Saturday, June 25, 2011

Taking Off

Okay everyone, we're out of here for the next couple of weeks. I've got a couple of Friday Morning Videos lines up, but mostly there will be no action around these blog parts until mid-July, at which point we'll hopefully be back home, safe and sound, from our sojourn to the Atlantic ocean and back, with many stops along the way. As for this Saturday morning, we're St. Louis bound. Woo-hoo! Hopefully we'll be able to avoid the hood.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Scriptorian

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

[This is a pretty thoroughly Mormon-centric post, one which doesn't take the time to explain beliefs and language of my church which are well understood by members. You've been warned.]

My first encounter with Jim Faulconer came on my mission to South Korea. I'd been in the country about a year, and my companion at the time had an older brother who was studying philosophy back at BYU. He sent his younger brother a recent essay by Jim: "Self-Image, Self-Love, and Salvation", a masterpiece which has since been reprinted and celebrated and attacked many times. I don't know why this fellow thought his brother would like or need the essay: perhaps it just struck him as a great piece of writing, or perhaps he thought his brother would relate to Jim's own experiences as a missionary in South Korea more than 20 (now more than 40!) years before, or perhaps he thought his brother would value Jim's advice. If the last of these, he misjudged his brother greatly; my companion looked through the essay, turned to me and said (if my memory is accurate, which it probably isn't) "This guy just doesn't like people being successful and making money!", and threw it in the trash. I retrieved it, read through it, and realized several things, among them: 1) this man, James E. Faulconer, has put into better words than I ever could at least a portion of the many inchoate and confused thoughts I had about my situation as a missionary and a Christian, and 2) that I want to read everything he'd ever written, or every would write.

As it turned out, Jim's thoughts, profound as they were (and are) didn't do much to prevent me from being a pretty crappy missionary, but I have attempted diligently to read just about everything Jim has written in the years since, and I have been blessed by that determination. Let me take a few moments to attempt to explain why.

Earlier this year, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute released a collection of Jim's religious essays, Faith, Philosophy, and Scripture. I'm late to the party in talking about it; Blair Hodges reviewed it here, and Adam Miller has practically written his own book about the book here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. I won't review it myself, partly because there's too much to say about the profound ideas which Jim has packed into these essays on the nature of theology, the function of reasoning, the operation of memory, the meaning of idolatry, the historicity of scripture, and much more; partly because if I were to review it wouldn't be able to avoid some whiny complaining about it (why weren't some of Jim's very best and most important works--the aforementioned "Self-Love" essay, his essay on Walter Brueggemann's postmodern reading of the Bible, his essay on sexuality and community in the Adam and Eve story, his essay on the mystery of divine embodiment--included?); but mostly because reviewing the essays in the book--every single one of which is worth reading and pondering at length--would get in the way of reviewing the overall message of the book, and of the man.

Towards the end of what I think to be the most succinct and most insightful (but your mileage many very) essay in this collection, "The Writings of Zion", Jim writes:

Because we have continuing revelation, within mortality there can be no end to the work of interpretation that enacts the establishment of Zion. There can also be no end to work because we live together in an organic rather than a static whole. And there can be no end because we have not yet come to an end: as temporal, living beings, we are not always the same, unchanging from moment to moment; we live in that we continue to come to be, in that we continue to renew our life. We hopefully await the Apocalypse, the final revelation of the Son of God, his reign. Awaiting it, we must continue to renew our hope and expectation of that revelation, for ourselves and for others, by continuing to read, interpret, and reread. The medieval scriptorian's motto--lege, lege, lege, labore, ora, et relege; "read, read, read, work, pray, and reread"--must also be ours (p. 149)

There is a lot packed into those sentences. You see Jim's commitment to the Heideggerian and Levinasian concerns of continental philosophy, taking up our experience in the world as something best understood as something enacted, something coming-to-be, something which is always-already situating us in the presence of one another. You see his strongly Augustinian (or merely Pauline?) sense of our condition as one of abeyance, of waiting and attending upon that over which we can have no mastery or ownership. Most of all, you see his dedication to the texts before him, the revelations which we have received and accepted as canonical (which is a fascinating theoretical problem all its own). On the very first page of is short book, Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions, Jim repeats that scriptorian's motto: read, read, read, work, pray, reread. That is what we have to do, in a sense all that we have to do--for once one has received a gift (for that his what Jim ultimately considers scripture to be), a gift that calls out to one, what else is there to do but continuing open it, and receive its call, and interpret its judgment, again and again and again? Anything else--anything that would aim to boil the scriptures down to a set of correlated bullet points and theological propositions--is misunderstanding our situation in this world, as children of God that have been called to Zion, to respond to Zion, to build Zion, and have the resources to do so within us and on our nightstands and library shelves, if we would only stop trying to be finished with them ("Well, I guess I've mastered the Book of Mormon now!"), and instead recognize that we have to always get on with interpreting them. Not willy-nilly; we are and should be guided the community we are part of, and the authority which that community entails. But those are, nonetheless, only guides to reading, not the reading, the gifting, itself; substituting the guides--the lesson manuals, the received wisdom that "everybody knows"--for the reading itself is to miss the point of the call entirely.

Jim learned this lesson early. In a story that he has shared several times, he describes how as a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University he learned, slowly but surely, how to read through the example of Stephen Goldman, a professor of philosophy and lay leader in his Jewish congregation:

I asked if he would allow me to study part of the Old Testament with him. He agreed and asked me to propose a course of study for the next quarter. "Well, since I don't want to go too fast, why don't we just read the book of Genesis?" I said. He was amazed. Though I thought studying one book of scripture in eight weeks was a snail's pace, he thought it impossible to do that much reading in so short a time. He suggested that we read only chapter 1. Since that was equally amazing to me, we compromised on "as much as we can get through." He warned me that we might not get very far, and we didn't. We barely made it through chapter 3, and he obviously felt pushed.

The first day we met, I had read all of chapter 1 and at his request brought several questions with me. One of them was, How do you reconcile the account of creation in this chapter with what is taught in science class? He refused to discuss that question. He did not think it interesting; it was not worth the time. There were, he said, much more important things to discuss, things pertinent to our lives and salvation. Professor Goldman allowed me to ask my other questions, and he had no trouble answering them. In fact, he answered each so completely that at the end of the hour I still had questions that needed to be answered.

At our next meeting, he finished answering my list of questions and asked if I had more. "No," I said, "I'm ready to move to chapter 2." "Before we do so," he asked, "do you mind if I ask a few questions?" That was a trick question, for he began talking about and asking questions about the details of the scriptures, questions that, by focusing on those details, went on and on. He asked about words and patterns of words, pointing out things I had never seen or had thought inconsequential. In almost every case I had no answers for him or felt that the answers I had were shallow and inadequate. But he was patient with me. As I fumbled for answers, he began to explain what he thought some answers to his questions might be and how the things he noticed were important....

