Saturday, October 10, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "Tall Trees in Georgia"

Like almost everyone (unlike Mick Fleetwood!), I discovered the folk singer and jazz interpreter Eva Cassidy too late, long after she had died of melanoma in 1996, despite my having lived in the Washington D.C. area when she was making her music and achieving her small degree of (richly deserved) fame, despite my having frequented the same Georgetown nightclub where her most famous recording was made. I had no idea that any video recordings of her performance at Blues Alley existed...and now that I've discovered them, I can't watch and listen to them enough--especially this cut, the most vulnerable on a heartfelt and passionate album of great and often haunting music. From twenty years too late, Eva, RIP.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Christopher Lasch and the Lasting Delimma of Localism

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

This past weekend, at the annual Front Porch Republic gathering (this year held at SUNY-Geneseo), three scholars reflected upon the writings of the historian and provocateur Christopher Lasch (most of whose career was spent in Rochester, just a short drive from Geneseo), an oft discontented prophet of a more local, more equal, and more humble America whom FPR bloggers like myself have invoked regularly all throughout its history. As I listened to these folks lay out their thoughts, and particularly when it came to the Q&A at the end of the panel, it occurred to me: Lasch's fondness of binaries was at work in all of their presentations and answers, and appropriately so, because such dividedness is perhaps the unavoidable lot of every possible form of modern localism.

That's might seem to be a tragedy, since the retreat from liberal anomie and alienation is conceived by many as a path towards a kind of political wholeness and social integrity, not a stressful balancing act. And perhaps it is. But perhaps it's a blessing as well, a reminder that, in our divided feelings and perceptions, we're rubbing up against limits in both the human self and the communities we create which are meaningful and real.

In the presentation given by Eric Miller--whose recent biography and exploration of the writings of Lasch is must-reading--the unstated binary in question, it seemed to me, was Lasch's revolt against the overly confident, secular and liberal progressivism of the mid-20th-century America's "new class" of professionals, writers, and intellectuals...alongside the fact that, well, that was the class which Lasch was a part of, the class which enabled him (a kid from Omaha) to have access to the cosmopolitan "republic of letters" and the life of the mind. In other words, Lasch's criticism of the flattening corporate, governmental, and therapeutic gigantism America's postwar liberal institutions--their lack of democracy, their condescending compassion, their absence of respect for working class and religious ways of life--constituted a populist defense of the local, and yet that very revolt was, for Lasch, justified in light of a more transcendent tribunal: the judgment of civilization, the good life, and (though Lasch himself fought against admitting this) a kind of Christian decency. Lasch knew that the best case for higher things had to made through an embrace of the particular--though the particular, in itself, could only provide the tiniest evidence of the larger and better sensibilities which give it credence. This is the intellectual localist dilemma in a nutshell: the best understanding of why one's own place and practices ought to be loved and defended involves arguments which partake of something which transcends the local entirely.

Robert Westbrook, a colleague of Lasch's, reflected on a much more stark binary: how the localist, in bringing into her affections for a place and its practices a sense of ends, makes the quotidian everyday-ness of our lives that much more valuable...and yet there could be no greater expression of narcissism than to fail to accept that our own daily-ness will be superseded by that of others, soon enough. The occasion for this was Lasch's own early death from cancer, and how he furiously railed (though he later apologized) against those doctors that attempted to turn him, in his words, into a "professional patient." Westbrook made reference to Martin Heidegger, a philosopher whom Lasch very likely never read, and his understanding that it is the ultimate limit upon our sense of being--that is, our deaths--which makes possible an authentic sense of care. Lasch's writings and example point localists towards that which has inspired so many poets: the brute fact that our ability to most fully be rooted in and contribute to a community is inextricably tied up with the fact that, it too, is a passing thing.

Finally Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn, Lasch's daughter and one of his most skilled literary executors, brought the matter of binaries forward explicitly, choosing to focus on her father's distinction between "nostalgia" and "memory," and making a moderate defense of the former, which Lasch had criticized. Her argument that the former can trigger and contribute to the latter found a real-world example in the discussion period afterward, when one student shared the story of a tragic death in his hometown, a death which had led to acts of memorialization which, as time went by, had come to be experienced by the deceased's family members as a painful act of "mere" nostalgia. The discussion, then, turned to matters of risk. Since nostalgia is a feeling we have for something we've loved and lost, any recovery of such things is bound to involve regret and pain, something that will be, inevitably, unevenly experienced across a community. Yet is the alternative to privatize pain entirely? That robs us of one of the primary reasons why localism presents itself as an answer to individualism in the first place. Localism, by making possible the sort of practices which enable real and meaningful connections to emerge between people, also makes possible a critical engagement with memory, thus hopefully preventing it from either turning into a mostly meaningless mass and routine genuflection, or being forgotten entirely.

