Remember thy congregation, which thou hast purchased of old; the rod of thine inheritance, which thou hast redeemed; this mount Zion, wherein thou hast dwelt.
–Psalm 74:2 (KJV)
At 7am on a Monday morning, I talked with Death on a mountain.
IT’S HARDLY A MOUNTAIN. IT’S BARELY A HILL.
I’m writing this, and so I can call it a mountain if I want. Besides, I’m from Wichita, KS; a sudden 40 ft.-elevation hill is genuine geographic landmark.
SO YOU’RE NOT EVEN GOING TO PRETEND TO BE UNAWARE THAT YOU’RE THE AUTHOR HERE.
IN THAT CASE I SHOULD CONGRATULATE YOU ON FINDING THE RIGHT FONT FOR MY VOICE. I APPRECIATE YOUR ATTENTION TO DETAIL.
TO RETURN TO MY EARLIER POINT, THOUGH, YOU SHOULD MAKE IT CLEAR THAT YOU’RE NOT, IN FACT, ON A MOUNTAIN, WHATEVER YOU MAY WANT TO CALL IT, BUT RATHER AT THE TOP OF A HUGE PILE OF DIRT IN THE MIDDLE OF A VACANT LOT ACROSS THE STREET FROM YOUR HOTEL.
It’s been here long enough that it’s covered with sagebrush, tumbleweeds, bromegrass, and wild mullein. It’s practically part of the natural landscape by now.
YOU COULDN’T REMEMBER ALL THOSE NAMES. YOU HAD TO LOOK THEM UP LATER, WHEN YOU FINALLY GOT AROUND TO WRITING THIS.
But I recognized the plants; I saw them all the time growing up around here. I just couldn’t remember what they were called.
The same thing happened the previous night, while at the viewing for my father’s body. A few hundred people came, and it seemed as though every person whose face I could dimly recognize remembered my name: old family friends, Scout leaders, congregation members, people from the neighborhood. No one showed any disappointment that I usually couldn’t quite place them, but I was disappointed with myself all the same, for two hours straight. It’s September 26, 2016, and I’m back at my boyhood home of Spokane (now Spokane Valley), WA. Yesterday my six brothers and I, with the invaluable help of our oldest sister’s husband Michael, who knows the funeral business inside and out, dressed my father’s perfectly healthy 73-year-old dead body in his temple clothes. Today, he’ll be buried.
Ok, Death, I’ll start. You’ve surely had this pointed out to you hundreds of billions of times over the millennia, I know, but I’m going to mention it again: do you realize just how unfair, how nonsensical, how–and I do not say this lightly–UNJUST your labors often are? Taking life away from man strong enough, healthy enough, to awaken every weekday morning before 5am to play 18 holes of golf before putting in a full day’s work? A man in better physical shape, at age 73, than practically all nine of his children and all 57 of his grandchildren? A man which no history of heart trouble? A man with a wife of 51-years who struggles with near constant pain, a woman he had built his later years around supporting? A man neck-deep in financial entanglements he was trying to straighten out for his posterity? A man with an older sister who has survived multiple strokes, yet keeps on going? A man dying of a massive heart attack, which hit without warning, while playing golf, with a shopping list in his pocket and e-mails he’d already sent that morning from his phone awaiting reply? How random can you get? A Death Eater hitting him with an Avada Kedavra curse is almost more believable than what actually happened.
You make people angry! Good grief, you made his younger brother, my Uncle Chuck, one of the sweetest, quietest, most retiring, least aggressive and least critical men I’ve ever known, actually upset with God!
HE WASN’T REALLY UPSET WITH GOD.
Oh is that so? That’s surprising; I thought you’d be experienced enough to know that it’s not especially helpful to go around telling people they’re misunderstanding their own feelings!
I’M OLDER THAN ANY HUMAN COULD EVER BE, AND THUS I CAN SPEAK WITH AN AUTHORITY OF EXPERIENCE TO A DEGREE THAT NONE OF YOU CAN. BESIDES, YOU KNOW I’M CORRECT.
That’s true, I do know it. Uncle Chuck wasn’t really angry–he admitted as much in his tearful, beautiful prayer which ended the family visitation with Dad’s corpse before his funeral, really the most moving part of that whole dreadful day. I’m not really angry either. Some people might genuinely feel anger over a death, seeing it as some sort of betrayal, a violation, an act of vindictive harm. But for us, for all us Foxes I think, the angry “whys” were an expression of loneliness, of fear. Fear and doubt about what it’ll mean to live our lives, to take care of Mom, to raise our kids, to continue in the faith, to “keep on keeping on” as Dad would always say, without Dad actually being here, as he always has been. He was such a constant presence, such a competent resource, such a confident and charismatic–and commanding–patriarch. He was a better man than me, better than Chuck, better than anyone I’ve ever known. That may be rude thing to say, and probably both improvable and irrelevant, but it would be ridiculous to pretend that I believe anything otherwise. He was the giant whose shoulders I stood upon, the rock and raw material my life’s choices have been carved out of. Even those choices which resulted in my taking a path distant from my father’s preferences were laid with cobblestones that I retrieved from streams he had first forged. As different as I was from him, the innumerable ways in which I took my bearings from him put all our small, particular differences to shame. Or so it seems today.
I have a book with me on the mountain, a book about grief and grieving by Melissa Dalton-Bradford, given to me by a dear friend before we got on the plane a day and a half ago. I’ve been reading out of it continually, book-marking a few passages. This is one, from near the end:
“Fear not” is a divine injunction straight from God. God Himself, whose sufferings outstrip all the accumulated sufferings of the infinitude of creation, greets us with those words....”Fear not” is God’s steely, conquering command: “Fear, be not! Fear, be gone!”
To exorcise fear, God floods the darkness of this world with His blazing presence. And wherever His presences is, not only can fear not remain, but confidence, peace, contentment, wholeness, strength, and light–all cousins of joy–can flourish. Does the pain of the loss disappear? No. Does my yearning for my son cease? No. Not in the least. But what does happen is that alongside–or better, from within–the pain and yearning comes a sense of being loving upheld by God. The terrifying free-fall of fear ends, just in time, in His hands. (On Loss and Living Onward, pp. 228-229)
I NOTE THAT YOU’RE NOT INCLUDING THE AUTHOR’S REFERENCE IN THE QUOTED PASSAGE TO THE “WEEPING GOD.”
Yeah, I’m kind of conflicted on that point.
DO YOU THINK GOD DOESN’T SHARE YOUR SORROW OVER THE FACT THAT IT WAS TIME FOR ME TO COLLECT YOUR FATHER?
I think–I hope–He does. I’m just not sure it’s helpful to imagine God’s sorrow through such human, ordinary imagery as tears.
DO YOU DISREGARD THE STORY OF JESUS, THE INCARNATE GOD, WEEPING BEFORE LAZARUS’S TOMB IN THE PRESENCE OF MARTHA AND MARY?
Not at all. But does that story suggest that Jesus was “sad”? As in, distraught, unhappy, wretched, bitter, depressed? I can’t relate to that, I’m afraid. Jesus was showing empathy, because He is the perfect empathizer. And yes, I suppose that means that He was moved by the bitterness, the unhappiness, which Lazarus’s death occasioned, and to be so moved, if I’m not going to reduce God to some wholly instrumental being, must mean that He truly experienced some emotion that intruded upon Him, that overcame Him. But that’s all wrapped up in the mystery of an omniscient God who nonetheless suffers for and with us, the mystery of the atonement. I’m not really comfortable with such a presumption of weakness, of subjectivity, being extended into His mystery. God feels compassion, that I am certain of. But whether He is, Himself, a subject to those feelings, I doubt. The firmness expressed in this passage–“steely, conquering command,” “blazing presence”–thus feels more true to me.
YOU LIKE A STRONG GOD. LIKE HOW YOUR FATHER WAS STRONG.
Don’t psycho-analyze me on his point, Death. I can quote Paul, Augustine, Luther, even Neuhaus or McConkie to back me up.
THOSE PEOPLE WOULD HAVE ALL STRONGLY DISAGREED WITH EACH OTHER ON MANY POINTS, ESPECIALLY THE LAST TWO OF THEM.
But they would have all agreed on the most important thing: that God is complete and that His love and instructions for us are perfect, not a work in process.
DO YOU EVEN BELIEVE THAT?
I’m not sure what I believe. All I know is that, as much as it runs against many of my political and moral dispositions, I’ve never been able to help suspecting that it might be true all the same.
THAT WHAT MIGHT BE TRUE?
That God has only one, sole revealed Kingdom on earth, and that therefore every other kingdom, every other family, every other marriage or relationship or personal standard of behavior or collective set of goals or construal of reality which stands apart from that kingdom, is simply wrong. Wrong, and therefore something you ought not bring into your life. That’s what my father believed was true–no, that’s what he knew was true, and I’m not confident enough in my own doubts to be certain that I can discount someone else’s certainty. Especially when so much evidence supported him. His own successes in business, in church, in his family–he attributed them all to his obedience, to his commitment to the modern Mormon order of things, to the scriptures and prayer and holding firm to the iron rod.