For me, that was a turning point in my scripture study. Though I thought I knew the importance of the scriptures, and though I had found them comforting and delightful and enlightening before, I had never experienced them like this. In Doctrine and Covenants 18:34–36, the Lord says, "These words are not of men nor of man, but of me; wherefore, you shall testify they are of me and not of man; For it is my voice which speaketh them unto you; for they are given by my Spirit unto you, and by my power you can read them one to another; and save it were by my power you could not have them; Wherefore, you can testify that you have heard my voice, and know my words." For the first time, I felt that I really knew what this scripture meant. I had experienced the voice of the Lord in the scriptures. Though I knew intellectually that the scriptures reveal all things, especially when coupled with direction from a living prophet, I had never before known this truth in my heart....

Before studying with Professor Goldman, I memorized doctrines and scanned scriptures for evidence that would support the doctrines I believed. After studying with him I realized that although that kind of scripture study is essential, our learning is vastly improved if it is done against the background of close reading I learned from Professor Goldman. The irony is that I learned this from someone outside the church, even though the prophets and the scriptures had already told me that it was possible
. [Scripture Study, pp. 3-6]

A close reading of the scriptures, for Jim, takes away from us the kind of proposition arrogance which he associates with much of the epistemology of modern philosophy, and perhaps even the kind of theological thinking that has been with the Western world since the ancient Greeks. It's the sort of arrogance that my mission companion actually summarized very well in his intitial reaction to Jim's essay: the belief that, actually, when one really gets down to business, that there are answers out there, answers that will solve problems and put money in your pocket and result in success (baptisms, promotions, whatever: aren't they all the same?) But of course, that's not true. Properly, the call to Zion which is conveyed through the scriptures is one that "allows us to question ourselves and our world" (p. 63); it is something which should lead us to feel "mastered by something" besides ourselves (p. 100); it grants us a feelings of "foolishness and humility" (which is not the same, he immediately adds, as feeling "dumbstruck" or having "no confidence in what we say"; Jim is no relativist) (p. 124, 145); most importantly, it is something that is much larger and more important than its actual content: it is the context, the calling, the covenant, the saying, which is absolutely crucial (p. 139):

We often speak of and use scripture as if it were a set of propositions that are poorly expressed or, at best, "merely" poetic. We then try to discover the propositional content (doctrine) that we assume is lurking behind or implicit in those poorly expressed or poetic expressions and to disentangle the relations of those propositions. But that approach misunderstand scripture....

We usually read the scripture as if it were naive philosophy and ontology, looking for the principle of principles, for the theos that stands behind what we are reading, asking constantly the question, "What is it?"--even when we want to ask the question, "What must be done?" We are taught to read scripture that way from our births, both inside and outside the church. That way of reading scripture is something we share with many....Like the image of good traditional philosophers, those who read the scriptures in this way take the gospel to be a set of doctrinal propositions that one is to learn, and they take the scriptures to be a record of those principles and propositions behind which the "theological" gospel hides. When we read scripture this way, it is as if we assume that God is simply a poor writer--or that he chooses poor mouthpieces--and he finds himself unable to lay out clearly and distinctly, in an ordered fashion, the principles he wants to teach us. With amazing hubris, we assume it is our job to do the work he was unable to do, the work of making everything clear, distinct, and orderly.
(pp. 63, 211)

Obviously, you can see why Jim, when he writes his wonderful guides to our weekly Sunday school curricula over at Times and Seasons and Feast Upon the Word, is always subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) bucking against the norms of the community he has committed himself to; he thinks we're mostly reading and teaching the scriptures all wrong, and we should be looking for questions, rather than answer. Jim doesn't much indulge in the role of a critic; he's not one to aspire to the classic prophet/truth-teller role, like Hugh Nibley. (I sometimes think that's unfortunate--but then again, someone who took the time to organize their insights and their questions into a strong challenge against their various church and civic communities might not always have the ability to do the kind of careful reading which Jim does, as a comparison of his footnotes with Nibley's will quickly make clear.) Mostly, and appropriately, if he criticizes anyone it is himself, which is perhaps what first made him so appealing to me: here is someone who knew he was a bad missionary, and who really didn't know which model of "missionary success" to follow, or even if such a thing is possible. 40 years later, Jim still isn't sparing himself; in a passage that I find beautiful in particular because of its lack of drama, he reflects upon a chance encounter with another couple, and how that encounter made it indisputably clear to him that "this man and woman loved their daughter more than I loved mine" (p. 24). That kind of judgment is important to Jim, as it should be important to us: he does not (or at least, so it appears on the basis of his writings, and more importantly so it appeared on the basis of the example he presented to me when I ended up studying philosophy in his classes at BYU as well) make these close readings a Pharisaical fetish: the constant interpretation that we are called into by the scriptures is not an invitation to Rortian relativism or elite, educated distance; it is about judgment and testimony. Not the kind of testimony which we should all hope for, and which he is grateful to possess (though he also recognizes that not everyone who seeks such spiritual blessings will receive them, and confesses ignorance as to why that may be--p. 13); but perhaps a "second-order testimony," one that through its encounter with the challenging and interpretation-demanding calls of scripture "testifies of the bedazzlement of the divine transcendence that reveals itself in religious life" (pp. 40, 85). That "second-order" is the best which Jim thinks his philosophy can offer; other than that, he just reminders his fans (of which I am one of many) to stop spending so much time thinking about such things, and get back to work, and most of all, get back to the scriptures.

There is more that I could say about Jim's overall intellectual contribution to Mormon thought and letters, and not all of it would be entirely positive. (There is in some of these essays, for example, as I think to be the case in a lot of contemporary Mormon intellectual writings, a vague pro-Catholicism and anti-Protestantism at work--see pp. 171-172.) But overall, I can't help but think that Jim is an absolute treasure to the Mormon community today. God, I suspect (and I suspect that Jim would agree with my suspicion--that is assuming he even ever reads this essay, which I suspect he won't; he's not that vain) doesn't really care if any of us end up being a "treasure" to anything besides the people we meet, the people we love, the people we serve, the people we can bring joy and solace and blessings to: that's God's community, right there, the one instantiated by the interpretive work, the waiting work, all Christians (and Mormons) are enjoined to by the revelations found in the scriptures. If it so happens that this community takes a particular ecclesiastical form, wonderful; and if it so happens someone's thinking can make that particular community a little bit better, a little bit more loving, a little more receptive to the call of Zion, all the better. But in the church or out of it, Jim's call--which was the scriptures call first--remains. Thank heavens for that.

Summer Soundtrack Friday Morning Videos: "It's In the Way That You Use It"

Well, tomorrow morning we're hitting the road for St. Louis, MO, and from there on to Kirtland, OH, Morris Plains, NJ, Boston, MA, and more. It's going to be three weeks of pretty much constant driving. Which means, of course, unless a free Wi-Fi connection in a hotel somewhere and inspiration happen to coincide, no blogging. But does that mean taking a break from Friday Morning Videos? Of course not.