The common thread through all of these presentations, I think? The fact that pursuing the option of sustaining local places and traditions, instead of embracing the easy institutions and ideologies of individual growth and change, means constant negotiation. What will have to be negotiated? The balance between particular instances of plebeian defensiveness and transcendent republican principles, between tightly grasping one's circumstances and letting them go, between moments of memorialization and moments of individual resistance. A lack of resistance against the community and its norms and its ineluctable workings-out would mean we'd become inhuman. But too much resistance robs us of the larger point of what, to quote Michael Sandel, "we can know together."

Lasch whole life was, perhaps, an example of someone who saw the particular and the general equally well, and threw himself into a struggle with them both. May his ideas aid us in our own struggles as well.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "Feel So Good"

I'm posting this from Geneseo, New York--which is pretty close to Rochester, which is where Chuck Mangione was born. So really, why not?

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Mid-Sized Meditations #8: Wichita and Facing the Mittelpolitan Dilemma

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

There's been some depressing news here in Wichita, Kansas, of late. Not the sort of depressing news that one might typically fear to hear when one speaks about city life: gang violence, police corruption, political graft, etc. (though accusations of all of the above can be found in Wichita, as they can in just about any city). No, the depressing news has all been about projection and perception. Wichita, we've been told lately, isn't where we thought it was, and when one looks at the economic and demographic facts, it doesn't seem to be going anywhere either. No city likes to hear such news (though, honestly, not much of this should be surprising to anyone who has paid attention to the best estimates of our city planners, who have assumed for a while that Wichita's population is likely over the next 20 years to grow at less than 1% a year, and increasing age at the same time).

In particular, the presentations which James Chung, a Wichita native and Harvard-trained economic analysis, laid out in the above articles were pretty unsparing. The city isn't supporting (or is actively driving away) younger people, with the result that the area's oft-proclaimed--though perhaps never really all that actual--culture of entrepreneurialism is disappearing. High-earners are tending to move our of the area and lower-earners tending to move in (many of them, if you dig into the data, older people from small towns throughout south-central Kansas who are coming to Wichita on fixed incomes so as to have greater access to needed health care), with the result that our effective tax base is disappearing too. So much, so sobering. But the most striking comment he made, I think, came when he threw out a line of hope. In speaking of the common denominators shared by those cities (especially mid-sized cities that had to confront the collapse of manufacturing industries) that pulled through challenging times, Chung identified a degree of acceptance: “They put their differences aside. Leaders came together and decided, you know, we are stuck with each other, so let’s (make) this a better city.”

The phrase “we are stuck with each other” is the one which communicates the reality of Wichita, and mid-sized cities in general, most strongly, I think. For my part, it reminds me of a billboard. I've written about this before, but just to reiterate:

Close to ten years ago, one of our (apparently increasingly rare) local entrepreneurs decided to launch a new publishing venture. It never got very far off the ground, and the advertising campaign for what would have been Wichita City Paper is probably the clearest memory most people have of it. A range of diverse Wichita faces, staring out from a black background, with stark white lettering underneath: “Face it. You’re in Wichita.”

That billboard advertisement was wiser than it knew, because it captures an essential truth for cities like Wichita, cities far larger than the hundreds of "micropolitan" urban clusters across the county with a populations of 50,000 or less, but also cities that are not part of an extended metropolitan agglomeration. I mean cities that form their own relatively isolated geographic centers, perhaps topping out at a half-million residents or so. The truth that such cities must face, basically, is that a great many of their residents are regularly tempted to believe that their home isn't what it is, but rather is, or should remain, or is almost ready to become, one of the other two options mentioned above. The truth, of course, is that Wichita and cities like it are not oversized rural towns, supposedly similar in culture and practice to so many of their surrounding and supporting communities. Neither are they, though, on the cusp of a great metropolitan explosion, primed to start networking and contributing to--in terms of jobs, the arts, and more--those flows of information and investment which characterize the great global cities of the world. Wichita, like so many other cities of middling size, is not likely to become a major node in the globalized flow of information, culture, and wealth anytime in the foreseeable future, and it is cannot pretend that its political culture is that of a quaint homogeneous farming village at heart. It is, put simply, a big city--but not all that big; a space of concentrated resources, both human and commercial--but not an ever-expanding supply of such. That's what it is stuck with.

