Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sunrise, Sunset, Etc. (Sniff)

Don't be so slow, Mom; I want to get across this bridge! Well, I know where I'm going; you come along later.
Dad, leave me alone; I've discovered something here! Just let me figure it out on my own; I'll let you know if I have any questions.
Gosh, you people really take your time! Well, I'm on my way; come and find me if you want later, but I've got places to go.
For Megan, University of Kansas Class of 2017, who has always marched ahead, getting to where she wants to be, and always getting there before anyone else. Never stop, you beautiful young woman you.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

30 on the 30th: Sign o' the Times and "Strange Relationship"

Following up on last month, April's entry into the class of 1987: Prince's stupendous Sign o' the Times.

Did I buy this album as soon as it hit the stores? No way; it was a double-album, and I was much too cheap to spend that kind of money on a Prince album. But I had friends who did buy it, and I listened to it whenever I could, to try to dig into the rich catalog it displayed beyond the radio hits ("U Got the Look" most especially). Growing up as I did in a conservative but not particularly controlled family environment, it was easy to be scandalized by Prince, and there were various comparisons that I, like many others, made in my head between him and Michael Jackson. This Slate article captures some of that (and yes, I do remember watching that Billy Crystal skit on SNL), but for me in particular there was a kind of Buddy Holly vs. Elvis Presley quality to it: Prince was terrifically talented, sure, but he also was dangerous, probably corrupt, at the very least a provocateur for the sake of provocation. Better to stick with the safe, good kid from the Jackson 5 (or so it was easy for a white 18-year-old kid to believe at the time).

But the tracks on Sign o' the Times challenged all that, or at least started to. Yes, my musical tastes at the time were pretty limited, but still: I was aware of Parliament Funkadelic, I'd heard of James Brown, I watched Soul Train on occasion. Listening to "Sign o' the Times," "Starfish and Coffee," or "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man," I realized: this man was coming up with original, cool takes on all sorts of soul and R&B, not to mention rock and roll. It would take me years to fully articulate this opinion, but I think it was with this album, way back during my senior year, that I realized that Prince wasn't just some brilliant, oversexed weirdo, but rather was actually one of the most talented pop songwriters and performers of the second half of the 20th century, up there with Bowie and Dylan. Michael Jackson? A great and culturally important entertainer and singer, for certain, but that's all. Prince, on the other hand, really was The Artist, and Sign o' the Times was the proof.

What track to play? "Strange Relationship," a funky, upbeat love song with just a touch of Prince's ever-present naughtiness. This is a live performance from Las Vegas, and I love the horns.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

30 on the 30th: The Joshua Tree and "Running to Stand Still"

A few days ago, while listening to a local radio station, a series of songs, all from the year 1987--my senior year and my first year of college, a year fully three decades distant from me now--sent me on a nostalgia trip. Of course, when it comes to pop music, I do that rather easily. But a quick bit of Googling started me thinking as well: whatever social and psychological reasons may account for the affection I felt for that music, and for so much else that was on pop radio that year, the fact simply remains: 1987 was a tremendous year for solid, rocking, blusey, folky, loud, funky, brilliant, powerful pop tunes. Running through the list of albums released that year, albums that I have played to death (as both cassette tapes and compact discs) over the past 30 years, convinced me: this is a series worth putting on the blog.

So, while I missed January and February, beginning today, on the 30th of every month, through the end of the year, I'm going to highlight one of those great 1987 albums, and one track in particular from it that I remember and love. I'm not a music critic, so this is just going to be a personal reminiscence: 10 albums that are 30 years old (and I'm going to try to note them as close as possible to their actual release dates), that I still can happily listen to all the way through (and so should you).

First up, probably the biggest of them all: U2's The Joshua Tree, released in early March, 1987. An album that became so anthemic, so iconic, that of course it now attracts all sorts of revisionist criticism and contempt...but no one, not even the people who voice such attitudes, actually believe them, because the songwriting, the instrumentation, the vocals, the guitars, the drums, the whole package of American blues, Irish folk, barely sublimated Christianity, and focused rock and roll power, remains overwhelmingly excellent. With the possible exception of "Trip Through Your Wires," which is a pretty straightforward makeshift blues tune, there isn't a dud on the whole album, and fully half of the tracks are out and out masterpieces. For all that, it's not my favorite U2 album (I'm one of those oddballs that love the mix of apologetic pretension and self-indulgence on Rattle and Hum). But it is, probably, their one utterly essential recording. I can remember driving through the backwoods of central Virginia, in the summer of 1993, getting completely lost while looking for a friend's house during a weekend off from my internship in Washington DC, and playing this tape over and over--and somehow, in those hot green woods, the moody, passionate anthems of U2 were exactly what I needed to hear.