Last summer, when we hit the road for a similarly lengthy excursion, I went with the "Lazy Summer" theme. This summer, I wanted to do something different. And then, last week's entry inspired me: soundtracks. Specifically, pop songs from film soundtracks that took on their own life in the music video world. No, it's not the greatest collection of music in the history of the world, but what are you complaining about? It's the summer, for heaven's sake. Anyway, here's a real fave of mine, though it's from one of Martin Scorsese's less impressive efforts:

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Everyone Needs a Little Localism (or Leroy) in Their Lives

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

(This is, in many ways, connected to yesterday's post on Shannon Hayes's Radical Homemakers, but it also stands very much on its own.)

Last spring, I taught a short 8-week seminar on "The Politics of Food". I assigned the students books by Wendell Berry, Marion Nestle, and Eric Schlosser, and had them watch the wonderful rabble-rousing movie Food, Inc. They all produced fine and thoughtful research papers; they were a great bunch of students. But really, the focal point of the whole course was what I christened (in the hopes of making it a regular event) the "Friends University Local Food Tour, Spring 2011"--which consisted of us spending a day traveling to various sites in Hutchinson, Partridge, and Yoder, Kansas, as well as here in Wichita, visiting farms and a nice low-key slaughterhouse, and benefiting greatly from the hands-on knowledge of various homesteaders and nutritionists, including friends like Rachel Murphy and Paula Miller. But above all, we were blessed with the infectious enthusiasm and astonishing connections available through one Leroy Hershberger, Esquire. If this world is to learn anything about the day-to-day realities of adapting to--and rejoicing in--the resources that living and eating in a more limited, more localized--and therefore often healthier and tastier--environment may provide, then we need more men like Leroy.

Who is this fellow? Well, let this be an introduction:

I was introduced to Leroy through another friend, Jane Byrnes (a teacher, nutritionist, and political organizer who also shared her expertise with my students and I on our tour), and he's never failed to surprise me--most particularly with how his expansive and cosmopolitan experiences have lead joyfully him back to living a life and tending to a vocation that some (not recognizing the work and intelligence which go into repairing farm machinery or running a dairy operation) might foolishly label "simple". Or maybe not foolishly, just unknowingly--the people we visited with on that day a couple of months ago really were practicing, in so many ways, a more simple--more local, more sustainable, more immediate, more practical--way of life than is usually available for office-working residents of suburban and urban environments like myself. It's just that such simplicity (as I've argued many times before) is anything but simple-minded.

Leroy was our guide and cheer-leader as we explored this local food economy nearby us (and we didn't touch on a tenth of what we could have, especially since we had to pass, for scheduling reasons, on visiting some farmers Melissa and I have built real friendships with over the years), but the real lessons were provided by the many folks we visited with. There was John Miller and his family, who have built a business around growing hydroponic tomatoes; the Loyd Borntrager family, with their dairy and the large customer base they've developed of interested, health-conscious folk who travel a good distance for their non-pasteurized milk; Kate Cantfort and her partner, who were raising chickens and cattle on a rotating, environmentally minimum-impact basis on their farmland; and many more. Here's a few photos, to give you a taste:

Yes, that's Leroy on the left in the final picture: he brought the whole bunch of us to a delicious luncheon at his parents house. Here's hoping I, and other students of mine, can have a similar opportunity again...and that, in one way or another, everyone else looking for a little more localism in their life can do the same.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What Happens When a Fandom Ends?

[Artwork by Ninny Treetrops, probably my favorite of all the thousands of HP fan artists out there]

So, it appears the cat is out of the bag insofar as "Pottermore", the website that J.K. Rowling has teased us with for the past week or so, and has promised to announce tomorrow. An online wizarding treasure hunt? Perhaps encyclopedia entries, an interactive Harry Potter game, selected readings by Stephen Fry, more? I'm game--I'll definitely check it out. But nothing, not even the new book that one supposed fan (but not a terribly informed one, as fans like myself explained to him a great length in the comments) proposed for Rowling to pursue in Slate, is enough to shake me out of a mood, when it comes to Harry Potter, that wavers between giddy nostalgia and outright melancholy. (Besides, I'd much rather hear more about Dean Thomas than Teddy Lupin.) The fact is, in less than a month's time, a strange obsessive community I've found myself enjoying and participating in for the past four years will, if not come to an end, then at least be permanently changed.

I never expected to become a Potterholic. Though I was aware of the books, and Melissa was reading them, from the beginning, it took the fascination of my oldest daughter, years later in the summer of 2004, and beyond, to turn me into a fan. And then Half-Blood Prince made me a little crazy, and the rush of predictions in the lead-up to Deathly Hallows made me even more so. But still, I wasn't on the Harry Potter websites and boards; I wasn't reading or writing fan fiction, I wasn't dressing up--it was a delightfully obsessive pastime, but it didn't have any roots in my interior life. But then came the finale, in July of 2007, four years ago...and somehow, the thrill, joy, frustration, and exhaustion of that moment--of reading the final chapter, of seeing it all finished and whole, with everything Rowling gave us and all she failed (or, as I have since argued, perhaps unconsciously chose!) not to tell--all combined. Rowling is by no means a great author--but she was at least good enough create a world, a funny and strange and violent and yet almost innocently moral world, inhabited by characters that were worth loving and hating and hoping for. And it was done; Harry, Ron, and Hermione we' more. That's hard to grasp, as more than a few fellow obsessives had foreseen. No doubt there were many millions of readers--the great majority, I'm sure--who closed the last book with satisfaction (or disappointment) and went on with their lives. But not me--not quite. And that, my eight faithful readers, is what began a four-year (so far) long sojourn through my first true fandom.

Wait: aren't I a Star Trek fan? Of course--a serious one! I had whole episodes of the original series all but memorized when I was in junior high. But I never got into the Trekkie world; I'm not sure I've ever even read a single Star Trek novel all the way through. (My brother is a different case.) How about Tolkien? Didn't I read LOTR repeatedly, incorporate much of it into Dungeons and Dragons games? Absolutely. But still, while I'm happy to browse through the History of Middle Earth and debate fiercely whether balrogs had wings (of course they did, you idiot!), I never really saw myself, well, in all those arguments. But when it comes to arguing out Rowling's world and reading HP fan fiction...well, I was sunk. And, in sinking into that, I found myself surrounded by millions of others that had been delightfully engaging in HP fandom since the first book came out, and I had a lot of catching up to do.