To make a case for sticking with mid-sized cities--for investing in it and improving them--means, first and foremost, facing up to what they are. The odds of being able to quickly create in the context of Wichita's undeniable yet also limited urban character some kind of progressive fantasy of diversity and development are small to nonexistent. With much of the social and economic innovation and opportunity in our country and world invariably gravitating to megapolises wherein the promise of anonymity is entwined with the chance of being able to elide obstacles and break through and do something productive in one new niche or another, leaving older and anxious workers behind, it isn't surprising that Wichita's political culture and economic landscape increasingly reflects, as Chung mentioned regarding Wichita, a "closed" environment. That environment will not suddenly change, and expressing frustration at the lack of diversity or socially oriented initiatives in such cities simply drains energy from what will have to be--as the effort to push Wichita in the direction of reasonable reform in the matter of marijuana possession shows--a long and slow effort.

At the same time, it is even more frustrating to see so many voters and elected officials implicitly endorsing the reverse fantasy, a kind of pastoral-libertarian illusion in which mid-sized cities--which emerged and achieved the fullest success as regional manufacturing hubs--do not need to pay attention to fighting for their place in a globalized arena, but instead should simply chart their own small-government course: in essence claiming the ability to take their ball and go back to the farm. It may be a stretch to look at the current majority on the Sedgwick County Commission and detect an anti-urban bias--but it's not a huge stretch. To make cuts in funding policies which had been developed over the years to serve quality of life purposes in a metro area of over a half-million people in the name of shifting to "cash-only accounting" isn't solely to move in the direction of some kind of "common sense conservatism"; it is also to move against the routine economic practices by which, for better or worse, complex urban bodies have been able to maintain themselves pretty much ever since the Industrial Revolution. It is, in short, to mulishly insist that this particular city needn't be like every other city: it can be smaller, simpler, and not like those other (more liberal) places. To which, again, I can only say: when you've living (as is the case here in Wichita) in the largest single city in the whole state, you have to face the reality that the quaint anarchy of the village town meeting has long since left the barn.

There is something to be said for mid-sized cities, cities that reflect, perhaps exactly because they occupy a kind of middle place in the production and movement of goods and people and ideas, some perspective on how to face up to the challenges of building culturally and economically attractive and rewarding civic spaces today. Wichita could offer that perspective--but only if citizens and leaders alike face up to what we have, and stick with it, rather than wishing it was actually something else. They need to face up to all the civic activity which is happening here, as it is happening so many small and mid-sized cities. Look around our city, as in so many smaller and middling cities, and you can see a great many informal and quasi-formal networks forming: small-scale businesses and volunteer operations and church groups, hosting festivals and art shows and local markets and devotionals, crossing the conceptual boundaries between urban and rural (so much easier to do in a smaller urban space than in a sprawling urban agglomeration!). Of course, few of them present themselves in terms of a "growth plan" to attract venture capital and rent floor space downtown, and neither do they generally start out rejecting all city council seed money on ideological principle. Which means, they get ignored by the fantasists on both sides of the divide.

Wichita--like so many distinct, mid-sized urban outposts across the productive rural heart of the country--needs to be able to grasp the, admittedly, perhaps discomforting "mittelpolitan" nettle: their lot must incorporate certain urban realities (including, most particularly, a stronger and probably more partisan city government, one without the pastoral illusion of neutrality and capable of forcefully expressing an urban agenda, so as to balance out the agenda of the county if necessary) into its vision of itself. This is, I think, unavoidable if terminal decline is to be avoided, and must be faced, accepted, stuck with, even if it is the case that the urbanism such cities are able to generate will probably always--both given their geographic isolation, and given a media environment in which the pace and range of urban expectations primarily reflects the postmodern perspective of the global cities of the world--fail to measure up. That's our dilemma, that's our fate. I hope we face it soon enough.

[An earlier and shorter version of this post appeared in the Wichita Eagle last Sunday.]