What track to play? "Running to Stand Still," the most beautiful tune on the album, a wonderfully humble collection of lyrics about love and self-destruction that carries across the decades all the more effectively for that simplicity. This is the live performance from Rattle and Hum, of course.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

On Dreher's Benedict Option, the Christians and Localists Who Can Live It, and the Ones Who Can't

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Rod Dreher and I aren't close friends, but I've been blessed with the opportunity to associate with and learn from him a handful of times over the years, and like tens of thousands of his blog's regular readers, I've been further blessed by the ideas and arguments his writings have sparked in me--even the writings of his that I've thought to be overwrought, off-the-mark, or just plain wrong. The publication of The Benedict Option, a manifesto that he's been mulling over ever since he first staked out intellectual territory as a "crunchy conservative" more than ten years ago, feels like a capstone to that long intellectual association. I don't mean that to sound like a dramatic conclusion or completion; Rod and I, like many others, will no doubt continue to argue in a friendly way about all these issues for a long time to come. But this book helps me understand, better than I ever have before, a gap which exists between his perspective on what both community and Christianity mean and my own. Perhaps future events or arguments will lead to that gap being bridged, or perhaps they will widen it even further. For now, though, it exists, somewhat avoidable in its breadth, but by no means impossible to speak across. That, too, is a blessing.

I have three points to make about this book. The first is that it's really pretty great. Some chapters are better than others, but all are solid, as much as your mileage of appreciation may vary. (For example, I found chapter 2, "The Roots of the Crisis," in which Rod lays out the whole intellectual history of Western Christendom's rise to and fall from sociopolitical and cultural prominence in 26 pages, a little simplistic and pat, but those who aren't scholars may well disagree with me; on the other hand, I thought chapter 10, "Man and the Machine," was a sharp, haunting synthesis of the many powerful arguments which have been made regarding the "fatal error" of accepting unquestioningly "a world mediated by technology"...though I have no doubt that plenty of conservative Christian couples who only have children thanks to in vitro fertilization will be infuriated by his description of the damaging liberationist logic which he sees that practice as implicitly licensing--pp. 223, 234-235.) Overall Benedict Option is not, I think, Rod's best writing; ideas are most deeply and effectively explored when they are organically revealed in the context of a story, and he did that better when he told the tale of his sister's life, her death, and the hometown they shared in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (a book I couldn't write enough about when it first came out, and which I still buy copies of to give to students of mine as they graduate, marry, or move away), and then again when he wrote a spiritual autobiography of sorts as a sequel, How Dante Can Save Your Life. Benedict Option isn't organic in that sense; while there are stories in it, they are arranged to serve as parts of his argument. Here the ideas, not the stories, come first.

The second thing to say about this book is what all those ideas are for--but in all likelihood, anyone who has read this far already knows the answer to that question. Rod's great desire is for what he accepts as the truth claims and the culturally and spiritually formative power of traditional Christianity to be conserved, in the midst of a world which he sees as denying and undermining the conservation of both of those things left and right. By so doing, Rod argues that the moral stability (and thus the social and cultural stability as well) of Western civilization is at great risk. "We Christians in the West are facing our own thousand-year flood....The light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West. There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization....This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world....The floodwaters are upon us--and we are not ready" (p. 8).

So far, so very much like many other reactionary jeremiads, whether from James Burham in the 1960s or from Newt Gingrich in the 2010s. But Rod's great insight, one which he has expanded upon and deepened as he has worked out the implications of being a "counter-cultural" conservative, is that the usual political tools of conservation which many American Christians have trusted in ever since the rise of post-WWII fusion conservatism--namely, using political organizing to capture and then maintain a commitment to the Republican party as a way to defend economic freedom, provide for a strong defense, and codify into law socially traditional Christian moral principles--have utterly failed. Hence the need for a turn to an older strategy--one older, as the above referenced intellectual history implies, than the founding of the United States, and indeed older than the entire post-Protestant Reformation socio-economic project of liberal individualism and moral pluralism. Rod's strategy is one of strategic withdrawal from (which also means, as Alan Jacobs astutely observed, a greater strategic attentiveness to) the ordinary cultural practices of the modern world around us, with the aim of developing sustainable local and communal alternatives to them, as the Benedictine monks of old did in the face of the chaos of the post-Roman world. "American Christians are going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that we live in a which our beliefs make increasingly little sense. We speak a language that the world more and more either cannot hear or finds offensive to its ears. Could it be that the best way to fight [this] flood is to...stop fighting the flood?" (p. 12).