I WONDERED WHEN THAT WOULD MAKE AN APPEARANCE.
You can’t think about my father without thinking about it. Or at least I can’t.
BUT ISN’T IT THE CASE THAT JIM FOX BECAME MORE HUMBLE, MORE FLEXIBLE, MORE OPEN-MINDED AS THE YEARS WENT BY? IT’S NOT AS THOUGH THERE WASN’T CONTRARY EVIDENCE TO HIS CONVICTIONS IN HIS OWN LIFE, EXAMPLES THAT PUT ASTERISKS BESIDE HIS TRACK RECORD.
I reject that way of putting things, Death. That’s a way of framing the question which assumes from the outset that all those Iron Rodders, all those orthodox and obedient Mormons, just aren’t as humble, or flexible, or open-minded–all good things!–as we Liahonas are. The whole explosion in the Mormon blogosphere over those videotaped meetings with church leaders a few weeks back, with the Mormon senator who is described as “church-broke”–so many people who said that was appalling, who insisted that submitting completely to the authority of the church is a denial of one’s agency. My basic sympathies are on their side, and yet...are they just reading a different New Testament than I? On where Paul doesn’t start off the Book of Romans describing himself as a “slave” to Jesus Christ? The one where submitting, becoming meek and humble and childlike, isn’t the constant refrain of the prophets and of Jesus Himself?
YET YOU DISPUTE THAT READING.
Only as the only valid one. The scriptures include many voices–for every sin-obsessed Romans there’s a service-oriented James, for every law-focused Deuteronomy there’s a grace-hinting Micah, for every confident Nephi there’s a haunted Jacob. Just because I can read one part of the canon against another doesn’t mean that there’s something necessarily invalid about a reading that disagrees with what your basic sympathies want to be correct. Because they might not be. Dad was absolutely “church-broke,” through and through–and he had a great life, one which resulted in a huge amount of good being done in the lives of many. Can I really say with confidence that it wasn’t his “church-brokeness” which enabled that? No, I can’t. I may doubt it, I may question it, my basic disposition may point away from that conclusion, but I can’t dismiss the possibility. The Liahona critique of the Iron Rod is too easy.
SO YOU’RE HAUNTED BY HIS STRENGTH, AND THE FACT THAT HIS STRENGTH MAY HAVE BEEN GROUNDED IN HIS OWN DETERMINED SUBMISSION TO WHAT HE WAS CONFIDENT WAS TRUE.
ALL OF THAT WOULDN’T STOP YOU FROM, FOR EXAMPLE, POINTING OUT THAT HE WAS RARELY MEEK AND HUMBLE AND CHILDLIKE IN THE WAY HE WENT ABOUT DOING ALL THOSE GOOD THINGS.
No, Dad wasn’t a particularly humble person. But he was someone who would always listen to what you had to say and treat you with respect. No, he wasn’t at all flexible on those things he was certain were revealed truth–but he was very flexible on anything he assumed wasn’t, and you’d surprised at what that included. And open-minded? If you mean by that “likely to change one’s mind,” then he wasn’t that, especially when it came to politics–but if by open-mindedness you’re suggesting compassion, acceptance, and love, then I’m sorry, but my father’s willingness to serve and help others, regardless of their situation, knew almost no bounds.
Well, yeah. I mean, Mother Teresa he wasn’t. But neither am I.
YOU SOUND PRETTY DEFENSIVE ABOUT ALL THIS, WHICH IS ODD, CONSIDERING THAT YOU’RE ONLY ARGUING WITH YOURSELF.
It’s an argument I’ve been having with myself for decades, and I’ve gotten very good at it. Even with Dad’s death, it may not end.
I had woken up early this morning with a headache–a headache that will continue and worsen throughout at the day, getting the point where I have trouble holding up my corner of my father’s casket as we carry it to the grave, and I end up having to flee all the reminiscing and photo-taking at the luncheon after the funeral and throw up back at the hotel. At the moment, I was sipping a hot chocolate, hoping that the heat and caffeine hit, combined with the Excedrin and the cool just-post-dawn breeze that whips around me as I stand at the top of the mound across the street from the hotel nearly the whole extended family is staying at, will help my head. It won’t, but hope springs eternal. Finishing the hot chocolate, I realize I need to pee. Looking around, I find steep, perhaps 7-foot deep depression on the top of this man-made, weed-covered hill, and I slide down in to relieve myself.
AN ESSAY ON YOUR FATHER’S DEATH AND YOUR OWN EFFORTS TO DEAL WITH IT, AND HERE YOU ARE WRITING ABOUT URINATION.
People are always confusing orthodoxy with piety, confusing strictness with humorlessness, confusing having high expectations with being straight-laced and puritanical. Don’t tell me you do that too?
SINCE YOU’RE WRITING MY WORDS, YOU’LL HAVE TO ANSWER THAT QUESTION.
Okay, fine, sometimes they do go together, but it’s not like we Liahona Mormons, we doubters and cynics and questioners, don’t often fulfill our own ugly stereotypes–condescension, indecisiveness, superficiality–as well. When I’m honest with myself, I can see that I grew up in an environment that mostly put the lie to all the typical accusations lobbed at True Blue Mormons. My Dad wasn’t a Puritan, he wasn’t Javert: he was fun. That warning about “loud laughter” in the temple ceremony? Never a problem in our house. Irreverence, earthiness, even bawdiness was more common that not. The man loved his Rook games, his water-skiing, his movies, his Louie L’Amour novels, his grilling, his ABBA and Neil Diamond and Frank Sinatra, and most of all his golf. Sure, the discipline was harsh sometimes; harsher than I’ve ever been willing to make use of on my own children, that’s for sure. But it was limited to, comparatively speaking, only a very, very few rules. Some matters in the family could never be questioned, and some conflicts became downright ugly at times, especially as the family grew and mixed with others and produced another generation of its own...but for the most part ours was a loose, loving family, where the expectations, as iron-clad as they may have been, were few in number. Dad never called it this, but we were a family attended by grace, by the sort of blessed, even irreverent, confidence that conviction brings.
DOES CONVICTION ACTUALLY BRING BLESSINGS?
I don’t know. Personally, I suspect not.
YOU THINK GRACE, MIRACLES, BLESSINGS, ALL THE REST–YOU DON’T THINK THERE’S ANY WAY TO AFFIRMATIVELY BRING THEM INTO YOUR LIFE. THEY COME, OR NOT, AS GOD WILLS IT, RIGHT?
AND YOUR FATHER DISAGREED?
Very much so. He held to obedience, to the promises entailed by his broad reading of Ether 12 and D&C 82. Obey and endure and stay confident, for the knowledge and rewards will invariably follow.
SOUNDS SOMEWHAT PURITAN TO ME.
But he never experienced, or at least never communicated, any of the salvation panic which was a constant in Puritan culture. He was never panicked at all, really. And he passed that ease on to us. Maybe it was hard to work out a willingness to obey, to identify with that willingness to obey, but the obedience–the church attending, the calling accepting, the tithing paying, the blessing giving, the meeting running, the service performing, etc.--itself? That came easy, gracefully, without angst or stress, like business dealings or public speaking or anything else.
EXCEPT IT DIDN’T FOR YOU.
Well, some of it did.
BUT NOT THE “OBEDIENCE BRINGS FORTH BLESSINGS” PART.
No, that didn’t, at least not entirely. And maybe it didn’t entirely for any us; I don’t really know. Maybe I’m not the only one who feels like I’m always faking it, always aspiring towards something I’m not even sure I believe in, but kind of want to believe in, or feel like I ought to believe in, nonetheless. Maybe we’re all in the same boat, just assuming that Dad’s confidence and conviction and ease with obedience would come, well, easily to us, eventually, if we could just get things right.
A LOT OF “WE” AND “US” THERE–ARE YOU ACTUALLY TALKING ABOUT ALL YOUR SIBLINGS?
I’M NOT SURE YOU ARE. LOOK AT YOUR LANGUAGE–RUNNING MEETINGS, DEALING IN BUSINESS. AND SO FORTH. THE PRACTICES YOU’RE ASSOCIATING WITH YOUR FATHER’S CONFIDENCE AND GRACE ARE, IN AMERICAN MORMON CULTURE, OVERWHELMINGLY MALE ONES.
Well, they don’t have to be.
BUT THEY MOSTLY ARE, NONETHELESS. DON’T FEEL BAD; I’M NOT TRYING TO CATCH YOU OUT. AFTER ALL, YOU’RE A MALE, RAISED IN A HOME THAT WAS VERY MUCH A PATRIARCHAL, MALE-DOMINATED, PRIESTHOOD-DEFINED UNIT. YOUR SISTERS MIGHT SEE ALL THE THINGS YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT IN CONNECTION WITH YOUR FATHER AND HIS IRON-RODNESS SOMEWHAT DIFFERENTLY.
Maybe–but honestly, in listening to their language, in seeing the value they found in my father’s life, I kind of doubt it.
YOUR SPOUSE AND YOUR SISTERS-IN-LAW, THEN.