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "Kayleigh"

Prog--particularly the tail-end of prog in the 1980s, like this here--gets an unfairly bad rap. It really does.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "Sunset Grill"

It's been hot this week in Kansas--but still, summer's clearly at an end. Weary we are of the summer heat, but knowing we're going to miss it too. Either way, time to shut her down.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Explaining Sanders's "Socialism" to Kansans

[Cross-posted to Political Context]

I appreciate the kind attention which The Wichita Eagle recently paid to us local Democrats, progressive liberals, Christian socialists, and various others who are working to promote Senator Bernie Sanders's campaign for president. We're doing it for many different reasons: perhaps because we believe that Sanders would make an excellent president, and want him to win; perhaps because we believe that his focus on economic inequality is something our country's political culture desperately needs, and feel that supporting his efforts is a smart way to bring attention to that issue; perhaps because we believe that America's long dominant two-party arrangement desperately needs to be blown up from within, and that the nomination of an avowed democratic socialist by a major party just might do it; perhaps all of the above. Anyway, we're a merry little band of Kansans, and we're happy for the publicity.

We're not operating under any political delusions, I think. We know that Bernie's effort to win the nomination is a real long-shot, and that even if he does, he definitely won't win Kansas's electoral college votes. Registered Republicans and self-identified conservatives outnumber both Democrats and liberals by more than two to one in this state, and Sanders, bless his heart, surely won't be the one guy who could change those nearly century-old trends. All we hope for is little comprehension and respect; large numbers of actual votes, frankly, would just be an unexpected bonus.

To that end, though I realize the odds of it changing anyone's mind are quite small, allow me to comment briefly on the statement of Kelly Arnold, the chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, quoted in the above article. Stating with some glee that he'd love to see the national Democratic party be led by Sanders into the 2016 elections, he commented about how easy it would be to craft a message against him: “People in Kansas are hard-working--they don’t want somebody like Bernie Sanders coming in here raising taxes to give millions of people free stuff.”

Nothing surprising there. It's just a variation on the same Tea Party accusation that has been hurled at the "socialist" Obama for close to seven years now: that the ultimate goal of the political left is to tax hard-working Americans into oblivion while giving all sorts of other people free goodies. Is this kind of claim any more accurate now that we're talking about a politician who actually associates himself, by name, with "socialism"? Not really. But it does give us the opportunity to do a little instruction.

First of all, anyone who is at all curious about Bernie Sanders really ought to read the speech he gave this week at Liberty University, one of the main homes of politically conservative evangelical Protestanism in America. Besides rather bravely starting out with all the social issues that a progressive liberal like himself obvious disagrees with conservative audience about; besides quoting scripture and Pope Francis to the effect that Biblical justice is incompatible with gross economic inequality and suffering; besides all that--just what, exactly, did he talk about that would involve spending tax money on goodies? Well, guaranteeing access to health care as a right, for one. Also, requiring paid family and medical leave for and job protection to all parents, jobs programs for young people, wage supports for established workers, and a few other things. Granted, there's a lot more that Bernie has talked about elsewhere which didn't make it into the speech--investing in infrastructure, reducing the cost of college, etc. Still, that is the "free stuff" that he wants to spend tax money on. Seems like the sort of thing that might actually help many hard-working people (who sometimes get sick, who sometimes have little children that need a parent at home to raise them, and so forth) do their jobs even better, but perhaps that's just me.

(Incidentally, The Wall Street Journal recently made a splash claiming that Sanders's proposals would cost an outrageous $18 trillion. But that's mostly a meaningless scare number, since 1) the amount is spread out over ten years, during which time America's total GDP will be $228 trillion, and 2) most of that $18 trillion is attributed to a hypothetical single-payer health care system, like the one they have developed and refined in Canada and many other countries, as a replacement to our current health care spending practices, which even with the Affordable Care Act are likely to amount to $42 trillion over the next ten years anyway. So depending on how you cut the pie, given the the reality in America today--as opposed to the originalist fantasy of many fiscal conservatives--you're quite possibly talking about Sanders's plan actually saving America money...and that doesn't even consider the likelihood that a President Sanders would manage to avoid spending $2 trillion on a basically unnecessary war in Iraq as well.)