The idea of recasting a broad social and cultural transition and struggle as something other than a straight-up political battle between interest groups and party factions is hardly new, of course. But Rod expresses the ideal of this old vision--a humble, communitarian, civic, populist, local, familial, and "tending" vision, to use the language of political theorist Sheldon Wolin--beautifully:

Here's how to get started with the antipolitical politics of the Benedict Option. Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbors. It is not enough to avoid what is bad; you must also embrace what is good. Start a church, or a group within your church. Open a classical Christian school, or join and strengthen one that already exists. Plant a garden, and participate in a local farmer's market. Teach kids how to play music, and start a band. Join the volunteer fire department....We faithful Orthodox Christians didn't ask for internal exile from a country we thought was our own, but that's where we find ourselves. We are a minority now, so let's be a creative one, offering warm, living, light-filled alternatives to a world growing cold, dead, and dark....Ceasing to believe that the fate of the American Empire is in our hands frees us to put them to work for the Kingdom of God in our own little shires (pp. 98-99).

Rod's description of "antipolitical politics" is deeply influenced by the writings of dissidents from Eastern Europe during the era of communist tyranny there, Vaclav Havel most particularly. He sees the Benedict Option as a way to talk about Christians building, as Czech and Soviet and other dissidents had to, "'parallel structures' in which the truth can be lived in community," a "parallel polis" for the sake of "establishing (or re-establishing ) common practices and common institutions that can reverse the isolation and fragmentation of contemporary society" (pp. 91-92, 94). What he's talking about is coming to recognize that ordered actions and traditions, routines of integrity and sacrifice and commitment, performed in particular places among a shared community, are valuable in themselves, and not because it may have some practical consequence in the public world. In comparison to the utilitarian and individualistic assumptions of liberal modernity, this is a powerful vision.

It is also, in a perverse way, an appealing one; few are the people who haven't, at one point or another in their lives, enjoyed seeing themselves as the lone sane people in the room, as the brave and necessary and suffering resistance to a malevolent agenda, whether embodied in some ignorant bureaucracy or a hateful boss. But there is a complication which comes relying upon such language: it tends to reinforce a circle-the-wagons mindset, thus making the appeal to an alternative seem more exclusionary than perhaps it ought to be. The attention which Rod--a strong moral traditionalist when it comes to sexual morality, who writes that "the modern re-paganization called the Sexual Revolution can never be reconciled with orthodox Christianity" (p. 197)--has paid on his blog, and in this book, to same-sex marriage, transgender issues, and more, often takes this form. In a response to a review of The Benedict Option by Emma Green, in which she notes that the book provides very little advice on how conservative Christians should deal with "the LGBT Americans they blame for pushing them out of mainstream culture"--something Green correctly observes Benedict Option Christians couldn't avoid even if they wanted to, since there will always be "challenges at the boundaries of sub-cultures," Rod becomes a little defiant:

LGBT activism is the tip of the spear at our throats in the culture war. The struggle over gay rights is what is threatening our religious liberty, putting Christian merchants out of business, threatening the tax-exempt status and accreditation of Christian schools and colleges, inspiring the federal government to order public schools to allow transgenders into locker rooms....Our religious liberty and the doctrinal integrity of our churches, especially our understanding of human nature and the meaning of sex and the family, depends on it.

There are lots of "ours" in those sentences, just as the passages quoted above speak of "we Christians" a lot. Of course, American Christians are Rod's target audience, and he's one himself, so that makes sense. But the more you dig into this book, the clearer it becomes that, as much as what he has to say about liturgy ("corporeality is how God created us to function....liturgies do more than pass on information....they form our imaginations and our hearts"--pp. 109,111), work ("Germany's strict laws mandating shop closing times...make life less convenient for consumers...but...the protection of that regulation....cultivate[s] more balanced, integrated lives for the German people"--p. 178), community ("we have to start order to know what our neighbors need and want, we will have to be close to them"--p. 95), and technology ("to see the world technologically, then, is to see it as material over which to extend one's as a worldview trains us to privilege what is new and innovative over what is old and familiar and to valorize the future uncritically"--p. 221) may appeal to and positively provoke many, Rod really isn't speaking to all of us Christians. Which leads to the third thing to say about his book: that its persuasiveness is very much dependent upon looking inside yourself, and figuring out whether you are part of its true target audience or not.