Well, okay, sure. Coming into a family where certain key beliefs and practices were firmly modeled (and sometimes disciplinarily enforced), but which a great deal else was simply allowed to go on automatic, to follow an unwritten order, if you will, was not easy. Some of the sisters-in-law struggled with it more than others; some struggle with it still. None, though, I think, discredit its power, or its value.
BUT YOU YOURSELF DISCREDITED IT, SOMETIMES. YOU TOOK YOUR WIFE’S SIDE, AND STOOD AGAINST YOUR FATHER, IN THE MATTER OF NOT HAVING CHILDREN RIGHT AWAY AT THE VERY BEGINNING OF YOUR MARRIAGE, AND THAT DISCREDITING CONTINUED FOR THE NEXT 23 YEARS.
Because, when conflicts arose, my first allegiance is to my wife. And besides, sometimes I thought Dad was wrong.
A REASONABLE DECISION. SO, AGAIN, WHY DO YOU SOMETIMES SEEM DEFENSIVE ABOUT IT?
Because I only thought he was wrong; I didn’t know it. I still don’t know it. And now I probably never will. His decisions, his determination–as much as I couldn’t share in, couldn’t agree with so much of it, it always haunted me, was always something that I would return to him and talk about, again and again. Until now.
It’s beginning to be late in the morning; the long shadows of the rising sun are shortening. There will be a funeral today, and my headache isn’t going away. I look around from my perch on the mountaintop
[EXCUSE ME, DIRT PILE]
and scan the surroundings of Spokane Valley. I can see quite a bit over the roof of the hotel across the street: nearly a dozen water towers, highway on-ramps and off-ramps, and hills covered with trees. Above them all, a few miles to my north, I can see Fox Hill, the property my father bought back during one of the family’s economic upswings (which were always inevitably followed by downswings). On the bluff at the southern edge of that hill, stands the green-roofed log cabin my father had built, envisioning it as a compound that children and grandchildren (and eventually great-grandchildren) could treat as a home away from home, a center-point for family reunions and memories through the decades. It looks, from this distance, like part of the natural shape of the hill that spreads out beneath it. Like a huge brown and green rock, surrounded by scrubs, pine trees, and prairie grass. That home won’t go anywhere, at least not anytime soon, I know–Mom, and all the children, are committed to making sure of that. But nothing lasts forever, much I want them to. I miss him already, very much. Over the past week I’ve found myself weeping in big, gasping bursts, shocking myself in how much it hurts. I suspect that this will be a terrible day, that between my headache and my tears, I’m going to be a wreck. Just a couple of months ago, when I was last visiting Fox Hill for a reunion, I awoke with a headache, and I went wandering all around the trails around the homestead, taking in the magnificent home that my father had been able to build. It helped. I sigh, and while slowly picking my way around thick clumps of weeds and down the loose, dry, sliding dirt of my make-believe mountain, I think to myself: I wish I could do that now. I wish today wasn't today.
DO YOU FEEL HOMELESS?
No. I have a home; Melissa and I have a family, and we’ve made a place for ourselves in Wichita.
THAT’S NOT WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT.
You’re talking about a heimat, a place of origin, the place where, as Frost put it, “when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
Well, then still no, I’m not homeless. Dad may be gone, but Mom remains, the family remains, all the memories and places are still there, and they’ll all still be open to everyone one of us. But yes, things will be different. The conversations will be different. And the arguments which I have in my head? Well, they’ll change. They’ll change a lot.
DO YOU FEAR THAT CHANGE?
Everyone fears change.
Well, sure, some people like being wanderers, loners, discoverers, disconnected individualists. Our culture makes heroes out of them; our politics and economy celebrates outsiders and disruptors; the whole world, in sometimes seemed, is ruled by cosmopolitans who prize the abstract, the theoretical, the mathematical, and make little place in their hearts for the homely. Not me. I may not be a total homebody, but I always want to know in what direction my home lies, and what’s waiting for me there.
YOU’RE NOT A ROLLING STONE.
You know that Dylan’s song is expressing pity and contempt for people who found themselves living such a life, don’t you?
A LIFE WITHOUT BELONGING, WITHOUT IDENTITY, WITHOUT PLACE. AN UNSETTLED LIFE.
Yes. The prospect of losing that is a fearful thing. I guess I’m scared of what’s going to end with Dad’s passing. I’m fearful of what it’ll mean for me, for my family, for Mom, for all us Foxes. I’m not scared of the old homestead being sold or the reunions changing or anything like that, I think; I’m just...worried we’ll lose our way home. Or that I will, at least.
IF YOU DON’T MIND ME SAYING, THAT SOUNDS A LITTLE WEAK.
But I am weak; I know that! I’m feel myself to be one subject to changes and structures and needs and forces and people and sins that are beyond me beyond my reach, and after years of praying about them and philosophizing about them, I no longer feel impelled to interrogate why they oppress me and not others, why I understand them the way I do when others do not. That’s just my lot in life, my thorn, my burden, my struggle. And perhaps my blessing. Another thing which differentiated me from Dad, I guess.
IT MAKES YOU DEPENDENT, IN A WAY HE NEVER WAS.
Not on people, but he was on God. And that’s something we all should be. That’s one thing I can do right, one thing I can do like Dad: grasp hold of and plea for the support of God.
WHOSE TEACHINGS AND DOCTRINES AND AUTHORITY YOU CONFESS YOU DOUBT AND STRUGGLE OVER AND OFTEN FEEL UNCERTAIN OF, HOWEVER MUCH YOU REMAIN COMMITTED TO THIS COMMUNITY THAT YOU'VE INHERITED, AND WHICH YOU HOPE THEY ARE WOVEN INTO.
Yes, I doubt. But I hope too. Better doubt and hope than fear. Holding on to my doubts is a way of holding on that which I think, I hope, that just maybe, sometimes, I am able to believe. Fear is what causes you to stop holding on, stop trusting, stop hoping, entirely.
Well, I'm delighted to hear that, at long last. I wanted to have this essay finished weeks ago.
YOU FIRST HAD TO FIGURE OUT WHERE YOUR ROD WAS. OR WHERE IT WOULD BE, PERHAPS.
No Death, there you're wrong. It hasn't gone anywhere. I just...needed to find a new way to talk about it. To argue with it, I guess.
WHICH IS YOUR WAY OF HOLDING ON TO IT, I SUPPOSE?
You got it, sir.
That evening, after the funeral, after the tears, after the headache had mostly burned itself out, nearly all the siblings--eight brothers and sisters and spouses, with one family opting out to spend time with their own newest grandchild, Dad's first great-grandchild, whom she will never know--gathered for a late meal. We took over a private room at a restaurant, and we ate and joked and laughed and pondered the future. I was still a little light-headed, but happy. I wish Dad could have been there to charismatically command us, and he'd always done before. I wish our rod could have been spared. But he did his work well, and he truly, grandly, loved every minute of it. If we want to continue to feel the direction provided by his work within us, we might as well do the same.
But there is another part of us...that will look around for love. It might only glance at first, eyelids low, fearing what it will or will not find. But in time, it will scavenge like a beast dying of hunger. It will yowl to the empty clouds and bray across the flat horizon for love. It will howl from the bottom of its lungs rendered rigid and brittle from cold. It will limp and then collapse and then belly-crawl for love.
And there, right there, love will be.
Right there, next to us, will be love holding out its everyday arms. Its stranger or next-door-neighbor or school-administrator-made-brother arms.
Right there on the hinge we will find it so that, instead of closing our eyes and waiting to die of the cold, we fall into the radiant reach of love. And we are held. (On Loss an Living Onward, p. 82)
James Russell "Jim" Fox, February 11, 1943-September 19, 2016. Requiescat in pace.
P.S. Obligatory soundtrack.
P.P.S. Non-obligatory tear-jerking video.
Monday, October 17, 2016
Remember thy congregation, which thou hast purchased of old; the rod of thine inheritance, which thou hast redeemed; this mount Zion, wherein thou hast dwelt.
Tuesday, October 11, 2016
[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]
Thirteen months ago, I wrote a blog post that provided a retrospective on a body of ideas on the 20th anniversary of the greatest level of influence they ever had in American discourse. A lot of people told me they liked that post, and saw some real potential in it, especially for helping us understand the thinking of someone who was both a partial product of and shaper of that body of ideas--Hillary Clinton. After much re-writing, expanding, and editing, Commonweal has published a polished revision of that post--titled "It Still Takes a Village"--and I'm delighted with it. But since I'm a completist, I'm posting here the fullest version of all those re-writes, for the tiny number of die-hard communitarians out there, as well as its slightly larger number of dedicated opponents. For all who care: enjoy.