Second, look at what I just wrote about above in regards to Sanders's proposals: taxing and spending. Obviously, lots of folks have an instinctive dislike to that kind of public transaction; it's a deep part of America's history and political culture. But taxing and spending assumes an economy in which individuals and corporations--the ones that are being taxed--are accumulating wealth. In other words, I'm assuming an economy of private market transactions which self-interested businesses and individuals may obtain profits from--also known, in the usual parlance, as a capitalist economy.

Does that mean Sanders isn't actually a socialist? The truth is, like "Christian" or "conservative," "socialism" has a great many meanings. At its root, it simply refers to an economic arrangement where wealth is held and shared collectively, as a public resource. Thus, America's public school system, our interstate highway system--the parts that aren't toll roads, anyway--and pretty much the entire Veteran's Administration (with its hospitals, doctors, and innumerable guarantees) are all at least somewhat socialist. The scientific and often state-based socialist arguments of Karl Marx have been massively influential around the world over the past century and a half, obviously--but democratic socialism is a different animal. It's aim is not to force (or wait patiently for) a revolutionary overthrow of capital, but to democratically move select resources for capital accumulation away from individual owners and into the hands of society. That doesn't mean the end of markets, in other words; it means their socialization. This is something we're used to occasionally doing for veterans or artists or the elderly or small children--Sanders is talking about doing it for the sick and the poor, for outsourced blue-collar workers and debt-ridden college students, as well.

If someone wanted to be strictly ideological in assessing Bernie Sanders, his democratic socialist credentials are questionable--because, as anyone who looks at his actual proposals can tell, he really isn't talking about a great deal of economic socialization, with the exception of the areas of college education and health care. Rather, he's talking like a Scandinavian social democrat--or like a good old-fashioned Christian populist, of the sort Kansas used to produce more of than any other state. I realize that throwing out all that philosophical and political context is unlikely to move anyone's opinions of the man or his agenda one way or another, but this is too good of an opportunity to miss out on--the Sanders campaign, if nothing else, may help people get clear on what, exactly, they are accusing other people of.

The popular conservative, libertarian, and constitutionalist rhetoric here in Kansas has always associated any kind of government taxation and spending, for whatever reason, with "socialism," with the assumption that anything with that label can only mean robbing hard-working individuals of their due rewards and giving them, in turn, to lazy folks to don't deserve them. But this is simply wrong, for two reasons. First, because "socialism" isn't robbing Peter to pay Paul; it's a demand for economic justice that obliges us to ask just what sources of wealth we want to be risked, won, or lost on an unregulated market, and what sources of wealth (the education of our children, the care for our elderly) we do not. And second, because there are as many different types of socialists as there are capitalists. To be sure, there have been plenty of socialists throughout history whose goals have been politically tyrannical, and thus were much worth opposing. Sanders, in the judgment of myself and many other Kansans, isn't like that at all. He is, rather, the kind of socialist whose ideas are worth fighting for. And thus, to be able to actually do so, is, for some of us, a real political delight. You ought to join us--it's fun.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "Treasure/September"

This guy Lounès is the real deal.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Whatever Happened to Communitarianism?

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Twenty years ago, the concept and label "communitarianism" was riding high, or at least as high as any broadly applicable yet intellectually coherent ideological movement usually ever does in the United States. There have been exceptions, to be sure: abolitionism, progressivism, prohibitionism, libertarianism, feminism--the American varieties of each of these transformed (or introduced new) political parties, challenged or changed social norms and expectations, shaped our interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, and overall left their mark on the history books. It seems likely that such will not be the case with communitarianism when non-academic histories of the 1990s get written, however. On the contrary, right now it looks like communitarian arguments are going to be about as well remembered as the populist arguments of the 1890s or the socialist arguments of the 1910s--that is, inspiring and important to those already inclined to see public life in those terms, but not socially important. Why is that? Or, perhaps, are intellectual appearances deceiving?