Rod writes that the Benedict Option is of crucial importance to "orthodox Christians" (sometimes using a small o, sometimes a capital O) or "believing Christians" or "faithful Christians" or "serious Christians," all of whom "recognize the toxins of modern secularism." But recognizing that isn't probably enough--after all, there are thousands of liberal Christians and others who would readily admit to the role modern secularism has played in robbing American culture of a way of talking about the necessity of justice and the plague of greed. (Think of anything written by Ron Sider or Karen Armstrong or Jim Wallis or dozens of others, or most anything published in Sojourners or Commonweal.) So more specifically, Rod means "faithful Orthodox Christians...theological conservatives within the three main branches of historical Christianity." But even more, it means believers who have "internalized" the "classical Christian view" that "[t]he point of life, for individual persons, for the church, and for the state, is to pursue harmony with [Christianity's] transcendent, eternal order" (pp. 18, 54). But even there we have a problem. At one point Rod refers to Hillary Clinton as someone "deeply hostile to core Christian values" (p. 89)--yet I strongly suspect that Clinton herself (a life-long church-attending Bible-quoting Methodist, one who has frequently spoken publicly about her prayer life) could quickly--and honestly--assent to believing that "the point of life is to pursue harmony with a transcendent eternal order." Rod has long been bothered--and rightly so--by "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," a sociological label developed to capture the vague spiritual sensibilities held by so many Americans, but allows that even that collection of beliefs includes the conviction that God "created and orders the world" (p. 10). So it can't simply be a matter of affirming the existence of a "transcendent, eternal order"; the Benedict Option is, I think, to Rod's mind, essential to the cultural survival of a Christianity with a very particular doctrinal version of the universal moral order.

The importance of doctrine rears its head when Rod writes, briefly, about my own faith, Mormonism, and some of the ways our congregations work to encourage "unusually strong social bonds" and a "unified community of believers": "The Latter-day Saints (LDS, or Mormons) may not be Orthodox Christians, but they are exceptionally good at doing the kind of community building a vital part of being a Christian" (pp. 131-132). I don't mean to make a big deal out of this generous passage, especially since Rod surely knew that his book would be read by any number of old-school evangelical Protestants for whom Mormonism is a dangerous cult and thus must be discussed carefully. But still: so we're not Orthodox Christians, in The Benedict Option's particular definition of "Orthodox Christians," even though he then goes on to say that we're doing exactly what, in his view, Orthodox Christians in today's secular world should be doing? Well, of course, I suspect he might reply; what you do is important, but so is where you stand, doctrinally and denominationally, when you do it. (Rod's complimentary words attracted some thoughtful attention in Mormon circles, but none focused on this particular point, perhaps mainly because most American Mormons couldn't care less about the doctrinal boundaries of traditional Christian denominations.)

So clearly, Rod's argument does not escape doctrinal presumptions. To his credit, he does not over-emphasize this. On the contrary, he speaks highly of intentional Christian groups which take an ecumenical approach to membership (so long as they "avoid watering down doctrinal distinctives for the sake of comity"--p. 137), and he never denies to those who don't hold to his correct doctrine of the eternal order the right to label themselves "Christians"; he never calls Hillary Clinton an apostate or an anti-Christ, for example. But still, he plainly believes that there are Christians--like himself--whose doctrinal take on "core Christian values" will make them targets when and if religious protections which long sheltered religious traditionalists from the full give and take of modern liberal pluralism are taken away...and then there are those that, for better or worse, are already pluralistic enough that living in a "post-Christian" nation will not be threatening. The Benedict Option is a strategy for the former group.

The clearest way to know if you are in that former group, I think, again comes back to sexual morality, about which Rod has written much and thoughtfully before. "Sexual practices are so central to the Christian life that when believers cease to affirm orthodoxy on the matter, they often cease to be meaningfully Christian," Rod writes, and the greatest example of that heterodoxy, in his view, is the belief that sexuality is subject to individual determination--that it is not essentially a corporeal, or communal, or cosmic, but rather a consumer good: "Sexual autonomy, seemingly the most prized possession of the modern person, is not only morally wrong but a metaphysical falsehood." Hence, the line is drawn. If you are essentially opposed or want to distance yourself from any kind of sexual identity or practice which exists aside from or outside of "the covenant through which a man and a woman seal their love exclusively through Christ," then Rod sees you as likely the kind of Christian that is probably in need to seeking a Benedict Option solution in your life  (p. 197, 200-201). If you're not, though, then the Benedict Option probably won't be necessary.

