worked through his thoughtful sentences--of McKibben's stand out most particularly to me. One has to do with technology; the second has to do with scale. The first is rooted in "obsolescence," and how that fact is reflected in both our destructive (and only partly unknowing) efforts to transform the planet into a simple source of energy extraction, and in the modern obsession with technological and genetic improvement. In both cases, we can see, at bottom, the desire to make other people, other things, and even ourselves and our immediate environs, into things that can be controlled, used, reliably replicated...and then, presumably, disposed of.

Current humans have changed so little over the millennia that, say, Stonehenge still makes us feel something. It was created by creatures genetically very much like us, creatures who processed dopamine the same way we do. They are much more like us than our grandchildren would be, should be go down [the designer baby] path. But those modified grandchildren will also no longer be really related to their future....When we engineer and design, we turn people into a form of technology, and obsolescence is an utterly predictable feature of every technology we've ever seen...The randomnness of our current genetic inheritance allows each of us a certain mental freedom from determinism, but that freedom disappears the day we understand ourselves [or, I would add, our natural environment] to be, in essence, a product (pp. 170-172).

McKibben, perhaps to his discredit, has never really been any kind of Luddite; he recognizes the arguments against invasive technologies, but he's always liked his doo-dads and toys. Still, here he has stumbled upon something important--the fact that there is a freedom which is lost when one puts one's lifestyle, or indeed one's very life, on the technological treadmill. The freedom I'm talking about is one that McKibben, good liberal Methodist that he is, would quickly recognize: the freedom of knowing, and disciplining oneself to, the truths of creation, and finding an open-ended space of meaningful action therein. To get off that treadmill, and save that freedom, one could see McKibben as calling for, shall we say, "counter-technologies." He focuses on the possibility of solar energy (the cost and capacities of which are improving every year) to liberate us from corporate energy dominance, and non-violent resistant (such as McKibben, through his organization 350.org, has been able to use, sometimes even successfully) to liberate us from corporate financial and political dominance. An odd duo, to be sure. But in the language of his reflections, their potential to free us from looming disposability, from the sense of the "inevitability" of the warped systems around us which Wendell Berry has rightly condemned, make sense: "Solar energy and nonviolence are technologies less of expansion than of repair, less of growth than of consolidation, less of disruption than of healing. They posit that we've grown powerful enough as a species, and that the job now is to make sure that that power is shared and controlled" (p. 226).

To gesture towards humankind as a species that has "grown powerful enough" is to bring us to his other vital, if insufficiently explored, idea, and that is scale. (Though to be fair, McKibben has written a whole book which revolves around the subject before--it's his best book, I think, one that I've used often.) Obsolescence--and the short-cuts, expediencies, and conveniences which it is the inevitable end point of--often feels forced upon us by the systems and expectations that we can't imagine managing a complex society without. That is not a flawed observation; complexity does produce its own relentless logics. So perhaps what we most need is to simplify, to retreat from connections that suck our paychecks, educational goals, military obligations, and most of all our hearts and minds, into the cult of Big and More:

If the only things you wanted in the world were efficiency and growth, then you'd scale things up--and we have: large corporations, large nations. But we've reached the point where size hinders as much as it helps, where it reduces the many ways the human game might be played down to just a few....[B]oth nonviolence and solar panels nudge us, at least a little, toward a smaller-scale world less obsessed with efficiency....We'll have to fight to make sure this happens--that communities control their local energy sources, and that those sources are developed with everyone's interests in mind--but at least it's a possibility. Home, community, is the ground on which we can actually play the human game, and it is a false efficiency to undermine it....There a time and a place for growth, and a time and a place for maturity, for balance, for scale (pp. 231-233).