Watching the movies was, of course, an essential part of keeping alive the whimsy, the delight, the faux-seriousness of being one of hundreds of thousands who loved and, in a weird way, "believed in" the details of this fantastic world--but so was thinking about the art, the ideas, the stories, the icons, the in-jokes that existed almost solely in an online world. Old-time geeks might snort derisively at the gushing claims made by many fans, the claim that there has "never been a fandom" like Harry Potter--they could tell us stories of Star Wars flik conventions at crummy motels, of thousands of purple-smudged pages of mimeographed Star Trek stories. Since what we're all talking about here is something that was mostly--insofar as the mainstream media and corporate powers were concerned at any rate--marginal and invisible for decades, I'm not sure how anyone could accurate measure the size of fandoms. And for that matter, just what fandoms there are. How big to they have to be to count? When did Led Zeppelin-listening hippies who fell into Tolkien's world in the 60s and 70s, or aspiring tech geeks who found their own mythology in Star Trek in the 70s and 80s, first realize they were a subculture of their own? Perhaps that's the only real difference with Harry Potter--thanks to the advent of the internet, potentially everyone playing around with Rowling's creation could always follow, and engage with, and most importantly be known (by each other, as well as by advertisers) to be being engaged with, everyone else, from day one until...well, until everyone stops, I guess.

It's been a weird, wonderful, often seriously time-wasting four years. "Time-wasting": do I believe that? Sort of; there have definitely been days when turning the world of Harry Potter over and over in my mind has got in the way of me getting essential work done. But then again, if I hadn't taken it as seriously as I have, then I wouldn't have the relationship I have with my daughters--with Megan, who grew up into the world of imagination through Rowling's books, and with Caitlyn, who partook of that world through following the same path at her own pace, and now with Alison, who is turning into every bit the fan that Megan ever was. (And someday, my last daughter, Kristen, as well? Perhaps. Who knows?) I guess I'm not embarrassed by being a Potterholic at all--dissatisfied at some of my time choices, and maybe even with some less than admirable habits I've picked up along the way...but do I wish I hadn't had geeked out on the story at all? No, not in the least.

Anyway, we've got our tickets and our Gryffindor scarves for the midnight showing, three weeks from tomorrow. Who knows what it'll happen after that? Maybe the whole thing--for me personally, or for everyone else--will just wind down. Or maybe the ideas and enchantment and silliness and soulful beauty of the stories will just, one way or another, keep marching on, carrying all us obsessives, happily, along with them.

Update, 6/23,2011, 8:01am, CST: here's the Pottermore announcement from Rowling. An interactive--perhaps Wiki?--encyclopedia/backstory archive? Hopefully, one that in time will allow for additional "licensed" fan writings as well? I'll be signing up, that's for sure:

Radical Homemaking, Radically Enriching

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

I first heard about Shannon Hayes work through Laura McKenna's blog nearly two years ago. I was already disposed to like the sorts of localist, agrarian, and traditional causes that Hayes urges us to consider when I first read about her (after all, Melissa and I vaguely aspire to that sort of lifestyle ourselves), but it was Laura's concluding line--"There is absolutely no reason that feminism should mean a devotion to capitalism"--that really pulled me in. When I finally got a copy of Hayes's book, Radical Homemakers, I confess it wasn't what I expected--rather than a serious, theoretically grounded critique of consumer culture, family life, and the structural obstacles that often stand in the way of adopting a simpler, more communal lifestyle, I found an often sloppily researched but nonetheless impassioned instruction manual-cum-rallying cry. A cry and a manual for what? Very simply, for rejecting the economic demands which insist of dual-income households (p. 17), for relearning how to grow and preserve your own food (pp. 78-83), and for refusing the economically and environmentally devastating materialism of modern American life (pp. 93-94). And I thought to myself: now, wouldn't this make for a great Relief Society lesson?

Relief Society, for those who don't know and actually care (a pretty small number, I'll admit), is the historical label given to the Mormon church's women's organization--the general principle being to bring together the women of the church as a charitable, educational, and service unit. The organizing conceit here was, of course, very much a thoroughly 19th-century gendered assumption, an assumption which remains--for good and for bad--a part of Mormonism's official doctrinal rhetoric: namely, that women are more naturally empathetic than men, and so will of course find greater fulfillment through the providing of "relief" to their community and others around them. The history of the Relief Society is, in fact, a pretty fascinating and revealing guide to how the Mormon church as a whole first struggled against, then later struggled to acclimate to, modern American life. But what most attracted my interest was the parallel between, on the one hand, Hayes's (often flaky, but also often insightful, and always passionately and persuasively stated) arguments which reject much our media-drenched, money-and-gadget obsessed consumerist world, and embrace the ideal of the homemaker as someone able to help produce healthy, sustainable, durable goods and services for themselves and their community, and on the other hand, the long-standing Mormon Relief Society practice of "enrichment".

A couple of months ago, I had the pleasure of putting together a panel discussion (at this conference, with the wonderful people you see on the left) which took off, in many different directions, from Hayes's insistence upon thinking seriously about just what "making" a simple, sustainable, spiritually-edifying "home" truly consisted of. What I wanted to do was plant some seeds of discussion (seeds which grow in surprising directions in Hayes's book), presenting the "home" as something other than a unit of consumption, other than a place where individuals rest their heads and eat their meals and watch their television shows, all of which require ever-increasing (and often debt-driven) economic participation to keep going. In preparation for that, I asked a Mormon audience exactly what kind of "homemaking" and "enrichment" activities their local congregations still participate in, if any. The answers were, to say the least, revealing. And they should be--for some decades, extending for many years out beyond Mormonism's 19th-century pioneer period, the ability to live frugally, to share resources and skills with family and friends so as to become self-sustaining, to basically dissent from the pursuit of wealth and growth, was an unstated principle of a great deal that Relief Society did. Enriching the home meant making it more tendable, more nuturable, more amenable to (one might say more "organic to", but such language is unfortunately foreign to most American Mormons, whether in the 19th century or today) the work and production and play of those who live there, rather than more dependent upon the size of the paycheck brought home and the caprice of the market in general. That distant ideal remains a half-life existence throughout much of Mormon culture (and not just Mormons--Laura McKenna, who confessed herself highly attracted to much of Hayes's call, has made clear her own disposition to the "pioneer virtues" of "making do or doing without" before as well).

Part of this story, of course, can't be told without talking about Mormonism's ultimately mostly abandoned effort to develop a truly alternative--more communitarian, more egalitarian, more localized--culture and economy in Utah. This is part of why I'd love to see Hayes's book be the centerpiece of a Relief Society lesson: because in the mostly conservative, mostly middle- and upper-class white American Mormon church, Hayes's righteous attacks on capitalism as an economic system which drives us to debt and competition, invades the sanctity of the home which consumer values and fears, and commodifies and individualizes our most intimate and emotionally connective choices...well, it might not go over too well. But then again, if it was stated by way of quoting 19th-century church leaders and passages of scripture which make essentially the same point, maybe some real enrichment could be possible.