Of course, ideas have a life of their own, and the fact that Rod's argument for the Benedict Option includes elements that are pretty much incompatible with how my wife and I understand the needs of our family at the present time (for example, Rod's emphatic insistence that "it is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system"--p. 155--really doesn't resonate with us) in no way prevents me from taking inspiration--a localist, communal, tending inspiration--from the ideas Rod presents. But it is, nonetheless, a cause for reflection when one comes across such a stark gap. Alan Jacobs strongly dislikes Rod's tendency to talk about the Benedict Option by way of "tip of the spear at our throats"-type formulations, but he wonders if he doesn't have a motivated interest for thinking that way, and that perhaps Rod and his audience of doctrinally traditional believers are "just better Christians" than he is. Liberal Christian (and liberal Mormon!) that I am--as much as I dislike the baggage carried by those particular labels--I confess: I wonder that as well. But I also wonder if Rod's determination on this point may at least partly reflect a perspective that hasn't yet been fully disentangled himself from the tight political association which right-wing Catholics and evangelical Protestants built into the electoral infrastructure of the Republican party from the 1970s through to the 2000s, an infrastructure that became so second-nature to culture war arguments in the wake of the 1960s that the America-centric perspective it lends to debates over Christianity's doctrines and social role is probably pretty hard to shake.

Two examples from The Benedict Option. While writing about the importance of staying involved enough to fight on a national level of religious liberty guarantees, even while focusing primarily on building up local and familial religious practices and resources, Rod comments that "without a robust and successful defense of First Amendment protections, Christians will not be able to build the communal institutions that are vital to maintaining our identity and our values" (p. 84). There's a lot of sense to that...and yet, it's a comment which he makes immediately after having devoted an entire chapter to thoughtfully (and justly!) praising the Monastery of St. Benedict in Norcia, Italy, as an antidote to the disorder of the modern antidote which exists in a country where, obviously, there is no First Amendment. And yet, they abide.

Another, more relevant, example: Rod writes that "Marriage has to be sexually complementary because only the male-female pair mirrors the generativity of the divine order" (p. 201). There are fascinating debates that could--and should!--be had here regarding natural law, Platonic philosophy and the Great Chain of Being, the Holy Spirit, the authority of tradition, and the Hebraic core of actual Biblical ethics (Rod insists that real Christians cannot "abandon clear, binding biblical teachings on homosexuality" (p. 213), but surely only the most blinkered devotee of Biblical inerrancy would insist that the traditional conservative condemnation of homosexuality as disordered can be fully elaborated from the seven short verses in the entire canon of the Bible which mention it)...but even setting all those discussions aside, it is worth noting that Rod speaks of "marriage" here--the civic, legal institution--as opposed to "sexual relations"--that is, the practice which impacts directly upon his understanding of the moral telos of our created embodiment. Which prompts the question: even if one accepts "the generativity of the divine order" as a doctrinal, cosmic, anthropological fact, what does that necessarily have to matter for how a society which does not have an established church--and Rod never calls for one!--chooses to legally respond to the reality of sexual pluralism (a reality which Rod does not deny, even going to far as to point out the many ways Christians need to repent of their "rejection and hatred" of gays and lesbians in the past--p. 213)? Yes, yes, there will be marginal cases, issues involving children, involving those who lack material resources and are culturally adrift, involving conflicts over clashing rights in arenas of medicine, education, business, caregiving, and more. I've never denied the importance of these marginal cases (much as I didn't care for much of the baggage attached to the case, I think Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius was correctly decided, and have said so repeatedly). But to take those marginal concerns, and see in them a wave which will flood public Christianity entirely away is, I suspect, to have at least some part of one's thinking frozen in an era when a particular kind of traditional Christian doctrine really did serve as an at least informal civic establishment in the United States, conveying the idea that if the dominant institutions and practices of public life weren't legally shaped around and weren't politically supportive of the cosmic order, the functions of the universe itself would be violated. Well, count me as modern--and, while you're at it, as Augustinian too: I just don't think, even if I believed all the foregoing was true (and I don't, not anymore; I changed my mind about same-sex marriage five years ago), I just don't see our collective individual choices necessarily having such permanent cultural warping effects on the world around us, nor do I see such cultural warpings as disturbing God's sovereign intentions for the universe even one tiny bit.