The problem which McKibben has been struggling with, on and off, for more than three decades is unlike any that we know of any human society having had to struggle with before. It is a problem rooted in our own perceptions, and the way our technologies and economies have (both metaphorically and literally) warped and shrunk our planet and its organic, created rhythms so thoroughly that we often can neither perceive or even perhaps conceive of what we have lost. No loss is total, of course; McKibben knows that (and, more over, knows that selling the apocalypse is the shortest short-term strategy of all). But just because nature--of some sort--continues, and human life--or some definition thereof--keeps on stumbling forward, doesn't mean we shouldn't pay close attention to what harms and losses we're experiencing along the way. Whatever confusion or frustration or limitations attend McKibben's writing, he's always helped me see thing worth seeing, and think things worth thinking. And I'm not alone in thinking that way--Wichita, KS, is hardly a haven for environmentalist, localist, anti-capitalist, small-c conservative thought, but his presence at Watermark brought the whole gang of us out; my only regret was that it was the end of the semester, and I couldn't bring any students out to meet him. Fortunately, he'll be back in Kansas next September, speaking at The Land Institute (under Wes Jackson's kindly eye, no less!). I'll be there, students in tow, hoping they, like me 30 years ago, will hear or read something that, even if they don't fully agree with or appreciate it, will get them to think and see differently.

*For the problems with McKibben's reliance upon Nancy MacLean's screed against James Buchanan, public choice theory, and the supposed secret libertarian plot to destroy democracy, see here, here, and here.

Listening to Macca #5: Wings Errata, McCartney II, and Tug of War

I want to begin this entry with a rethinking of some of my comments last month, as I finished up McCartney's musical history with Wings. I'm not taking any of it back, but I feel like some additional context is necessary. Partly this is because of Tom Doyle's Man on the Run, which I read this month and thought was a pretty wonderful series of reflections on Macca in the 1970s. That book gave me some insight into McCartney's terribly conflicted feelings about the break-up of the Beatles, and the combination of immaturity, resentment, and heartache that accompanied the legal wranglings and sniping which followed in its wake. What does that have to do with Wings? Simply that I think Doyle's thesis is a persuasive one: Wings was, from its stumbling beginning to its anti-climactic end, inseparable from Paul's alternately generous, demanding, doubtful, adventurous, and (unfortunately, far too often) pot-beclouded efforts at trying to figure out how to be an ex-Beatle. It makes me more convinced than ever that Wings really could have taken flight beyond the brief Band on the Run-Venus and Mars-Wings at the Speed of Sound run from 1973 to 1976, given a few different breaks. There was frequently genius in there; the fact that McCartney was able--in the midst of decisions that were often clumsyand self-centered--to come out of the world of experience that was the Beatles and still create some pretty wonderful pop-rock music ("Get on the Right Thing," "Let Me Roll With It," "Junior's Farm," "Magneto and Titanium Man," "Beware My Love," to say nothing of all his other hits) is something that, in itself, deserves applause.

The other part of it is that I realized, in wrapping up my attempt at a comprehensive listening to Wings, that I'd nonetheless missed one of that band's final, great tunes, "Goodnight Tonight," which was left off of Back to the Egg. (Doyle has a nice snark about the fact that Macca continued to insist upon releasing promotional singles that were left off the albums they were nominally a part of all the way through the end of the 1970s, even though the economy of record sales had completely changed by then.) I wouldn't make a big deal about this, except that "Goodnight Tonight" is not only a terrific pop concoction, but is really one of the best examples McCartney's tremendous skill with the bass from his entire career, and that deserves mentioning. I mean, the flamenco guitar licks are great, the disco beat is groovy, but really, it's the bass line that makes the song. And one thing which Doyle's book didn't do enough of, in the midst of all its observations about McCartney's doubts and decisions and drug habits, was to talk about Macca as a musician, as a talented instrumentalist who loves to just play. When he did, he was one of the best bass players from the whole formative pop-rock era of the 1960s and 1970s, I think.

Anyway, enough of that. On to McCartney's first two post-Wings albums.

Having got my wish to give McCartney and Wings their proper due out of the way, allow me to admit that I think McCartney II kind of stinks. Like the first McCartney, this album was recorded almost entirely solo, with Paul, feeling bored and frustrated with Wings, just playing around with synthesizers, drum machines, and everything else that was changing pop music in 1979. I can understand that--and it's not as though anything that he came up with and decided to release on this album is actually bad. Just mostly simplistic, incomplete, and kind of pointless. He's having fun with the synths on "Temporary Secretary," "Front Parlour," and "Frozen Jap," and sure, he comes up with some cool beats there--but honestly, you'd be pleasantly surprised, but not shocked, to hear your kid in high school orchestra came up with the exact same thing on the keyboards one Saturday. You expect more than some skilled teen-age noodling from McCartney. Yes, "Waterfalls" has its defenders--McCartney definitely among them--but it's an undeveloped tune, one that needed some push-back from someone. "Coming Up" is the only fully realized song on the album, and it's pretty good, but unlike "Maybe I'm Amazed" on McCartney, it isn't enough on its own to lift this album above the D grade it deserves.