2015 is a good time to ask this question, since twenty years ago, in 1995, bookstores and the op-ed pages of dead-tree newspapers were filled with communitarian rhetoric and questions. Three books published that year stand out in particular in my memory: Alan Ehrenhalt's The Lost City, Jean Bethke Elshtain's Democracy on Trial, and Daniel Kemmis's The Good City and the Good Life. (Amitai Etzioni, who was an exhaustive cheer-leader for what he and his compatriots referred to as "responsive communitarianism," also published the important compendium New Communitarian Thinking in 1995.) As I recall, only one of these three books had anything like an actually discernible impact of public discourse--Ehrenhalt's--and none of them explicitly identified themselves as part of the communitarian intellectual movement, anyway (indeed, in retrospect, Elshtain's work may well be better understood as having contributed to a different intellectual package entirely). Still they all--supplemented by many other books and essays and op-eds published right around the same time (Michael Sandel's Democracy's Discontent, Jim Wallis's The Soul of Politics, etc.), not to mention the manner in which leading political figures throughout the English-speaking world in the mid- to late 1990s liked to position themselves as community-minded, "Third Way" politicians--made it seem as though communitarian thought was really going to be transformative.

Which most people today would probably agree wasn't the case. But those of us inclined to resist ideologies of individually grounded and thus essentially unlimited growth, choice, and rights--in other words, all the anti-capitalists and anti-statists and anti-globalizers out there--may want to reconsider that conclusion for a moment, if only to help ourselves see what might be beneficial movements in a genuinely communitarian direction...just ones that are taking place in a rather different key than was called for twenty years ago.

The heart of the communitarian argument--which was re-appropriated and re-played in all number of historical, theological, and other intellectual contexts--was essentially an acceptance of the moral anthropology of classical republicanism: because our full development as social creatures, fellow citizens, and simply human beings depends upon cultivating civic virtues and an understanding of responsible freedom which individualism often undermines, forms of economy, government, and personal behavior which give primary (or at least equal) consideration to community identity, integrity, and participation ought to be pursued. In other words, communitarianism began with the res publica (though one could just as easily say--as many did--the same thing in a Christian context, and talk of it beginning with Paul's the Body of Christ, or in a Confucian context, and talk of it beginning with the Five Bonds). Some have argued that republicanism and communitarianism ought to be recognized as historically distinct, but standing firm on that point requires, I think, too much dedication to rather particular historical reconstructions to be of much use publicly. Very (no doubt too) simply, the argument at the time 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), you were some kind of communitarian.

Putting it in those terms might suggest a first, rather obvious answer to the question of why communitarian arguments faded away. 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 author, Benjamin Barber)--was all about the celebration of and the empowering of individual choice. It was the end of history, after all; liberal marketplaces were on the march, and the Moral Majority was out of business. (In fact, it was during the 1990s that a suspicion of how the unfolding of individual rights would likely proceed in the U.S. led to a near-total re-orientation of Christian conservative concerns, one which continues to this day.) So obviously the language of communitarianism--collective responsibilities, not individual rights!--was going to be smothered by the dot-com boom, right?

But perhaps it was exactly all that choice which contributed to the vague discontent so many felt about and throughout the 1990s, despite the rise in 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 too far and change, 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 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 (pg. 281).

Of course, these adults I see around me, a decade or two my junior--the famous Millennial generation--also emerged from 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, in the midst of two huge developments that couldn't be more different from the drifting, discontented (but profitable!) year of 1995: 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 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 us, then 9/11, the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Wall Street bankruptcies imposed--for many of us, 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 fact that too many communitarian thinkers perversely ramped up their discussion of the res publica to world-historical and international levels, perhaps in part because they felt themselves obligated by this revived rhetorical posture to fight a culture war, didn't do the ideology any favors. If your typical educated American thinker in her 30s today looks back on these concerns from 20 years ago and finds it all somewhat intellectually strained, perhaps she can't be blamed.

And yet, maybe she is also somewhat persuaded by it all as well, without realizing it? Not that some of the worst excesses of communitarian thinking weren't subject to a pretty thorough rejection, whether the warning was listened to or not. Elshtain in particular, by emphasizing again and again the divided, contentious, multi-layered, and civilizing processes of democratic belonging (as oppose to the static fact of belonging itself), provided a strong rebuke to those who twisted the concerns of some of her erstwhile ideological compatriots into a too-casual defense of "community institutions" capable of "eviscerating any public-private distinction" in the name of a "a future perfect gemeinschaft" (Democracy on Trial, pg.49). In this, she was working the same intellectual theme as Christopher Lasch (whose final book, The Revolt of the Elites and the The Betrayal of Democracy was published guessed it, 1995), who warned against a communitarianism that was more powered by a static nostalgia than by a populist drive to empower citizens, families, and neighbors to become capable and diverse community-builders, in the face of manifest (and growing) economic and social inequality. It's not that I imagine such theoretical arguments are widely acknowledged among my college students today or those that I've taught over the past 15 years. Still, in their life choices, in their opinions, in the directions many--not all by any means, but many--of them are taking, I wonder if somehow or another, some kind of careful, chastened, decidedly non-grand and quite diverse communitarian perspective hasn't managed to take root, and grow.