So I come to the end of this fine and challenging book and have to conclude: Rod's thoughtful and important call for strengthening our families and rebuilding our communities by way of the same rules of attentive withdrawal and humble practice which communist dissidents and Catholic monks alike long exemplified is one that I can be inspired by and learn from--but it's a lesson he's not actually directing it at me. This makes me sad, a little bit: because when I look at the end of the book, and I read passages like this...

The Benedict Option is a call to undertaking the long and patient work of reclaiming the real work from the artifice, alienation, and atomization of modern life. It is a way of seeing the world and of living in the world that undermines modernity's big lie: that humans are nothing more than ghosts in a machine, and we are free to adjust its settings in any way we like (p. 236).

...I think to myself: yes, that's what I want and need. If I am to make rational sense of the fact that I find my soul responding to much of Rod's antipolitical politics, his parallel polis, his localist alternatives, and his traditionalism, will I need, ultimately, a deeper conversion? Maybe. Or maybe not. But in the meantime, I hope Rod never forgets: for all our disagreements (and some of them are pretty huge), there are plenty of capitalist dissidents and liberal communitarians and heterdox Christians and modern pluralists and aspiring "intenders" like me who think you're on to something. Even if you're not talking to us, we're listening, and we like a lot of what we hear, and are thankful for it.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Mid-Sized Meditations #13: How Big Does a City Need to Be to Go Blue?

(It's been a while since I wrote one of these; nearly 2 1/2 years since I started the series, and I don't know how well the current topic fits with where my research continues to wander. But as The Wichita Eagle ran today a shortened version of some of my thoughts here, I ought to at least try to make them fit.)

Here in Wichita, KS, we have a special election coming up on April 11. The congressman from the Kansas 4th congressional district, Mike Pompeo (who, for the record, I always kind of liked as a straight-up, by-the-book, uncomplicated and unconflicted Reagan conservative) was Trump's choice to be the new director of the CIA, and that meant a replacement was needed. In February the local Republican and Democratic parties chose their candidates (the Libertarian party did as well, but for purposes of this analysis, I feel comfortable setting Chris Rockhold, who I'm sure is a perfectly nice guy, aside), and the choices were revealing--and not just in terms of political ideology. They reflect even more, I think, a shifting in how these two Kansas parties are choosing to deal with our existing political geography--or rather, how one party is arguably resisting, denying, or ignoring an important potential political shift, while the other has chosen to bet on the possibility that this shift, centered in the mid-sized city of Wichita, has a real chance of electoral success.

On the Republican side, candidate Ron Estes is the State Treasurer of Kansas, a long-time Republican politician, and a vocal supporter of Governor Brownback and President Trump (see here and here) who, in his acceptance speech last month, remembered to acknowledge every major faction in the Kansas Republican establishment: pro-life voters, small-government activists, promoters of an aggressive national defense, and more.

On the Democratic side, by contrast, James Thompson is a political newcomer, someone whose engagement with Democratic politics is more in line with the challenge to the Democratic establishment posed by Senator Bernie Sanders (who handily defeated Secretary Clinton in the Kansas Democratic caucus last spring, which I wrote about here). While Thompson does in some ways resemble those few Democrats that have achieved success in Kansas outside of the 2nd congressional district (that is, outside of the Kansas City-Lawrence-Topkea area) over the past 25 years--he is, for example, a military veteran who is culturally comfortable around guns, even identifying himself as a "strong 2nd Amendment man"--he departs in some important ways from the old model of Democrats like Wichita's Dan Glickman: rather than being conservative or at least quietly moderate on certain social issues, he is strongly committed to defending the rights (including reproductive rights) of women, racial minorities, and the LGBT community, as well as taking consistently progressive positions on taxation (opposing Governor Brownback's insistence that business owners not pay taxes) and poverty (promoting an increase in the minimum wage) and trade (opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership).

So Estes is a conservative Republican and Thompson is a progressive Democrat? Perhaps--but there's more to it than that.