Tug of War, on the other hand, is wonderful, an album as good as Band on the Run, maybe even better. This was Paul working with ex-Beatles for the first time: Ringo is on the drums, and George Martin producing, and it shows--there is a Beatlesesque shine to the album, a tightness that McCartney never seemed to be able to do on his own (at least, not by this point in his career, anyway). "Take it Away" is the album's masterpiece--a witty, groovy, reflective, and utterly infectious celebration of the music business, one of the best I know of from the whole history of pop music, up there with Jackson Browne's "Load Out" or Robyn Hitchcock's "Mr. Kennedy." (The single's B-side, "I'll Give You a Ring" is quite good, a charming throwback to the Macca of "When I'm Sixty-Four" or "Honey Pie," and one that should have been on the album, as it's a great companion to the album's equally fine, equally "granny" song, "Ballroom Dancing.") In totally different veins, "Here Today" is a plaintive, folky tribute to John (written not long after his murder), "What's That You're Doing?" is a glorious slice of electronica-funk (and a dozen times better than the other duet with Stevie Wonder on the album, the innocuous "Ebony and Ivory"), "The Pound is Sinking" is a clever medley of 70s rock tropes, and if "Tug of War" is an earnest rock anthem that perhaps tries a bit too hard, "Wanderlust" is a brassy pop anthem that hits it out of the park. (It, along with "What's That You're Doing?," should have been monster hits along with "Take it Away.") And I have to mention "Get It," a solid rockabilly number with Carl Perkins that, had it been released 25 years earlier, would have sounded just perfect on AM radio. So, in other words, a great album, with only a couple of bumps along the way (the disco beats on "Dress Me Up Like a Robber" are a little much, I think). A solid A- for Sir Paul, as he threw himself onward and upward into the 1980s.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Michael Austin's Enemies, and What He Says About Them

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Michael Austin (who, for the record, is an old and close friend) does not fit most people's stereotype of a "patriot," the sort of person would would proudly fly an American flag and attend parades on Memorial Day. After all, he's an academic, a cosmopolitan, a liberal Democrat, a scholar of 17th-century English rhetoric, Mormon environmentalism, world literature, and the book of Job; when he wrote an earlier book about the Founding Fathers, it was entirely about how right-wing patriots completely misunderstand them. So it would be easy to assume that Michael's attachment to the idea of "America" would be distant, contextual, and intellectual at best.

That assumption would be wrong--or mostly wrong, anyway. You'd very likely be correct about the flag and the parades. But Michael's latest book, We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America's Civic Tradition, makes it clear that his attachment to--indeed, his "belief" in--the civic idea of America is both serious and strong. As long as I've known the man, it surprised me to see in these pages so much genuine passion and concern over the direction of the United States at the present moment. When he takes a line from the famous closing paragraph of Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address--"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies"--as his title, he really means it: he really believes that America's liberal democracy both provides a vital opportunity for, and levies upon us all a specific demand for, friendship. That friendship is, in his view, essential to America's "civic tradition"; democratic legitimacy in the American state--to say nothing of good government--is impossible without it.

Joseph Smith, the founder of the religious tradition that Michael and I share, famously stated that "friendship" is a "foundational principle," a "revolution" that could "civilize the world." This is not the sort of friendship that Michael is talking about. He does not conceive of the United States as a family or a community characterized by--or one that needs to be characterized by--deep senses of affection or charity; indeed, he starts his book out making it clear that he is not talking about how we all need to be nicer, or how we need to change the U.S. Constitution in a more communitarian or participatory direction, or how we just need to figure out who is worthy of friendship and who isn't. Michael instead proposes that the friendship which America needs is "civic friendship," and he uses Lincoln and a great many other historical examples--from the long, once broken, ultimately repaired friendship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson; to Preston Brook's violent response to Charles Sumner's furious speech in the Senate against slavery; to the little known story of President Chester Arthur's willingness to change his mind, profoundly improve the functioning of America's bureaucracy, and accept the political consequences--to flesh out his idea. At its heart, Michael's civic friendship means taking seriously the long-term interests of one's fellow citizens--whether or not one agrees with, or can even barely tolerate, those citizens or their respective interests--simply as a matter of justice. The operation of the American democratic system, as he sees it, depends upon our use of persuasion, and our willingness to endure persuasion's frequent failures, as we debate and disagree about how to govern ourselves. To give up on persuasion means, for Michael, to deny the justice encoded in the democratic principles at the heart of our system (principles which, as he regularly acknowledges, emerged and continue to emerge only through much struggle, argument, and time), and instead simply accept that those you disagree with are your enemies, worthy only of being punched (at best).