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 communitarian awareness, without any kind of attention to social responsibility and permanence. The whole story of how it is that America's political and legal culture went from the Defense of Marriage Act to Obergefell v. Hodges in less than 20 years 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, among all the assaults upon what was long this country's default cultural understanding, the one which generated the greatest sturm und drang was not divorce or polyamory, but rather a push for marriage itself--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--and I was once one of those many--reflects the difficulty of separating the evolving res publica from the historically specific publics we experience, many of which were and are conservative Christian churches. Still, despite the many reasons to be troubled by the sexual world which liberal individualism's apotheosis helped create, 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.

Similar arguments could be made about technology (how much contemporary screen addiction reflects complete isolation, and how much reflects new forms of social interaction, connection, and community-building?), work habits (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?), 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. This isn't, I think, a Panglossian attempt to see only the silver lining in our present moment--which clearly is, like all moments, a worrisome one. Rather, I lay it out as a set of developments which may reveal a crucial perspective on the whole communitarian perspective.

Michael Walzer once argued in an insightful article (first published as the 1990s began) that the communitarian attack upon liberal modernity cannot avoid assuming that either individualism had successfully remade the social order, or 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 simply cannot find 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 Benedict Option 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, the rising generation which Ehrenhalt spoke of evinces more than a little communitarian evidence after all.

In his wonderful and too-little read second book, The Good City and The Good Life, Daniel Kemmis hardly made any explicit reference at all to communitarianism or republicanism or any other type of philosophical orientation--and perhaps, exactly because he didn't, going back to that book provides an insight to civic developments which those of us often too enamored of theory miss. His discussion of citizenship and the "civic wholeness" that a proper relationship to one's local natural and social environment--one's polis, in other words--effectively closes off any of the grand cultural narratives which came to warp much communitarian thinking, instead grounding the pressing need to belong in one's locality: "states and nation-states are abstractions to which we cannot easily apply any of the key concepts discussed here: not wholeness, not presence, not grace, and therefore not...citizenship" (pg. 25). Kemmis's arguments in favor of relocating our sense of attachment to the active, participatory city seem to anticipate the political dysfunction that, over the past decade, has come to seem normal for large, overburdened democratic states. For him, art and governance and a sustainable economy were most authentically realized in a city (preferably a small to mid-sized one), wherein "the web of culture comes down to earth in countless ways, situating people in a dynamic balance between their innermost aspirations and struggles and the world they find themselves inhabiting" (pg. 69). He was, in other words, years ahead of many others in looking back at Jane Jacobs to find his own particular kind of communitarian inspiration, predicting "the postnational renaissance of the city" (pg. 139)--a renaissance that finds evidence today in the proliferation of farmers markets and urban farming, in ways in which cities are challenging both state and national governments, in the movement of young families (straight as well as gay) and "suburban" concerns into parts of America's cities that were once progressive ghettos of gentrification. No, none of this particularly follows the often conservative and traditional models which many, in practice, regularly associated years ago with the attempt to foreground the common good and civic virtue. But the best communitarian writings always, I think, challenged those static presumptions, and invited us to see (in contrast to the nationalist, statist, and global capitalist narratives which have loomed so large over the past couple of decades) the diverse democratic and communal practices which the urban nooks and crannies of America still give rise to.

None of this is to say that liberal individualism and the rampant mobility and often militant nonjudgmentalism of American society today isn't still a problem; on the contrary, those of us who care about conserving a humane connection to our own communal nature need to constantly watch how we teach, how we live, how we spend--and just as importantly, where--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 in 2015, 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 in 1995. But the essential focus of it--the res publica, the imperative of belonging to and bonding with the people and the rituals of a particular place--would be, I think, the same. And the refugees from alienating state-centric liberalism who might hear and respond to that focus might well look around themselves and find (in comparison to those of us who latched onto these teachings 20 years ago) that they are far less alone in feeling inspired by these materials than any of us may have thought.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "New York Doll"

A stately and quietly sad tune, telling a stately and quietly sad story, about man who, to his credit, was none of those things.