Note that Estes’s primary commitment is to political movements that have been constructed and taken root both nationally and state-wide. There were Republicans competing for the 4th congressional district nomination which represented a conservatism that might have dissented from elements of Brownback’s record or Trump’s agenda, but they never really threatened Estes’s level of support. Ultimately, Estes is a loyal Kansas Republican, and the Republican establishment’s endorsement of him was no surprise. He really is best understood as a creature of a state-wide, and a nation-wide, conservative party infrastructure. In a country which just elected a president on the basis of, when you come right down to it, just a half-million or fewer votes spread across the rural and exurban counties three mostly white states, a Republican candidate like Estes makes sense.

Thompson's win of the Democratic nomination, which came only after a close race against Dennis McKinney--a former state legislator and very much the model of the sort of Democrat that was once, a generation ago, frequently (if not regularly) successful in non-northeastern Kansas politics: namely, a Democrat who is culturally conservative, strongly populist , with farming roots--doesn't immediately make the same amount of sense. A political newcomer, a Wichita lawyer, a progressive Democrat, running in a district that includes (thanks to redistricting) a significant chunk of rural south-central and southwestern Kansas? Don't the Democrats need to run a well-known, electorally proven moderate or conservative to have any kind of chance? Certainly there were plenty of people around here that were saying exactly that. But the Democratic party delegates took a chance of something different--and they weren't without reason to do so, I think.

Thompson's nomination is one more small data point in an evolving Democratic party. The evolution he at least partly reflects isn't just a matter of his connection to Bernie Sanders’s failed but energizing challenge to Clinton and the Democratic party establishment. It is also reflected in the millions of protesters nation-wide (including perhaps 3000 right here in Wichita) who marched to express opposition to the misogynistic and xenophobic implications of Trump’s election. It’s reflected in the way, across the country, progressive activists are organizing around public schools, government offices, and other local institutions to mount an urban popular resistance to what they fear will come from Washington D.C. All the talk of "sanctuary cities" and "islands of blue" in the midst of conservative red states--Atlanta in Georgia, Salt Lake City in Utah, Charlotte in North Carolina, etc.--all this and more is potentially a component in what Thompson’s candidacy presents the 4th congressional district with. It is certainly a component of what got him nominated, as his support among Democratic delegates found great strength among those who applauded his extensive work as a civil rights lawyer throughout the city of Wichita.

Now, Wichita votes consistently more Republican than any of those aforementioned cities, and its urban population isn't as large or as racially diverse or as skewed towards high-tech, government, or academic-centered employment as any of theirs are either. So outside of large metro agglomerations or straight-up university towns or state capitols--which, between those three variables, explains well the persistent (though not always electorally successful) liberal base of northeastern Kansas--is the political divide between cities and their surrounding counties just not big enough to make a difference? The 4th congressional district of Kansas includes in its borders 672,000 people; all but 30,000 of those are part of Wichita's metropolitan area. Obviously many tens of thousands of those people are conservative, Republican-voting Kansans--but more of those individuals, proportionally speaking, are to be found living in Wichita's residential neighborhoods and its surrounding suburbs and bedroom communities. What about the tens of thousands of people who live in Wichita's downtown, in College Hill, in Delano, in Linwood, in Riverside, in Chisholm Creek, in Crown Heights? Lots of people who vote Republican live in those places too, of course--but might there be a chance that in those urban neighborhoods, among Wichita's African-American, Hispanic, immigrant, single, younger, and more secular populations, there could be enough progressive voters (or at least enough anti-Brownback and anti-Trump voters) to put a Democrat over the top in a district that has been Republican since Bill Clinton was president? It's a risky choice, but not just a Hail Mary pass; there is actual data regarding the changing political culture of America's cities to back it up.

In nominating Thompson, the Kansas Democratic party is watching to see if a different kind of campaign–one that balances urban issues with rural ones, and one more forthrightly connected to the interests of Kansas’s more diverse and more independent urban and suburban populations–has a chance of success. And the national Democratic party, I'm sure, will be watching too. Ever since the rise of the Occupy Movement and Black Lives Matter, ever since Sanders’s challenge to the Clinton machine, there have been questions whether a strongly progressive party might–especially given the level of support for such movements among the diverse residents of America’s cities–have a real electoral chance. It would be fascinating if Wichita, KS, rather unexpectedly, becomes one of the first real tests of that idea.

Friday, January 20, 2017

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

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

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Five Best Books I Read in 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Five Best Movies I Saw in 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

After Trump #2: Getting Populism Right

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 26, 2016

After Trump #1: Getting Urbanists and Localists Together

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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