Beginning with Aristotle's philia politike (which Michael defines as mutual self-interest elevated by goodwill, the desiring of the "well-being of [one's] fellow citizens for its own sake"--p. 36), and building upon Alexis de Tocqueville's many observations about the mores and habits he saw exhibited by the Americans he observed during his visit to the United States in the early 1830s (like the fact our commitment to voting and elections "seeps into almost every aspect of our lives"--p. 22), Michael expands upon the idea of civic friendship through evolutionary psychology, literary analysis, game theory, and more. His case for the possibility of persuasion, and the necessity of acting as though it is possible even in the most extreme and divisive moments, is a strong one. (His detailed study of the argumentative strategies employed, and responded to, by Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in their 1858 debates is one of several highlights throughout this short book.) In addition, the book's language is often both beautiful and wise; Michael is no poet, but sometimes he expresses his civic friendship ideal in ways that are not only informative, but deeply appealing as well:

We exercise civic friendship, or fail to exercise it, when we decide what kind of society we want to be. We vote on this question every day--occasionally in a formal election but more often through the purchases we make, the people and institutions we choose to associate with, and the things that we give our attention to. No law can force us, and no syllogism can persuade us, to care about other people; only friendship can do that. When animated by a genuine concerns for the well-being of others, we will find ways to make our society more just. When animated by civic enmity or the desire to injure or defeat some group of people, we will find ways to make our society less just (pp 38-39).

This is the sort of language that ought to give everyone who has ever unfriended, snarked at, or triumphantly shouted down those they assume to be hopelessly wrong--the Mormon-bashers, the Trump-supporters, the pro-choicers, the Confederate flag-flyers, the PETA-funders--a serious pause. Less noticeably, but perhaps more importantly, it is language that ought to also give everyone who has occasionally felt themselves weirdly connecting with others against the assumed grain of American discourse--the Democratic Socialist of America activist who enjoys spending time with conservative farmers, the libertarian Google coder whose best friend is a life-long Marine, the conservative Christian who adores her membership in the local Quentin Tarantino fan club--some real encouragement: maybe they're doing something right! By so doing, it provide both groups, and everyone in between, a larger sense of how their--how all of our--choices fit, or don't fit, with America's democratic ethos, and thereby provides much needed encouragement (and warnings as well). Solely on an ethical level, Michael's book is both vital and valuable; as a Memorial Day read, I can't possibly recommend it more highly.

That said--can I also recommend it on a political level? That is, do I think his diagnosis of American democracy, as a matter of political theory and political practice, is correct? Only partly. Hence, once I put on my own academic hat, I can only recommend the book with a couple of large caveats. I'll lay those out now, but they aren't going to affect the five stars I'm giving this book, so if feel free to skip the next several paragraphs and go to the end if that was your only reason for reading this far.

The first of my caveats is ideological in character; the second is structural, though they overlap in important ways. Let's begin with the ideological: Michael, as all of the above should make apparent, is not just a liberal Democrat, but a bone-deep philosophical liberal, someone who is entirely convinced that liberal principles of rationality, individuality, and pragmatism provide the only accounts of human freedom and flourishing worth defending. This means, of course, that there some major elisions in the book--not necessarily ones which Michael couldn't address and respond to, but ones that, as he made decisions about what to include and what to exclude in this 155-page book (with 30 pages of appendices), I suspect simply never seemed important to him.