The other elephant that would be present in the room, which any Relief Society taking up my challenge ought to consider, is why should be the Relief Society that thinks about "homemaking" and "enrichment", as opposed to any of the men's organizations in our church? It's an important question--for Hayes clearly envisions to inspire both partners in any family unit to turn aside from the rat race, return to the home, and engage in the sort of practical work necessary to achieve real sustainability, simplicity, and health. When she rants (and she often does) about how "[w]e have lost the innate knowledge and tradition crafts essential to countless functions for our daily survival, with the end result being a disconnection from our communities and our natural world" (p. 83), none of her words pertain to the female partner over the male, or vice versa. But she's no stupid; she's fully aware of how her call to reject the rewards of the market will go over with most of the second-wave feminists among us--feminists who, she believes, have traded in the birthright of building freer, cleaner, more beautiful and more just homes for the cash rewards of the workplace:

In running the homemaking banner up the flagpole, I understand that I may garner two different salutes--one with a full hand lifted respectfully at eyebrow level, and a second where only a single finger is raised. For generations now, the homemaker banner has come to represent two primary struggles. In the first, the homemaker is viewed as a subservient loser in the battle of the sexes, where a man has presumably gained power over a woman if she stays home. In the second struggle, woman faces off against woman; the struggle for autonomy, self-fulfillment, and economic independence is pitted against society's need for nurturers (p. 23).

Tweak a few words here and there, and you can could find words like these coming from the mouth or pen of any one of a dozen well-known female "backlash" authors, including Mormon ones--concerned women who think, like Hayes, that modern American life and modern American feminism are serving the family wrong. But how many would recognize the way in which these ideologies and practices are disrupting the very simple, very conservative, very traditional ideal of the home? Would they see, as Hayes does, that exploring and defending the construction of the home obliges one to stop thinking so much about the behavior of those within the home--which is their preferred route--and instead to contemplate more about the ugly fact that we our complicit in a system which places a price tag on all those behaviors, both good and bad? Well...maybe if the Relief Society instructor was a particularly good one, they would.

My fellow panel participants opened up the discussion of "making" a home to all sorts of considerations--personal, sexual, and theoretical; they talked about church programs, economic resources, psychological growth, and political justice. I think Hayes's would have been pleased with their "radicalness", even if she might have wondered about some of their conclusions. Asking the questions she asks is, after all, the first step. Now, getting someone to make Radical Homemakers--with all its sometimes-crazy-but-just-as-often-insightful suggestions regarding transportation (p. 126), home ownership (p. 130), health care (p. 139), child care (p. 154), education (p. 160), and savings (p. 176)--a manual for an Enrichment lesson...well, that would be the next one.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Friday Morning Videos: "All Over the World"

More from the wonderful year that was 1980. The connection is pretty terrible (give it time to load), as I had to track this down from who-knows-where on the internet, but no tour of upbeat, early 80s pop video craziness could be complete without this masterpiece from Xanadu.

We actually tried to rewatch this film sometime ago; it's almost unbearable. It's 80s punk, it's 70s disco, it's hippy 60s, and it overall doesn't really work at all. But for Gene Kelly and the Electric Light Orchestra, I'll watch anything.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Lawyers Who Oppose Obamacare, Help Me Out With This One

I'm going to have to write something more about the health care debate soon, especially with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals capable of handing down their decision in the latest legal attack on the Affordable Care Act at any time. Unfortunately I probably won't be able to this week, as in all likelihood I'll be away from the computer for the next several days. In the meantime though, perhaps any lawyers who are inclined to a little head-butting could enlighten me some. Akhil Amar, one of the biggest names at Yale Law School, has written a paper that not only strongly defends the constitutionality of Obamacare (and yes, he calls it that), but calls it, in the paper's final line, "a profound culmination of the Reconstruction vision"--that is, he claims it's a law that moves towards the completion of a post-Civil War vision of racial and social justice that has been long denied. Pretty heavy praise. Of course, it goes without saying that Amar is a known Obama supporter. But still, what about his arguments? I need to read through them thoroughly...something I hope to have the time to do this coming week. If, by the time I return, some intelligent conservative lawyer could have left me an explanation as to why Amar's arguments, as he lays them out in his paper, just don't stand up, I'd be most gratified. I'm all about the learning here, after all. Anyway

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Mature Ferris Bueller at 25

Ferris Bueller's Day Off, arguably John Hughes's best film (though not, I think, his most ambitious or admirable--that would be Pretty in Pink) was released 25 years ago today. I saw it in the theater, and loved it. Who didn't? Everyone did--even George F. Will (good intellectual teen-age Republican I was at the time, reading Will was obligatory). My mother saw it in the theater too, and also loved it--I remember her talking about how it was sweet, and wise. "Ferris is funny, not silly," she said, or something close to that; "he knows he's going to grow up, but for the moment he's still young, and he does what young people do." Being a preternaturally old person, the whole "young person" thing didn't necessarily do it for me--and that would suggest I shouldn't have loved, and still love, the film, because it really is a pure youth fantasy (a white suburban youth fantasy, that is). But Mom was right: there is, in the midst of the fantastic, effortless, clean naughtiness of the movie, some real weight. Ferris and Cameron and Sloane know there are more important things, more difficult and pressing things, in life besides taking a day off; and in fact, that they need those heavier things. There were several scenes in the film which strive to capture that balance, none greater than this:

Lately, there's been some fretting about getting mature and responsible and, well, grown-up in the Fox household lately. It ain't easy, and the path towards it ain't always clear, especially when you look at things too closely. But in the big picture, well, life is still crazy fun.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Does Mitt Even Want a Moment?

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Another thought (shorter than last time) about the recent Newsweek cover story on Mormonism in America today, and Mitt Romney's--or any other prominent member of my church's--place in it all. Several writers have taken different types of exception to Walter Kirn's presentation of Mormonism as a religion which has, despite (or perhaps because of) its arguably marginal and often controversial presence in American public life, somehow found the "secret to success" and is " having its moment". The debate is over whether Kirn, and all those involved in putting together the package of features, misunderstood or put the wrong spin on the undeniable fact that Mormon culture has, in many (though not all) ways, greatly aligned itself to a certain, relatively successful slice of American life: business-oriented, culturally conservative, non-offensively Christian, practical and pragmatic, accepting of (a certain amount of) pluralism, patriotic and, to a degree, quite self-affirming. While this process of adaption has been going on for quite a while--so much so that it has also given rise to a concurrent process of retrenchment/backlash, and perhaps we even are even seeing a backlash to the backlash within the church--recognizing and addressing ourselves to that adaptation is still relatively recent; I've suggested that you can see it explicitly in the differences between the last several presidents of our church, while Matt Bowman recently suggested that you can see it implicitly in the generation gap between Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman (though I had my doubts about that). These are good, curious debates to have--but I would ask something slightly tangential. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that in our public persona, our susceptibility to conventional American satire, and in the candidates we are producing for high political office, we really are experiencing a "Mormon Moment". My question: should Romney (and Huntsman, though he's less of a player at this point) be happy about that?