Among the many criticisms regularly lobbed at Hillary Clinton, the perception that her life, her career, and now her march to the White House has been focused, scripted, and controlled to a discomforting degree is one of the most common. She lacks the genius and the foolishness, the expansive generosity and the destructive self-indulgence of her husband, many say; in contrast to Bill, Hillary is depicted in a perfectly calibrated, perfectly adaptable, perfectly predictable political gray. There is much truth to this portrait, as Clinton herself has often admitted on the stump. It’s true that Bernie Sanders’s challenge during the primaries obliged her to respond in some unanticipated ways, and with the profoundly unpredictable Donald Trump as Republican opponent in the general election there will surely be more curve balls ahead which this most programmed of candidates will have to face. Still, despite FBI probes and congressional investigations and her continuing deep unpopularity with large parts of the electorate, Clinton apparently sees little need for introspection, little reason for going off script, and she’s probably not wrong to think that way. She’s qualified, she’s experienced, she’s a known quantity–all things which Donald Trump is not. So why should she rethink her technocratic, hawkish, statist, moderately progressive liberalism? Close to 25% of the American voting population basically agree with her on all the major issues, and more than another 35% are moderate enough to find Trump appalling in comparison to her. So she’ll keep appealing to the Democratic base (or at least to the mostly college-educated and mostly government-friendly parts of it), keep assuring moderates that America’s place in the global economic and military order will not be challenged by her presidency, and stay focused on November 2016–the outcome of which, according to most election-watchers anyway, almost certainly won’t be a surprise.
Twenty years ago, when Clinton’s husband ran for re-election against Bob Dole, the outcome didn’t turn out to be much of a surprise either. By the early fall a script had seemed to emerge, one that reflected the general discontent with the political process that typified so much of the 1990s: that Bill Clinton was slick and talented, full of both warmth and ruthlessness, probably not entirely trustworthy but basically committed to some relatively good ideas, and just so much of contemporary political animal that a stiff, old-school career-politician candidate like Dole couldn’t compete. The week before the election, Time magazine all but acknowledged how nearly all observers knew that low-turnout election was going to go: “It’s not much of a contest, but it is a choice.”
For those who lived through that election and can look back on that choice with twenty years of hindsight, the degree to which all the contestation which roiled the American conversation in 1995 and 1996–and there was a huge amount that did: the Oklahoma City bombing, the O.J. Simpson trial, worries over violent Hollywood movies and video games, fights over welfare reform, the Million Man March, the arrest of the Unabomer, government shutdowns and the blame games which accompanied them, and more–had so little explicit, direct impact on the presidential race itself is striking. In the wake of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the rise of talk radio and CNN as political forums (and, quite quickly, as actors in the national discussion themselves), there seemed a broad feeling throughout the United States that what really needed to be argued about, that the real contest of ideas and possibilities, was deeper than what party leaders and politicians and the new crop of talk-radio and cable pundits presented. It was, rather, something abstract, internal, and apolitical. Elections were so much superficial stuff in the face of such concerns (voter turnout was under 50% in the 1996 presidential elections, the lowest it had been in more than 70 years, and the second-lowest ever since accurate vote-tracking began).
In light of the challenges of terrorism, climate change, globalization, and increasing economic inequality, the introspective, cultural, end-of-history-style critiques of the 1990s–something very much absent from Hillary Clinton’s driven, committed, thoroughly practical presidential campaign, an almost perfect antithesis to her husband’s promise more than two decades to ago to feel voters’ pain–perhaps seem naive. But that is an interesting turn of events, since Clinton herself, in 1996, made a major contribution to that language of critique, with her most-remembered book: It Takes a Village, and Other Lessons Children Teach Us. The worries and perspectives of the era which produced that book, and the arguments which are featured within it, are mostly absent from the Clinton campaign of 2016. Not that she runs away from the book itself or its general sentiment; on the contrary, she explicitly referenced it in her acceptance speech at the Democratic national convention, summarizing the message of the book as “None of us can raise a family, build a business, heal a community, or lift a country totally alone.” Which is not an inaccurate description of the basic upshot of the book she wrote (or had written for her). But reducing a set of ideas which once apparently engaged her at length–ones that, in retrospect, have a complicated relationship with their two-decades-old own moment, and what came after–to a simple invocation of the Democratic party as the party of people working together leaves a huge amount unsaid. As Clinton’s march towards 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue continues, it’s worth revisiting both that book and its milieu, to look deeper at ideas which she and the plurality of voters who will almost certainly put her in the White House for the most part don’t seem to think, in this rigorously partisan moment, are worth arguing over any longer...and yet, just maybe have an implicit place in our national understanding all the same.
Those ideas, worries, concerns, and perspectives actually all share a label, one which Clinton never used in It Takes a Village: “communitarianism.” That term is probably vaguely familiar to many, as well as an opportunity for mockery and invective for a few, but the number of people who could sympathetically connect Clinton’s book and its observations and recommendations to a broad set of identifiably “communitarian” (or, as some preferred, “civic republican” or “Third Way”) concepts is probably tiny. Yet in the mid-1990s both the concepts and the label were riding high, or at least as high as any broadly applicable yet intellectually coherent ideological movement usually ever does in the United States. Running up to his re-election, Bill Clinton regularly presented himself (or encouraged others to present him) as a candidate who embraced a style and perspective that was neither liberal nor conservative, but focused on civic and communal matters which (or so the argument went) had been long ignored by the Republican and Democratic mainstream. Bookstores and the op-ed pages of dead-tree newspapers in 1995 and 1996 were filled with writings that employed explicitly communitarian rhetoric and questions. Probably the single most influential academic article out of the thousands that were publish on communitarian or civic republican themes during the 1990s, Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” was published in 1995; and probably the most significant book published by the scholar most thoroughly associated with communitarianism–Democracy’s Discontent, by Harvard professor Michael Sandel–was published in 1996. (The sociologist Amitai Etzioni, an exhaustive cheer-leader for what he and his compatriots referred to as "responsive communitarianism," published no less than three books on the subject during those two years.) Alan Ehrenhalt's The Lost City, Jean Bethke Elshtain's Democracy on Trial, Daniel Kemmis's The Good City and the Good Life: these books and many more pushed communitarian perspectives which were widely--if not universally--accepted as both distinct from and more important than presidential politics in those brief years. Clinton’s It Takes a Village was right in that mix (not to mention selling ten times as many copies as all of the aforementioned books put together).
The communitarian argument in the U.S., at least in the form I am discussing, had a particular genealogy. It began as a response to the cultural anomie of--and, intellectually, as a challenge to the defense of liberal individualism and neutrality made by thinkers like John Rawls throughout--the 1970s. By the 1980s, its core concepts had been re-appropriated into all number of historical, theological, and other scholarly contexts. But at its heart, communitarianism was essentially a revival and embrace of the centuries-old moral anthropology of classical republicanism, as well as a conviction that the dominant partisan options available in the democracies of the postwar (and then, later, the post-Cold War) world lacked that anthropological awareness. Our full development as social creatures, fellow citizens, and simply human beings, it was claimed, depended upon cultivating civic virtues and an understanding of responsible freedom which individualism (particularly, perhaps, American-style individualism, hearkening here back to Alexis de Tocqueville) often undermines. Thus, the argument continued, forms of economy, government, and personal behavior which give primary (or at least equal) consideration to community identity, integrity, and participation, rather than individual and nonjudgmental liberation, ought to be pursued. In other words, communitarianism began with the res publica (though one could just as easily say--as many Christian writers, particularly Catholic ones like Mary Ann Glendon and David Hollenbach, did--the same thing in a Christian context, and talk of it beginning with St. Paul's description of the unity of the Body of Christ). Some scholars have thought it important to historically distinguish the ideas of republicanism from the category of communitarianism, but standing firm on that point requires too much dedication to some very specific historical reconstructions to be of much use publicly. Very (no doubt too) simply, the popular intellectual argument of the 1990s went like this: if you saw the point of freedom as the achievement of opportunities for independent choice, you were some kind of philosophical liberal; if you saw the point of freedom as the ability to contribute to or deliberate about the common good (or at least common goods), then you must be some kind of communitarian.
Putting it in those terms might suggest a first, rather obvious answer to the question of why whatever traction communitarian arguments seemed to be gaining twenty years ago didn’t appear to last. After all, the 1990s–thanks to the spread of the internet, thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the state socialist parties throughout the world which were aligned with its cause, thanks to the simultaneous explosion of both globalization and irredentism (famously diagnosed in Jihad vs. McWorld, also published in 1995 by another sometimes-communitarian, Benjamin Barber)–was all about the celebration of and the empowerment of individuality. Liberal marketplaces were on the march, and the Moral Majority was out of business. (That decade, in fact, occasioned a profound re-orientation of the Christian conservative concerns that had driven most social conservatives since the 1960s, a re-orientation connected to a recognition of how the doctrine of individual rights was likely to continue to unfold in the U.S.; the notorious First Things symposium “The End of Democracy,” which came out at the beginning of 1996, was a prominent but far from solitary example of such.) So obviously the language of communitarianism--collective responsibilities, not individual rights!--was going to be smothered by the dot-com boom and lost in the wreckage of mainline Christianity in America, right?