For example, consider Michael's rather cavalier treatment of the inevitable "what about Nazis?" question (pp. 70-72). It's not that his eminently pragmatic responses (such as: the odds of anyone meeting an actual Nazi is vanishingly small; asking if one has to show civic friendship to a Nazi is probably just a self-interested effort of giving oneself an exemption from the obligations of American citizenship; proudly rejecting the intolerant only plays to one's own peer group and never advances actual discourse; etc.) are wrong--they aren't. But Michael can't, in my judgment, build a moral case for particular sorts of democratic actions on the basis of a civil religion without articulating the place of, and the relationship others should have to, those who rejects the basic precepts of a particular community's civil faith. And Michael does build such a case: his liberal principles are, on my reading, deeply parasitic upon republican and civil religious assumption.

Michael only mentions "civil religion" a couple of times--once to define it, following Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, as "wishing others well" instead of "wishing them ill," and once to insist, despite today's partisan divisions, that we still "hold enough beliefs in common to build a political process based on persuasion" (pp. 40, 147). It's my belief, though, and the belief of many others, that to take seriously an Aristotelian framework for understanding civic action--which Michael absolutely does--makes it impossible to avoid the human impulse to "understand the actions of individuals (including oneself) as embedded in some sort of collective, morally (and often religiously) substantive--that is, 'truthful'--cultural order." In other words, I do not see how it is possible to believe that the communal and cultural awarenesses which allow for concepts like "well-being" or "justice" to even make sense can avoid carrying with them (and even, despite the bogeyman this presents philosophical liberals with everyone, occasionally "establishing") some kind of clear communitarian or cultural or ideological marker. (Consider: how can one express what doing "well" is, as opposed to doing "ill," or what a "just" relationship is, versus an "unjust" relationship, absent some kind of substantive body of social or moral ideas being concomitant with or at least broadly accepted among those doing the expressing?) This is, in my view, Republicanism 101; Michael at one point mentions the classic Roman phrase "res publica," and how it relates to Aristotle's preferred mixed regime (the "politeia"), but he doesn't mention that the literal meaning of res publica, and thus the root meaning of republicanism, is "the public thing"--thus making it incumbent upon anyone who wants to make use of these ideas to define just which "public" is being referred to. The earliest English translations of these republican notions is what gave us "commonweal" and "commonwealth"--which, of course, cannot help but take as their beginning some specific "commons," some specific people or place or public, and what norms or habits or preferences are central to their own "weal," their own wellness. Which means, in the end, that one cannot avoid dealing with the problem of those whose habits or norms or preferences lead towards positions which the community understands as the opposite of well-being.

Admittedly, there are other ways to understand this particular ideological matter, and it's one Michael and I have argued about before. But look: saying that Michael can't get to where he wants to get by way of civic friendship without dealing with the genuine theoretical problem of those whose beliefs are actually not "friendly" to the American community, does not mean that he needs to abandon his liberal convictions. Many liberal thinkers--John Rawls most famously--have labored (some with more success than others) over how one can sensibly defend the ideal of a liberal community of real fairness and decency that would be, nonetheless, freely chosen by all the different people who are part of it. No, I'm not expecting Michael to write his own version of A Theory of Justice; I'm just saying that if he wants to convincingly call to civic friendship those who, say, by their own philosophical and moral lights, genuinely understand baby-murdering abortionists and women-enslaving Republicans to be beyond the pale of any possible persuasion, then he needs to articulate a strong and substantive enough definition of the American community so as to ground that friendship which such people can supposedly share. Of course, one could abandon such substance, in favor of (as Rawls ultimately did) some kind of proceduralism: an "overlapping consensus" of self-interested electoral protections, perhaps. In other words: I hate you, but I won't shoot you in the face, and instead I'll just try to win elections, because I don't want to be shot in the face either. That isn't necessarily a bad ethic! But it's not an ethic that cares at all about "America's Civic Tradition," as Michael's subtitle does, either.

Michael's subtitle brings me to my structural, and more simple, complaint: restoring civic friendship, as vital and valuable as I agree it is, cannot, in my judgment, restore America's civic tradition, because the basic operations of our democratic and electoral systems are no longer responsive to republican civic action, or at least not nearly as much as they once were. There are a hundred ways to examine this degeneration of America's constitutional order, even if one restricts oneself solely to basic republican principles. There is the way the enormous gap between the wealthy and the poor in the United States undermines any sense of a common good; the way the legal recognition of money as equivalent to speech corrupts the trust voters are supposed to have in their elected representatives; the way globalization disrupts the patterns of life by which citizens might feel any real ownership over their communities; etc. Michael does note at the beginning of the book that he feels no obligation to address any comprehensive proposals for reform, simply because, until "people in the country trust each other and are willing to set aside differences and work for the common good," none of them will happen. His decision--and it's a perfectly reasonable one--is to focus on "things that we actually control," specifically "the way we talk to other people" (pp. 9-10). To the extent that not being enemies is a chicken-and-egg problem--something he acknowledges at the very end of the book, in a thoughtful section on the "risk of embrace"; basically the "who starts treating their enemies as friends first?" question (pp. 154-155)--then simply asserting the need to begin with persuasion is entirely defensible. Except for the fact that even Michael himself can't ignore the structural obstacles to persuasion in America today entirely.