Here's the problem in a nutshell. When Romney traveled to Texas during his previous run for the Republican nomination, and gave an important speech making a case for why a Mormon can be a participant in making the case for the "common creed of moral convictions" which many Christian conservatives have made central to the aims of the Republican party, he quite consciously echoed John F. Kennedy's speech, given under similar circumstances during his campaign for the presidency in 1960. Romney's line "If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest", and Kennedy's line "Whatever issue may come before me as president....I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates", essentially say the same thing: that the person speaking is a candidate who approaches religion, and whom makes use of his religion (to whatever extent he does), solely in the context of discerning what is the interest of the whole nation, not any one sectarian part of it. That is, fundamentally, a classical liberal statement, one that would serve equally well to defend against attacks upon both Catholics and Mormons within America's liberal democracy. And yet, such a liberal statement cannot truly serve Romney as it did Kennedy...because Romney has to appeal to Republican primary voters who don't agree with it. And the more "mainstream" Mormonism may appear to be becoming, the more Romney's capacity to connect with voters who have moral complaints with the results which they see that classical liberal answer as having given the United States--a capacity which is already made difficult by the baggage which Mormonism carries amongst many Americans--becomes that much more complicated.

This is not to claim that Republican primary voters, particularly in Iowa or South Carolina, are philosophical reactionaries and theocrats, who view their every vote solely through a sectarian prism. Obviously they are not--especially right now, when it appears that the 2011-2012 election cycle is going to be far more focused on fiscal issues than moral ones. Nonetheless, the fact remains that there are a great many Republican primary and caucus goers who will want to be certain that their chosen candidate isn't entirely mainstream. Of course, they won't want a maniac or a zealot...but neither, perhaps, are they necessarily going to want someone whose beliefs, at least according to Newsweek magazine, when it comes to government or the arts or the mass media or the best-seller lists or popular culture generally, "rocks!"

Over the years I, like many other members of the Mormon church, have been fascinated by the Romney candidacy, as no doubt millions of Catholics were fascinated by Kennedy's run for office. That fascination has many sources, I suppose, but none more so than this: that Romney has to walk--and has himself chosen to walk--a very thin tightrope. On the one hand, America has changed since 1960: the classical liberal answers that a half-century ago were mostly accepted as unquestionably true when it comes the maintenance of American democracy have become subject to serious critique and challenge. Large numbers of conservatives--and more importantly, a sometimes-controlling faction of the Republican party--look instead for someone who is capable of challenging the secular excesses of American democracy (though usually they don't put it that way), a candidate who will speak of America in religious and moral terms, and appeal to values they believe (with some justification) that liberals have disregarded. On the other hand, these conservative voters, expecting to hear something other than classically liberal answers, may have trouble hearing such a culturally conservative and religious message from a Mormon...and the best way for a Mormon to insist upon their place in our democracy and to issue such a message (assuming they don't want to get into the kind of pretentious philosophy I recommended Romney try years ago) is to employ exactly those Kennedyesque claims. It's a puzzle, and Romney has committed himself to trying to figure it out. Obviously, religious "moments" were a good deal easier to deal with 50 years ago.

Your Theology Makes Bastet Curious! I Grace You With My Holy Presence

Via John B. My lectures on Christian theology always attract feline interest as well.

Friday Morning Videos: "You Make My Dreams Come True"

I didn't plan it this way, but it appears that I have, pretty consistently ever since the end of April, been tuned into the music of the very early 80s: 1980, 1981, and 1982, to be exact. So why not keep it up? And, more particularly, have I really never done a video by Hall and Oates before? Astonishing.

Darryl Hall and John Oates had a fairly wide range of musical talents, but if there has ever been anyone better able to distill a blend of rock and roll and soul down into a solid, in-and-out, 3-minute pop song, I don't know who they were. This wasn't their best work off of 1980's Voices (that would be this song, here), but that one never had a proper video, and besides, thanks to a brief, perfect Han Solo moment, (500) Days of Summer has already made this song a masterpiece.

Monday, June 06, 2011

K-Pop, 20 Years Ago

I had an interesting experience last week--something prompted me to pull out from storage all my old Korean music, which consists of tape cassettes I bought 20+ years ago when I was a missionary in South Korea. I had a lot more at one point; when I first arrived in the field, one experienced elder (that's what we guys called each other, as missionaries: "Elder Last-Name") told me that of the two best ways to learn the language, the easiest was to buy and listen to a bunch of popular music, and I took him at his word. (His other recommendation was to get a girlfriend, but he may have been joking about that one. I never found out, anyway.)

When I was there, from 1988 until 1990, South Korea was going through the process of shaking off the remains of the quasi-military dictatorship which had finally come to an end with the elections in 1987, and were both really feeling their freedom, as well as assessing the sort of culture and public realm that had emerged during the previous 10 years of nearly constant protest and struggle over the military's control. I didn't really know any of that at the time, but I slowly picked up some of it during my two years there, especially as I tried to figure out (because I'm obsessive that way) what the young Koreans I was teaching English to or trying to talk with at church were listening to in their spare time. Like all countries which have been, at one point or another, in the shadow of the United States, young South Koreans often listened to and liked American or just Western artists in general (I remember Wham! being particularly popular; perhaps their tour of China just a few years earlier had something to do with that), but they also had local artists they liked who had absorbed Western rock, pop, and folk, and done something original with it, and it was that stuff I was interested in. Through trying to decipher the lyrics, I got a sense of an often frustrated, often experimental, often bitter and defiant bunch of songwriters and musicians, who nonetheless also had a sentimental, even maudlin streak that would put John Denver to shame. Listening to it now, I also hear echoes of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Byrds, Badfinger, and bunch of other power-pop and 60s-rock influences, which I suppose isn't unsurprisingly. A good chunk of it holds up damn well, and maybe that is.

A year or two after I left Korean popular music, or "K-Pop", apparently went through a revolution that completely re-made how the local industry worked, and now K-Pop is huge throughout East Asia, as well as frequently rather cutting edge. But I was listening to a bunch of guys banging around with guitars and 70s synthesizers in studios and garages, and so that's the stuff that stays with me. And amazingly, at least some of the stuff I bought and didn't throw away has stuck around as well.

The album above is the 1985 self-titled first album by 들국화, pronounced "Deul Gook Hwa", which is a native flower (a wild chrysanthemum). Their ripping off of the Let it Be album for their cover wasn't coincidental; I can't the number of times Koreans my age would introduce these guys to me as the "Korean Beatles", and I'm informed enough now to recognize how thoroughly they strove to imitate the Fab Four in their harmonies and range. They had one other album after this one, then the four of them split apart, but their impact was apparently huge. Their lead singer, 전인권 ("Jeon In Gwon") was a charismatic wild man, who wrote one of their anthems, "March", but the real talent in the band was probably lead guitarist 조덕환 ("Jo Deok Hwan"), who put songs like "Blessings", "Train Around the World", and, my personal favorite, "Until the Morning Breaks" on the album. (He's still making music on his own today, which might be interesting to check out if I actually had the time or money to do so.)