Well, perhaps. But then again, that celebration of choice itself probably added to the vague discontent so many felt about and throughout the 1990s, despite the rise in (some of) their 401ks. Ehrenhalt, at least, took very seriously the possibility that, while those in the driver's seat of American culture and politics twenty years ago wouldn't figure out where they'd gone wrong or gone too far and change accordingly, their children perhaps would. They would respond, he suspected, to the expanding discontent around them by rediscovering the value of the authority, the structure, the narratives, and most crucially the limits that healthy communities and moral and civic contexts provide. He concluded The Lost City writing:
[The rising generation] will come to adulthood in the early years of the next century with an entirely different set of childhood and adolescent memories from the ones their parents absorbed. They will remember being bombarded with choices, and the ideology of choice as a good in itself; living in transient neighborhoods and broken and recombinant families where no arrangement could be treated as permanent; having parents who feared to impose rules because rules might stifle their freedom and individuality. Will a generation raised that way be tempted to move, in its early adult years, toward a reimposition of order and stability, even at the risk of losing some of the choice and personal freedom its parents worshiped? To dismiss that idea it to show too little respect for the pendulum that operates in the values of any society, and the natural desire of any generation to use it to correct the errors and the excesses of the one before.
It might be easy to look at an American generation supposedly addicted to selfies and mobile apps and dismiss Ehrenhalt’s predictions as obviously incorrect. Still, perhaps allowances should be made. The young adults I have come to know as a college professor over the past 15 years, women and men a decade or two or more my junior--the famous Millennial generation--emerged from their adolescence, journeyed through their universities and apprenticeships and grad programs, married and began their families (or pointedly chose not to), moved from one place to another, and started their adult working lives, all in the midst of two huge developments that couldn't be more different from the drifting, discontented (but often profitable!) years of 1995 and 1996: the War on Terror and the Great Recession.
The social, political, and cultural consequences of those transformative events are many and diverse, but there are areas of overlap. Both privileged statist, nationalist, indeed civilizational narratives (obviously aided here by increasingly omnipresent, globally-interconnected technologies). The constantly implied message conveyed through the angst and arguments which these developments engendered was that the primary community one was part of, the community which most threatened one's choices or preferences, the community one most need to win, was a big one. If the money-making exuberance, the talk-radio squalor, and occasional overall aimlessness of post-Cold War America in the 1990s made it a little easier (for a moment, anyway) for people to hear a message which called for the abandonment of business as usual and for a move towards a different, more communal and civic, way of conceiving the political stakes around them, then perhaps 9/11, the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Wall Street bankruptcies re-imposed--for many, anyway--an encompassing and divisive rhetorical structure in its place. The United States vs. worldwide terror, Bush vs. the UN, Obama vs. the Tea Party, Red America vs. Blue America, Christians vs. Muslims, libertarians vs. socialists, the West vs. the Rest. (The often outright apocalyptic rhetoric which Trump has both personally benefited from as well as inspired in his opponents is a partial continuation of the same tendency.) The fact that too many communitarian thinkers perversely ramped up their discussion of the res publica to world-historical and international levels, perhaps because they felt obligated by this increasingly dominant rhetorical posture to declare sides in the cultural war, didn't do the ideology any favors. If your typical educated American thinker in her 30s today looks back on these communitarian discussions about America’s civic culture from 20 years ago, and finds them all somewhat intellectually strained, somewhat naive in the face of the desperate tone which crises in global security, constitutional breakdown, and economic division have been presented to her over the past two decades, well, perhaps she can't be blamed.
And yet, maybe she and her generation were also somewhat persuaded by it all as well, without realizing it? It's too easy to assume, for example, that the aforementioned unfolding of individual rights in regards to sexual morality has been entirely without any kind of community-centric awareness, without any kind of attention to social responsibility, civic respect, and permanence. The whole story of how it is that America's political and legal culture went from the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 to Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 will no doubt be told and re-told many times from many different disciplinary perspectives. But surely there must be at least some significance to the fact that, out of all the assaults upon what was long one of this country's default cultural understandings about sexual behavior, the one which generated the greatest sturm und drang–at least since the end of anti-miscegenation laws during the Civil Rights era--was not divorce or polyamory or pedophilia, but rather a push for marriage: a push that, therefore, ultimately invokes ideas (whether openly acknowledged or not) of sexual commitment and limits, not liberation. The inability of many to see this reflects the difficulty of separating the evolving res publica from the historically specific publics we experience, many of which were and are those established through and around conservative Christian churches. Still, despite the many reasons to be troubled by the sexual world which liberal individualism's apotheosis helped usher in a half-century ago, the reality is that our hypothetical average 30-something American intellectual today does not appear, in fact, to have thrown off the idea of this most intimate kind of belonging, but rather has likely strongly embraced--in an admittedly new way, in principle at least--the cause and the right of marrying and giving in marriage.
It is interesting to note how much Clinton, whose career in government and politics has been so thoroughly entwined with expectations and condemnations particular to matters of marriage and motherhood and sexual roles, presented herself twenty years ago as struggling through this same evolution. Not that she addressed it specifically; the few comments about the lives of gay and lesbian Americans in It Takes a Village are entirely non-political. But ultimately one cannot read Clinton’s book today without connecting the positions she hesitatingly laid out there (without necessarily foreseeing their full development) with transformations of the American community that today are broadly accepted. Which prompts another question: why, then, has Clinton, along with many of her strongest supporters, left this perspective aside?
Party, to be sure, because outside the framework of a larger, ongoing communitarian argument, much of her perspective sounds downright conservative. From the start of It Takes a Village, one can’t help but be struck by Clinton’s traditionalism. Using language clearly borrowed directly from Putnam and other communitarian and civic republican writers (though never with any citation), she framed her arguments around a recognition of the dependency of a democratic community–and, centrally, a healthy environment for child-raising–upon stable moral traditions and civic involvement. To this was joined her own--assuming we are to take the text seriously--obvious sympathy for the more civically-involved and family-ordered world of her youth in the 1940s and 50s. The results are sometimes surprising: in her book Clinton speaks unambiguously against no-fault divorce and the casual glorification of sex and violence in music and mass media (she praises both former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett and Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center on these points), and just as clearly in favor of abstinence-promoting education and mandatory school uniforms. Her expression of these concerns, however, almost always returns to her ideal of policies and requirements that will enable families to manage and even thrive upon the cultural and economic transitions which the transformative power of capitalism and the freedom of individual choice make inevitable. That is, Clinton in It Takes a Village was certain that community and family are essential to a truly rewarding childhood, but as she wasn’t calling for the American economy or society to be radically restructured around prioritizing them. Instead, she seemed committed to the idea of government employing what some contemporary writers call “structured paternalism” to conserve those traditional realities. As far as communitarianism goes, this was a very liberal and definitional form of it; its conservatism was in its stipulation, not its substantive critiques (of which the book contains few of, anyway).
This approach is consist throughout the book. For Clinton, the family and community on which individuals, particularly children, depend–the “village,” in other words–is far more threatened by bad corporate actors than by bad cultural developments, and more in need of trained, organized, expert assistance (for providing resources to parents “scouting out child care” options, for assuring “basic safety requirements [and] the experience and training of child care workers” at day care centers, for checking children for “proof of immunization” in public schools, for fighting the “institutional resistance” to maternity and paternity leave policies, for administrating “formal systems [of home visitation] that have as their primary mission good health for all women and babies”) than almost anything else. Clinton’s faith was, 20 years ago, one that readily accepted the original progressive idea of an activist government which employs incentives and structures to make possible a more equitable distribution of those goods, freedoms, and opportunities which individual parents, teachers, and care-givers should want to cultivate in a changing world. It is revealing, I think, that Clinton was honest enough to confess her own regret and self-consciousness at how her own priorities, and the priorities of her generation, contribute to these changes...but never reveals any feeling that any kind of immanent critique of the value which she takes for granted about those priorities might be in order. (Once, when relating a request by 9-year-old daughter Chelsea and a friend that they be allowed to ride their bikes to the public library ten blocks away, a request Clinton refused for safety reasons, she writes: “My reaction may have been disproportionate to the actual risk involved, but it was symptomatic of the general anxiety about children’s safety that grips every parent I know”–all after having described in loving detail her own and earlier generations’ confident freedom to navigate their communities, and without any sense of doubt about the decision in question.)
Her lack of introspection then might be matched with her scripted determination as a presidential candidate today, as well as matched with the--admittedly, sometimes worried--equanimity with which many of those voters who make up one of her core bases of support have internalized her perspective on such matters, both social and intimate. For example, Clinton’s encouragement of sexual abstinence in It Takes a Village, while betraying ghosts of a religious concern with sexual morality, is actually all but entirely related to how early sexual activity correlates with limited opportunities for young people, girls in particular. Her resulting combination of progressive political preferences with a de facto moral traditionalism characterizes much of the rarely divorcing, highly educated, same-sex marriage supporting, “blue family” upper and upper-middle classes in (in must be said, mostly white) America today. So perhaps Clinton is correctly recognizing that, with this particular kind of social and moral structure in America being acceptable and functional for many, there’s little need to dig deeper–rather, the imperative to is to continue to fight against those who would undermine the government programs (and the sources for funding such) which provide the scales upon which this contemporary balancing act takes place.