Twice in the book--once while invoking President Johnson's insistence upon getting Republican support as the Democrats pushed the 1964 Civil Rights Act through the Senate, and once when talking about combating the way partisan polarization benefits small groups of extremists (pp. 73-74, 81)--he makes an important admission: "Our primary election system makes this dynamic especially difficult." Michael does imply that the problem here is voters that "rarely reward" politicians who compromise, but his own language makes it clear he knows that, when it comes to career-minded politicians who wish to maintain their party's nomination, it is not the "voters" in general but rather "well-funded primary challenges" that are the problem. Without a complete transformation in how parties operate, how candidates are recruited, and how elections are paid for--the sort of transformations which Michael said was beyond the scope of his book--you can't get away from the problem that primary contests pose for the ideal of elected politicians acting as agents of, and responders to, real democratic persuasion. Which means that, in this matter at least, the "way we talk to other people" has to be less about democratic debate and more about building coalitions of the like-minded sufficient to challenge major funding sources, with the aim of occasionally, in one election or another, actually disrupting their entrenched control over the process. At the present corrupt moment, unfortunately, truly concerned voters I think often need to act more along the line of Alinsky's rules, rather than Austin's.

Note what I said there: "often," not "always." The ideal of civic friendship is not simply a fine ideal; it is an ethically meaningful one. Michael is, as I said at the beginning, a genuine believer in the aspirational possibilities and principles he sees as embodied in America's constitutional democracy--his commitment to the practice of liberal democracy is nothing less than patriotic, in every sense of the word. Yes, I think his liberal equanimity gets in the way of his dealing with serious theoretical problems that his aspirations cannot honestly avoid addressing in the United States of America, circa 2019; and moreover, I think his sole focus on our personal rhetoric and political choices and relationships cannot, in the face of actual anti-republican obstacles out there, actually do what he hopes it will do. But so what? Maybe American democracy is in terminal decline, or maybe there will be some revolution to restore it or make it into something different--maybe some of those reading this will even be part of that revolution, whatever it may be. But whether this country, whom so many have sacrificed so much for over its 230 years of existence, declines or improves or just muddles along, the ethical and civic rightness of Michael's call to practice democratic friendship and trust will endure. Michael is anything but a moralizer, but at the book's end he returns to the call I quoted above, and it remains a powerful one: "[W]e vote every day for the kind of country we want to live in. We vote by how we choose to participate--or not participate--in the civic life of our democracy. Every time we have a political conversation, we are casting a vote for the kind of political conversations we want to have" (p. 155).

From what I've seen over more than a quarter-century, Michael's whole life, academic and otherwise, has been guided by his deep liberality and rationality--his conviction that any two people, or any two tribes or religions or genders or anything else, assuming even just the most minimal of civic connection, nonetheless can and should be friends. Not just mutual sharers of procedural tolerance, but people who share, in the midst of their endless and perhaps necessary disagreements, a desire for the well-being of one another. This liberal Christianity is how he approaches the contentious world around him, and around us all. It's a rather beautiful ideal--even, perhaps, as Smith suggested, a revolutionary one, though Michael's notion of civic friendship doesn't really have a place for those who see a need to revolt against that which sometimes makes friendship harder than it should be. That's a flaw, perhaps. But this Memorial Day, I salute Michael's patriotic defense of civic friendliness, American-style, and of the choice to talk and listen to one's fellow citizens with openness, seriousness, and respect. Buy three copies, and given them away to the first MAGA hat-wearer and first BLM protestor--and then, most crucially, the first snooty "pox-on-both-your-houses!" self-righteous supposed independent--you meet. None of them may need the book, or like it--but you never know.