And then there's their overwrought and overproduced but enormous hit, "It's Only My World"--which actually don't remember liking that much, though I was able to grasp that it was capturing that put-upon, existential, I'm-sorry-but-I-also-have-no-regrets feeling so many South Koreans seemed to carry around with them in those days (I have no idea if they still do, though I'd be great to travel back there someday and find out). To continue with the Beatles comparisons, that song became a sort of "Yesterday"--overplayed but essential to the Korean pop psyche, or at least apparently so, considering how many Korean artists have recorded versions of it--see here, here), here, and here. Here's the original band doing the song themselves, from 1988; unfortunately it's a terrible performance, and it's after Deok Hwan had left the group (so no lead guitar), but it's the best I could find:

I have their second album too--a nice love song, "Please", and a whimsical Christmas song as well, but overall not as captivating as their first. On the basis of the reviews I can find online, scouring hundreds of K-Pop sites I never imagined existed before last week, it seems I'm not wrong.

Another, very different Korean group whose cassette I kept in playable condition over the years 봄여름가을겨울, "Spring Summer Autumn Winter", which really turn out, in retrospect, to be a kind of Steely Dan-type outfit; a few key guys recording in the studio, bringing in all sorts of session musicians to help them achieve whatever sound they were looking for. They're apparently still together and recording, involved in all sorts of multi-media projects around East Asia, making soundtracks and videos and more. Some of their songs off their first, self-titled album still rock: "Always Happy People", "Just Going Down the Street", or "Everyone Changes", which actually has some wonderful orchestration on it, worthy of Donald Fagen.

I suppose I could put up more, but that's a good start. Feel free to go forth and explore, if you're interested. In the meantime, I ought to see how many of these old tapes of mine I can find available somewhere in Korea on cd.

Do I Want My Religion To Be Mainstream?

[Cross posted to By Common Consent]

This cover story in Newsweek is pretty much the only thing Mormons in my crowd have been talking about this morning. (They've also been talking about the other features in the package, as well as a wonderful sidebar article on Elizabeth Smart, but not as much as the main piece.) The main article, "Mormons Rock!", written by Walter Kirn--who is a long-lapsed member of the faith himself--apparently started out as a piece on the new "The Book of Mormon" musical on Broadway, but grew from there. The editor primarily responsible for putting the package together and guiding it was Damon Linker, my old friend and frequent intellectual sparring-partner, not least when it comes to things Mormon. Here, thanks to the work of some fine other journalists, he's developed something that might well be read as a basically innocuous puff-piece (running through some of the basics of the church's history and current institutional culture, quoting several prominent members of the faith about how they deal with the misunderstanding and marginalization that comes along with being a minority faith), but which, to me anyway, presents a fairly challenging question, a question that might be legitimately asked to believers of any non-dominant religion: should you, as a adherent of a faith, actually want to have your "moment"?

I'm no expert on the Catholic church in America, but I attended Catholic University for graduate school, read and loved (and also hated and argued with) Richard John Neuhau's First Things magazine for years, and in general have tried to become fairly familiar with Catholic history and sources and issues. Same way it worked with Damon, by the way, who was RJN's second-in-command at FT for a few years, close to a decade ago. Neuhuas famously made intellectual use of an old phrase in American Catholicism, one which Tina Brown reminds Newsweek's readers of in her Editor's Note to the issue: with the nomination of John F. Kennedy as the Democratic candidate for president, American Catholics found themselves in the spotlight. No longer, or at least no longer primarily, a religion of immigrants, of a particular corner of the United States, of the non-WASP poor, but rather an organized community, which had penetrated government, academia, the arts, professional sports, and more--Catholics were capable of playing (and winning) at the very top of America's collective pyramid of games. And over the decade which followed, one change after another followed for the Catholic Church--Vatican II, John Courtney Murray's Dignitatus Humanae Personae, and more. Not that all this and more was caused by the fact that a Catholic (even if only a nominal one) had been elected as president of the most powerful country in the world, but the fact remains that the trends which led to all these occurrences coinciding were not, in themselves, entirely coincidental. Kennedy and his moment was a fair synecdoche of everything that was happening, and would continue to happen, to Catholics in America (and around the world) in the years to come. That moment meant Catholicism was no longer, or at least not primarily, practically speaking, a refuge from and/or a bulwark against a diverse and divided and damned world: it was, rather, part of the civil order. Catholicism was merging with--was making its peace with--Americanism, with capitalism, with democracy, with popular culture, with individualism, with modernity. If Mitt Romney--or John Huntsman, or HBO's Big Love, or "The Book of Mormon" musical--is a similar "moment" for my faith, is this something I should be okay with?

I'm not sure how many of us are. I found it fascinating that, to quote from the main article:

In recent weeks NEWSWEEK called every one of the 15 Mormons currently serving in the U.S. Congress to ask if they would be willing to discuss their faith; the only politicians who agreed to speak on the record were the four who represent districts with substantial Mormon populations. The rest were “private about their faith,” or “politicians first and Mormons second,” according to their spokespeople.

Kirn frames this as part of the general narrative of the piece: that we Mormons, a pragmatic and adaptable people, are only now getting used to the fact that our religion has prepared us to intelligently and diligently make the most of the world we find ourselves in, and are reasonably careful about expecting too much from a mainstream which has historically mistreated and misunderstood us. And surely, that's part of it. But there is another angle, which I think a couple of smart--but not especially religions people--people like Damon and Kirn have failed to grasp: that perhaps many American Mormons, even those quickly ascending to the heights of their respective professions and causes, are unsure how much we want to accept everyone and everything else.

Kirn quotes, without much comment, two Mormon politicians, Senator Harry Reid and Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake, who both tie their (very different) political views to their faith. Perhaps it's not surprising that doesn't elicit much comment; after all, in a country where every politician with any aspirations gets brow-beaten into ending every major address with "God bless America!", how can it seem odd to see religious believers tying their faith to their voting record? But if you think for a moment of two about Mormon history, it arguably can appear has very odd indeed. Ours was a faith that, throughout its long history, has at least as often organized itself in opposition to the existing civil order as attempted to work with it. Indeed, we've gone far beyond simply positing an occasional opposition; we're the church which fled the United States in an attempt to build a theocratic settlement in Utah, who engaged in means both legal and illegal to thwart federal authorities who attempted to stop us from practicing what we (at that time, anyway) held to be central to our faith. Obviously more than a century has passed since those days. But as many fine histories that have emerged over the past couple of decades have taught us, abandoning that theocratic, Zion-building aspiration was a long, difficult, and by no means straightforward process, and it is only inconsistently absent from Mormon thinking to this day. In places where Mormons hold a voting and/or economic majority, we fall (back?) into the habit of constructing our own particular orders; in places where we don't hold such a majority (which is everywhere except Utah and parts of Idaho and Arizona), many Mormons find it reasonable to see our own desire for an "oppositional establishment" in common cause with other Christian majorities who want to similarly legislate on behalf of their moral preferences, even if doing so arguably makes a hash of our purported theology. Kirn uses the old phrase by Charles Colson to describe this--the "ecumenism of the trenches." And to be sure, some members of the church have thrown themselves into those trenches with great enthusiasm. But for quite a few of the rest of us, the prospect of seeing ourselves as engaged in some grand ecumenical struggle is...difficult (even if we can see an equally strong theological argument for it as otherwise). If we're part of the mainstream, even an "oppositional" mainstream, then what becomes of our particularity, our community, our separateness? Is it gone for good, or has it been made entirely internal, personal, a matter of belief and lifestyle, rather than of politics and culture and our ways of life? And, most crucially...if the latter option, then isn't that essentially the same thing as the former?