Could it be that grafting a limited--even if sincerely felt--amount of cultural concern and respect for tradition onto public policies has been a way to smooth Clinton’s journey away from a potentially distracting focus on apolitical social issues and cultural critique (such as was common in the mid-1990s), in favor of those that can be more easily fought over in terms of individual rights--for example, regarding abortion, LGBT issues, etc.? Whether that was a conscious intention or not, the suspicion that Clinton’s employ of republican concerns was less than whole-hearted was, if not widespread, then at least deeply felt. Elshtain strongly criticized Clinton’s book in The New Republic for what she saw (correctly, in my view) as its implicit bias in favor of the mores of our educational meritocracy, as opposed to embracing the whole of America’s messy, diverse communities. The harshness of Elshtain’s review was perhaps to be expected; in her own sometimes-communitarian manifesto, Democracy on Trial, she emphasized again and again the divided, contentious, multi-layered, and civilizing processes of democratic belonging (as oppose to the definitional fact of belonging itself), which gave rise to her strong rebuke to those who twisted the concerns her erstwhile ideological compatriots–perhaps thinking of Clinton here–into what she saw as a too-casual defense of "community institutions" capable of "eviscerating any public-private distinction" in the name of a "future perfect gemeinschaft." In taking this line, Elshtain was working out a similar intellectual argument as that made by Christopher Lasch (whose final book, The Revolt of the Elites and the The Betrayal of Democracy was published posthumously in...you guessed it, 1996), who warned against a communitarianism that was more powered by a static nostalgia than by a populist drive to empower citizens, families, and neighbors, one that would support them in becoming capable and diverse community-builders, in the face of capitalism’s two-pronged effect of increasing global cultural homogeneity and economic inequality.
Over the months of the Democratic primaries, it was noted again and again that young people, both women and men (and not just white ones), showed strong support for the broad range of policies which Clinton advocated for...and then nonetheless chose to support her opponent. It may be worth noting that, among the college-student-aged Sanders supporters that I know, a determination to challenge the system and push the Democratic party further to the left is often conjoined with what might be recognized as a kind of careful, chastened, decidedly non-grand and quite diverse communitarian or civic republican perspective–one which is possibly rather different from what a student of mine reading It Takes a Village today would likely take to be the basis of Clinton’s stated concerns. There is the reality of the shifting–but not necessarily compromised–attachment to that most grounding of institutions, marriage, which I’ve already mentioned. Similar arguments could be made about how technology is used today (how much contemporary screen addiction reflects complete isolation, and how much reflects new forms of social interaction, connection, and community-building?), or about the work habits of the millennial generation (might the rise of the DIY ethos and the resistance to long-term expectations for corporate work suggest not just resigned economic realism, but also a desire to carve out space for creative opportunities with one's friends and family?), or about their living patterns (is the flight from the suburbs and the return to the city an embrace of individualizing anonymity, or actually a rebuke of exactly that?), and much more. Maybe, despite the upheavals of the past two decades, some of that introspective challenge to American liberal individualism and its corporate economic supports really has shaped the direction of at least one part of the American conversation. And maybe, therefore, Clinton has left behind some of her once impassioned communitarian critique because many of the people who agree with her policies (or most of them, anyway) but nonetheless don’t quite trust her recognize, on some level, that someone like Sanders, with his populist appeals, captured the point of the communitarian challenge in a way which Clinton’s technocratic policy-minded only partially ever did.
Michael Walzer once argued in an insightful article (first published as the 1990s began) that the communitarian attack upon liberal modernity cannot avoid assuming either 1) that individualism had successfully remade the social order, or 2) that it hadn't. If the former, then there is a problem with the many criticisms made against the contemporary prioritization of choice, because if the social infrastructure of attachment, tradition, and civic virtue really had been overthrown, what, exactly, can a defense of community be built out of? Atomistic individualism can't be persuaded to embrace limits and common goods, because it has no place within its philosophical worldview for such. So communitarians might as well admit the game is lost, and think about other options. (Perhaps this is the intellectual ground upon which the Rod Dreher’s much-discussed “Benedict Option” for religious traditionalists stands.) But if the latter--if modernity has not, in fact, defeated humanity's social anthropology, and the ability to perceive and pursue collective and stabilizing ways of life has not been entirely lost--then that must mean functioning communities haven't been lost either. They're still here, somewhere; we just have to learn how to see them where and for what they are. From that perspective, perhaps the rising generation which Ehrenhalt spoke of evinces more than a little communitarian evidence after all–and their ambivalent reaction to Clinton may be part of that.
Is there a possible political articulation of this chastened, localized attachment to community, an It Takes a Village for today? Nothing strictly comparable, I think. But the author Matthew Crawford’s books–first Shop Class as Soulcraft, published in 2009, and now The World Beyond Your Head, published last year–are perhaps emblematic of this new re-appropriation of communitarian concerns in terms that are more diverse, less statist, more participatory, and less structured. Crawford--a trained political philosopher who chose a career in motorcycle repair, and who defends that choice as one which reconnected him with a kind of hands-on cognitive and moral authenticity–works through ideas of tradition, technology, belonging, authority, embodiment, and identity by way of figures as diverse as Aristotle, Burke, Kant, Marx, and Heidegger. While he doesn’t identify his argument as one primarily about recovering the res publica (indeed, his second book is subtitled “On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction”), any close reading makes it clear that his concern is to help people, in their ordinary and everyday working, perceive the communities of practice they are part of, and thus enable them to further see, “from the perspective of communitarianism,” the importance of seeking to grasp in one’s life character-forming opportunities of habit and work. Without such habits–which he recognizes (as much as he doesn’t like it) might in the present moment benefit from a light dash of the kind of nudging, enabling paternalism that many of Clinton’s old policy recommendations would be examples of–we are ultimately structured by social, political, and economic forces which make us, for all our claimed individuality, just consumptive cogs in the mass production, outsourced and outsourcing, late modern capitalist machine. There are rewards in that machine, to be sure: consider all the benefits it has granted to the typical middle and upper-class reader of this essay! And yet, he warns: “genuine community is possible only among people who are willing to put themselves at risk” of being separated from the safe, depersonalizing, bureaucratized, insulating, expert processes that remove responsible, collective choices from our lives. It is that sort of riskiness that I see in young adults who are, despite and even in the midst of an often profound alienation, building connections and businesses, engaging in projects and initiatives, leaping into relationships and commitments. There is flight into a technologically secured privacy amongst these people, yes; but there is also, I think, an emphasis on finding and strengthening one’s places, in conjunction with others.
None of this is to say that liberal individualism and the rampant mobility and often militant nonjudgmentalism of American society today isn't a problem; on the contrary, those of us who care about conserving a humane connection to our own communal nature and history need to constantly watch how we teach, how we live, how we spend--and just as importantly, where we do these things--in order to combat such ideas and practices. But as one form of attachment gives way, our mourning should not prevent us from noting other attachments which take its place. Communitarianism today, were another rash of books to be published proclaiming it, would likely be revealed as more local, less political, more sustainable, less ambitious, and both more and less conservative (in the familial and cultural senses, respectively) than was the case twenty years ago. For all those reasons, it is highly unlikely that our future President Clinton could contribute to such a revival: she has committed herself for too long to a static, governmental perspective on community and family--and, of course, to that small but politically salient portion of the electorate who will vote in support of such things--and those political scripts allow for little adaptation, even assuming she was the self-critical sort (which she isn’t). But the essential focus of a hypothetical, 2010s communitarianism--the imperative of belonging to and bonding with the people and the rituals of a particular place--would be, I think, the same. And as for the refugees from alienating state-centric liberalism (or, in the thankfully unlikely event Trump becomes president, perhaps a corrupting reactionary state-populism, which would likely be much worse)? Those who might hear and respond to such a revival might well look around themselves and find, in comparison to those of us who latched onto these teachings two decades ago, that they are far less alone in feeling inspired by these materials than any of us may have thought. Who knows? If enough hear that call, perhaps such citizens and voters could even influence our likely next president to remember and introspectively reconsider what she once wrote about. She does have a reputation for making time in her strict schedule for regular, expert, efficient listening, after all.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 11:50 AM
Tuesday, September 13, 2016
Greg Orman is gone but not forgotten--and given the political rumors which abounded during the early part of this year's election cycle here in Kansas, he's probably not even gone. As the many people who worked for the man's Independent campaign for the U.S. Senate against Republican Pat Roberts in 2014 can testify, he's a resourceful, charismatic, serious individual--and the fact that he's rich certainly doesn't hurt. Very likely, Orman will at some point take to the hustings once more. When he does so next time, though, he won't just be presenting himself as the answer to the longings of voters frustrated with the political process--instead, he'll have a whole book-length cause behind him.
That book is A Declaration of Independents, subtitled, humbly enough, "How we Can Break the Two-Party Stranglehold and Restore the American Dream." Yes, it's one of those "reform the system" books, which always alternate between inspiring and wearisome. But it's also more than that; it is, first and foremost, a good book, with some thoughtful discussions and interesting excursions into Orman's own life and his experiences on the campaign trail. Ultimately, the book doesn't live up to its subtitle, because there are too many electoral realities, ones both deeply embedded in America's political history and culture and structurally supported by our constitutional system, which Orman simply ignores; his determination to stay true to his vision of genuinely independent and practical voters and representatives governing our country leads him to pass by more radical alternatives which, in contrast to pure "independence," actually have some record of success. But that doesn't mean the book isn't worth reading. It provides an important view of the political landscape, in Kansas and America, in 2016, and that's valuable all on its own.
The key insight the book provides into Orman's worldview is his deep conviction that the American party system serves to limit and depress real productive thinking. He repeats this again and again. In talking about his economically deprived childhood, his parent's divorce, and his youthful enthusiasm for John Anderson (the Illinois congressman who ran as an Independent for president in 1980), he claims "one of the real strengths of Independents" is that "they're able to approach an issue with an open mind and see all sides of an argument" (p. 23); much later, in talking about the excitement he discovered on the campaign trail for his candidacy, with "people traveling seventy-five miles to share a few minutes with a first-time Senate candidate running third in the polls," he observes that political Independents have the mental freedom to avoid "empty games" and can instead "focus exclusively on solving problems" (pp. 63, 66). (At the end of the book, in his list of "Common Independent Principles," the utilitarian, resolutely pragmatic bias of his praise in made clear; in his view, "Independents view political issues the way those running a business seek to ensure its success: understanding all sides, embracing facts, identifying root causes, and ultimately trying to make logical conclusions"--p. 264.) That this kind of self-congratulatory thinking is pretty much identical to what conservative and liberal partisans routinely believe about themselves--e.g., "the good thing about us Republicans is that we actually care about God and morality" or "at least we Democrats still believe in fairness and treating people equally"--is apparently lost on Orman, but he's certainly not alone in believing it's true. What Orman correct identifies as today's "hyper-partisanship" really does frequently seem to stand in the way of people being able to see, as George Orwell once put it, what is right in front of their nose. The problem is that seeing a problem "independently" is no more guarantee of being able to formulate a good response to it than if one sees it in a particular partisan light.
Why do so many people see the issues which confront us through a partisan lens? Here, Orman understands the relevant research very well. In chapters 5, 6, and 7 of his book, he identifies most of the culprits which political scientists and historians have long pointed out: how mobility, individualism, and suburbanization in American life has functioned as a "Big Sort" that has resulted in overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic neighborhoods, churches, and social circles; how the gerrymandering of congressional districts has taken advantage of that sorting and magnified it; how our own very human habits of judgment tend to direct us towards becoming defensive advocates rather than open-minded explorers; how technology (and particularly social media) encourages--and makes profitable--the nationalization, simplification, and polarization of particular, complicated, local debates; and how our single-member, plurality-based, winner-take-all electoral system logically leads people to think in terms of maximizing majorities and eliminating minority viewpoints anyway ("Don't vote for a third party candidate; you'll be throwing your vote away!"). This middle section of Orman's book is really a masterful review of important scholarly literature, communicated in an impassioned yet common-sense way. It's the best part of the book. (Though his reflections on his campaign, with its multiple eminently justified--though never mean--snarks at the alternately unimaginative, lazy, and ignorant, if ultimately successful, campaign Roberts waged against Orman is a lot of fun as well.)
Unfortunately though, Orman's solution to addressing these well-documented and mutually reinforcing trends--namely, figuring out what kinds of reforms would enable as many non-major-party-affiliated candidates as possible to get elected to office--reflects his own admirable, but somewhat simplistic, individualism. Career-minded politicians, angling for a "seven-figure job lobbying their former colleagues" (p. 169), earn his ire, not the economic and political structures that which have proliferated such corrupting incentives in the first place. He's right to argue that Citizens United should be overturned, but he doesn't consider that Citizens United was only the latest (however grievous) step down the road which the Supreme Court set us on with Buckley v. Valeo decades ago, when they established that spending money on a candidate was equivalent to speaking out on their behalf, and thus was a constitutionally enshrined right. He rails against closed political primaries, claiming that they are an act of disenfranchisement which rob Independents of their political rights, thus failing to appreciate the importance of the constitutional guarantee of collective, private self-association...though he does have a strong point when he asks, "if party primaries are a private political endeavor, as courts have ruled, why does the state administer the primary elections--and why do taxpayers pay for the process of holding them?" (p. 225).
Answering that question cuts to the heart of why Orman, despite the attractiveness of his personal determination, simply undermines his own cause when he writes that being an Independent doesn't mean "belonging to a third party or sharing a particular political ideology. Independence is really a state of mind" (p. 258). Why do state governments enlist nominally private organizations like the Republican and Democratic parties to organize elections to public office? Because as mass democracy slowly emerged as the aim of the American experiment from the early 1800s on, the necessity of creating some kind of structure to bind together voters, and translate their individual preferences into majorities that could actually wield the levers of our representative system, became undeniable. Parties, which were essentially unheard of at the time the Constitution was written, became central to its effective operation by the time of John Adams's administration, and within a generation after him they were not only central--they were essential. Under a different form of government, with a different electoral arrangement, parties (especially what Orman routinely condemns as the "two party duopoly") would play a very different role--and if that's what Orman really would like to achieve, then his criticisms and ideas need to move away from simply praising the brave Independent candidates out there, and instead be radically re-focused on the structures of our constitutional system as it was written and as it has evolved. Until then, a "state of mind" is exactly the wrong approach. Ultimately, those who wish to bring "independent" thinking into government need to either commit themselves to one of the major parties and work to build support and coalitions within them, with the aim of using them as a vehicle for introducing real system reforms....or, if that is not a tolerable option, they need to go about building an alternative party to challenge the duopoly, and that means discovering a set of motivating ideas (which, yes, may well mean an "ideology") which fall outside the intellectual space where the logically, structurally inevitable two dominant parties of our country currently reside, and starting attracting voters to that party, from the ground up. That is, after all, how the Populist and Progressive parties ended up profoundly changing the direction of the dominant parties a century ago: by stealing their voters, and thus obliging them to change.
This is not to discourage candidates who are inspired by Orman's example and words, and who think, upon serious study, that the opportunity exists for an unaffiliated, Independent candidate to influence a particular election for better. (Locally I'm thinking here of Miranda Allen, who is very much following in Orman's footsteps, and more power to her!) On every level, from the most local to the presidential, there will occasionally emerge opportunities for well-prepared Independents to insert themselves into races and attract the support of voters grateful for the chance to support an alternative. There are, after all, all sorts of reasons to vote for any given candidate, not all of them strategic. And the pure civic benefit of seeing new faces and considering new issues is great, for voters and candidates alike. But if Orman truly imagines that hundreds, even thousands of such one-off races will "break the two-party stranglehold," he misunderstands something basic about how American government works. Our messy, divisive democratic system can't function without parties to give the interests of voters some rough shape, however self-interested those who operate those parties may be. A real Declaration of Independents's first step would thus have to be an upfront announcement of the formation of an Independence Party. Until then, Orman's story is an impressive one, but not very instructive at all.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 1:29 PM
Thursday, September 08, 2016
I'm 47, not 50, so Star Trek--the television show, the film franchise, the pop culture property, the fan phenomenon--is older than me. I don't know how old I was when I first became addicted to the Star Trek, but considering my dim memory of sitting in a particular room in a particular house watching the show, I probably wasn't more than six years old. So Roddenberry's vision, in one form or another, has been with me my whole life, and has influenced my imagination of, and interaction with, the world around me accordingly. That's not a confession; that's a boast--I may not be a truly hard-core Trekker, but beneath Dungeons and Dragons and Harry Potter, a Trekker I was first, and a Trekker I remain. I've watched the shows, seen the movies, read the comic books and (a slight portion of) the novels. It actually wouldn't be hard to come up with 50 memories from the Original Series that have stuck with me for decades, but it would take a lot more time to write, and few would read it anyway. So here are 5 personal moments, in honor of 50 years of entertainment and (surprisingly often) enlightenment.
1) "The Deadly Years." Is it a great episode? No, more like one of their middling ones. But for some reason it sticks in my head as my earliest exposure to Trek, and I feel like I saw this episode in re-runs more than any other single episode. And really, it's not a bad introduction--the action, while minimal, is compelling, driven by bureaucratic ambition (Commodore Stocker pulling rank on Captain Kirk to claim command as he ages from one of those weird, random space-born diseases) and perilous legality (an arbitrarily drawn border with the Romulan empire that Stocker foolishly pushes the Enterprise across, despite Uhura and Sulu tosses shade at him). And the drama is thoroughly adult: self-conscious fears of weakness, joined with anger at one's own body and social structures--and friends, including the ever-logical Spock!--which seem to be conspiring to overlook you as your face your inevitable end. As a little kid, Kirk's defiant insistence, after the computer calculates his physical age as 60-something, that "I'm 34!" echoed in my head, both a promise and a threat.
2) "The Doomsday Machine." This one, by contrast, is heralded by many as one of the greatest of the original series's episodes, and I don't disagree; my older brother Daniel and I (we were the original faithful Star Trek fanboys in the family, until some of our younger siblings caught the Next Generation fever) loved and endlessly replayed in our play talk and imaginations every detail of the episode. The acting and plotting made it genuinely thrilling (has there been any James Bond moment cooler than Kirk staring into the face of death and calmly saying "Gentlemen, I suggest you beam me aboard"?), and the bad guy wasn't a bad guy at all; Commodore Matt Decker was a plausible, even admirable, character, driven to the point of helpless madness. I swear, just going through this old episode gets my heart racing and my eyes tearing up all over again. And, of course, the fact that it was all a horrifying Cold War parable just made it all the more memorable to a 70s and 80s kid like myself.
3) "The City on the Edge of Forever." The greatest one of them all, of course; I knew it when I first saw it as an impressionable kid, and it's been reconfirmed again and again as I've re-watched who knows--20? more?--times over the years. The climax is poorly staged and hammy, but it doesn't matter at all, because the personal and world-historical stakes had been so wonderfully enacted by the performers, sealed by the brilliant final minute of the episode, where the camera gets volumes of dialogue out a few terse words from Spock, a couple of slowly realizing glances from Uhura and Scotty, and Kirk's final command (as us Mormon kids looked at each other and said, "Uh, did Kirk just say 'hell'?"). Did my young, naive notions of adult humor, romance, politics, history, and more begin with this awesome 46 minutes of television? Probably so.
4) "The Lorelei Signal." Okay, fine, I'm cheating. But seriously folks, Star Trek: The Animated Series gets almost no love, and that's just wrong. First, it's canon, people; you can't deny it. Second, given the relatively few episodes produced over its two seasons, it actually has a better stinker-excellent ratio that the Original Series itself (though TOS's best episodes remain the best story-telling that any version of Star Trek has ever yet produced in my opinion). Third, some of its best episodes broke boundaries in a way that far out-paced even what ardent apologists like myself love to claim about TOS, this episode--with a race of energy-sapping female aliens brain-washing all the men on the ship--being a prime example. Is it a clumsy bit of 70s-era we-really-mean-it-okay-maybe-not feminism? Absolutely. But it's endured in my head for all these years--Uhura's no-nonsene assumption of command, the underplayed references to Nurse Chapel's love for Spock (complete with Kirk's single most Kirkest line-reading ever: "We...must...get...out...of here")--it's all awesome.
5) Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Shut up, haters; you're all wrong. Yes, I'm cheating again, and I don't care--I was there, sitting in the theater, all of 11-years-old, and I couldn't have cared less that there was little action, and even fewer character developments, in this movie: this was what The Original Series had been promising us all along. Or so I was certain of when I left the theater, brimming over with excitement and fascination for what I had just seen: namely, a genuine, puzzling, terrifying, beautiful science-fiction story, one with gloriously self-indulgent visuals and a plot straight out of the greatest I-reach-out-and-touch-the-face-of-God hard sci-fi of the classic era of Heinlein and Asimov. And the details! Spock with long hair! McCoy with a beard! Chapel with a decent hairdo! Sorry, while I'm fully cognizant of its weaknesses as a film, as a moment in the whole myth which is Star Trek? It was never surpassed, and never will be. Not in my memory, anyway.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 10:46 AM
Tuesday, September 06, 2016
So, I've spent a surprising amount of time over the past couple of months planning on getting back to the blog--and then not doing it. Sorry, everybody. While I procrastinated, several anniversaries passed me by--particularly the 10th anniversary of our arrival in Wichita, Kansas, in late July 2006, and my beginning, as a lowly assistant professor (that's right: not even an associate!) here at Friends University a few weeks later. Well, I may have forgotten, but my place of employment didn't, for which I'm grateful. I'm grateful for a lot of things associated with my decade at Friends, and in Wichita, and in Kansas, and with many other people and events that have come along with them, in fact. So, today, late for the anniversaries as I may be, let me mention a few changes I'm grateful for, for the record if for nothing else.
1) Friends was the first small liberal arts college I'd ever taught at--and as I obviously hope to never to be forced to go back on the job market, I sincerely intend (speaking, as always, without any knowledge of what the future may hold) to make it the only one I'll ever teach at as well. Every where I'd been previous to coming here had been a temporary gig, demanding as they sometimes were; it's here that I've been able to put down the kind of roots (part of which has been my advancement to full professor, but it's more than just that) which have encouraged me to think about my teaching, my students, and my field in a way I never could before. That thinking has been driven by exigencies as well as my own curiosity; like nearly all SLACs, Friends is a tuition-driven school perennially facing hard financial choices, and my own position here, while never directly in the cross-hairs, has seen plenty of ups and downs. (Witness the fact that when I arrived the major I taught classes for was "Political Science/History," which I later split off to form its own separate "Political Science" degree, and which is now, coming full circle, back to "History and Political Science" again, with me as the sole full-time faculty responsible to work with adjuncts to get our History courses taught.) I don't want to paper over the frustrations and fears contained in those ups and downs, nor make them out to be a greater trial than they were, but through it all there's been learning and stretching and growth. I understand what it means to be part of a faculty in a way I couldn't have possibly done ten years ago, and I've taken on responsibilities (on a general education reform committee, as the chair of the undergraduate college, and most recently as the director of the Honors Program) that now just seem par for the course. I look back on some of my old Friend-inspired speculations about my profession, and while I'm not sure I would dismiss it all as naive, I do know that I'm grateful for all the changes which time has wrought--because it's forced me to go back to drawing board, again and again, and dig deeper into what I can offer, and not be content with any one interpretation of My Place at Friends. There's an organic quality to this institution, like all institutions, and I want to be able to continue to grow and develop along with it.
2) I can't separate my feelings of appreciation for my position from my affection for the city its a part of. No, Friends isn't a world-famous SLAC with an awesome reputation (I personally thought the tag-line the marketers once came up with for Friends--"a regional university with national programs and an international presence"--was both basically misleading as well as hokey). But it is a school that is entwined enough in the story of this place--see the university's Davis building there in the A of that old post card?--that getting my roots into its personable practices and spiritual traditions (which, 10 years on, I still love) has only deepened my appreciation of the particular urban space it's a part of as well. So my interest in sustainability and ecology, the revival and re-focusing of my old love for farms and gardens and nature and agriculture has ended up occupying my mind in connection with the sort local possibilities a small college might involve itself with; and my old fascination with community and democracy, with working out just what kind of government and political culture can promote both locality and equality, has ultimately revolved again and again around theoretical questions of city life and city politics: specifically, ones that take into account Wichita's own context. And it's been genuinely fun to get so engaged, because through so doing I've been able to meet and learn from so many other urban activists (whether they would describe themselves that way or not) who are doing the same, and moreover (to allow myself some vanity for a moment) meeting and involving myself which such people and groups have led to me being noticed, called upon to speak and pontificate, in all sorts of social gatherings and on local media venues to such a degree that sometimes I even get paid for it. So yes, the city of Wichita has been good to me, and appropriately so, because I think it really is a good city, located in a good place, despite how so many people here can't quite see that. Being in one part of the country for so long, and going through so much while here (anniversaries being celebrated and friendships surviving both meetings and partings, being some of the most important), has enabled me to talk about this place as a home in a way I've never been able to speak of any other location.
3) Of course, "Kansas" doesn't rate very high on most Americans' lists of preferred locations. Ten years here, and the language I hear is pretty constant: we don't have mountains, but we do have Brownback, so Kansas is unimpressive both coming and going, right? Well, my opinions about Brownback are clear, so I'm not going to attempt a defense there (though, as always, just wait to November!). I've lived in conservative states--allowing for the one year in Illinois--ever since I left graduate school, and the simple truth is that I really don't mind being surrounded by and making friends with people whom I disagree with; conservatism is fascinating to me, and figuring out how the conservatives (as opposed to the simple-minded, Know-Nothing, dead-end Republican voters who show up at ever election; they bore and frustrate me--but so would they, and their equally unimaginative Democratic compatriots, in any locale) I know and like really think has been an important journey to me. Perhaps Kansas's political culture added a slight twist to that process, but when I think of what Kansas--especially this part of Kansas, my south-central section of it--has added to my life over the past decade, I mostly don't think politics. Instead, I think this.
Lame and folky, you think? Sorry; don't care. Yes, I already had an affection for a productive, pastoral relationship with the land in my background, so perhaps I was an easy mark for Kansas's lessons. But the simple fact is that I really kind of love it here. I think I love the summers best: I love the blue skies, the broad horizons, the golds and browns and surprising splashes of color throughout the fields. I love getting out on my bike under that hot sun and with the never-ending breezes blowing and letting the wide world turn in all directions around me. And I love being in one place--a city, a campus, a classroom--in the middle of it all. So what has happened to me for the past ten years? I've been centered--or I've centered myself, I guess. And communitarian and family man and believer that I am, being centered is something which I, predictably enough, think everyone needs to be. I suppose I could well have found a center for myself most anywhere...but I did it here, and for that, I'm happy.
Okay, that's it, for now. Here's to another ten years of changes, everyone!
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 6:47 AM