I'm as divided as the next person: I'm a modernity-loving geek, and yet I keep trying to find some way to explore alternatives, to live my life and, to whatever extent a piss-poor "patriarch" like myself can, to lead my family in the direction of something that isn't just one more lifestyle in the midst of many others. The Mormon heritage teaches me that I ought to be about a grander task than that. The musical which generated this conversation at Newsweek in the first place has been widely recognized as brilliantly (and foul-mouthedly) riffing on the "sentimental appreciation for the psychological benefits of religious faith". If this is our moment, then perhaps we need to be conscious of one of the possible prices of that mainstreaming moment, of that making piece with American pluralism--that we end up talking about our faith primarily in terms of sentiment and psychology. For myself, I want something more robust than that.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Friday Morning Videos: "Heat of the Moment"

More early 80s goodness. Around this time last year, I purposely avoided picking the obvious Asia hit, despite it having a much cooler video. Maybe I was just hoping to avoid the inevitable South Park jokes. Anyway, I'm putting things right this year.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Applying Bertram's Left to America

[Cross-posted to Political Context]

Last week, Chris Bertram speculated some about the predicament of the European left, observing that nowadays "the only thing that unites the various lefts is hostility to a neoliberal right", and that "the differences of policy and principle at the heart of the so-called left are so deep that an alliance is all but unsustainable". He then went on to analyze what he saw as the existing streams of thought amongst the left--a search that sounded pretty familiar to me. He identified four groupings: 1) "the technocratic quasi-neoliberal left"; 2) "the left version of populist nationalism"; 3) "the eco-left"; and 4) "the old Leninist hard left". I thought that was an intriguing breakdown--though, as became apparent in the very engaging comment thread his post gave rise to, it really doesn't quite describe the American situation. Some went further than that, arguing that Chris's breakdown criminally neglects movements which the American experience proves to be absolutely essential to any definition of the left. I don't think that's quite right; I think Chris's set-up is more applicable to our situation than some might think, though it is obviously limited in important ways. So, since I like doing this kind of thing, let me see what I can disentangle here.

1) The neoliberal technocratic left. For the US, that means Bill Clinton, Larry Summers, Robert Reich, their whole gang of global-market-embracing nominal egalitarians. Calling these folks "neoliberals" is somewhat problematic on this side of the Atlantic, as the term has a slightly different resonance. In Britain, the rise of Blair in the 1990s finalized a long period of internal transformation within Britain's Labor Party, making it all but entirely committed to the ideal of achieving social equality through carefully managed economic growth, and abandoning even a nominal commitment to socialism. In doing so, it essentially accepted certain elements of the Thatcher Revolution, in which a Hayekian reading of modern economics revived (and substantially revised) the older meaning of "liberalism". In the US on the other hand, economic growth (through trade, market expansion, business innovation, and all the rest) has long been (with very rare exceptions) the presumed aim of both the Republican and Democratic parties; they were both "liberal" in that sense. Perhaps at the heights of FDR's New Deal you really did have a Democratic party that was edging over into genuine "social democratic" territory, but we certainly haven't seen anything like that since; the "Great Society" of Cold Warriors like Kennedy and Johnson is fondly or dismissively remembered by Americans of different ideological persuasions as a high point in egalitarian policy-making, but even it was clearly a product of welfare-state capitalism. So for us, "neoliberalism" tends to mean those Democrats who began to question the verities of the post-WWII, state-capitalist, liberal consensus--liberals who challenged the negative cultural effects of large government bureaucracies, powerful unions, and the welfare-state in general in the 70s and 80s. These "new Democrats", particularly because they often distanced themselves from the (electorally shrinking anyway) pro-union industrial base which was once key to the New Deal coalition, found it easy to conceive of funding egalitarian programs through the economic growth promised by high-tech entrepreneurialism, financialization, and globalization. And this is what has given us the post-Reagan Democratic party, in which politicians regularly appeal to a wide variety of constituencies, one of which happens to be those of us on the left who are unhappy with capitalism and its overriding emphasis on economic growth, and in so doing make vague promises which suggest that the relationship between the government and the elite managers of Wall Street will be changed once they are elected...and then proceed to appoint the same kind of "globalize-grow-and-give" economists and business leaders to top posts in their staffs and administrations as soon as they're in office. It's fairly predictable.

As are the players--as Chris notes, these are the folks who like to talk about being members of the "reality-based community", who are going to be "grown-ups" when it comes to health care, the debt ceiling, and more. This is the Democratic party of Obama; this is most of the liberal punditocracy in the blogosphere. There's nothing wrong with these people, and heaven knows I learn from them, appreciate their insight, and will generally vote for them and their progressive compromises against much of their typical opposition. (I dislike the Affordable Care Act, and totally support it at the same time!) But their commitment to achieving their ends through a "progressive" management of global capitalism generally blind them, I think, to the moral deficits which come along with their programmatic embrace of a basically undemocratic, ultimately secular, bureaucratic welfare state. And in that sense, their dominance of what passes for the left in America is a shame.

2) The populist/nationalist left. In Chris's post and the discussion which followed it, it seemed fairly clear that, in the British and European context, any talk of ordinary citizens (usually meaning lower- or lower-middle-class people) popularly defending jobs, their rights, their neighborhoods, their wages, and their way of life--which began as a clearly leftist cause, as embodied by trade unions--has become unavoidably tangled up with fears over immigration. Which is something the neoliberals have hard time wrapping their minds around (witness Gordon Brown's difficulty dealing with a Labor voter who is, nonetheless, pretty convinced that eastern European immigrants are contributing her local hardships), especially since many of those who explicitly take such a "populist" line are very much on the right. In the US, such concerns over immigration are a reality as well, though in a somewhat different way (as an immigrant nation, it is harder--though not impossible--for those inclined towards both nationalism and the left to speak of the need to politically preserve and promote America's identity; mostly, arguments about immigration end up being arguments about undocumented Mexican workers). The important difference in regards to populism is that in the US, there is a specific historical example of culturally conservative, locally rooted, working class people become the primary agents in a movement for egalitarian and democratic change: the People's Party, or Populists, of the late 19th century--who may not have accomplished much on their own, but who, through charismatic leaders like William Jennings Bryan, forced the major parties into embracing what eventually became the progressive, union-friendly reforms of the early 20th century, and then beyond that the New Deal itself.

One of the most constant themes of all political punditry in the US is guessing game as to where, or whether, this particularly populist vote will appear. In recent decades, it is generally not the Democrats who have been able to draw it forth; instead, we have seen southern farmers voting for George Wallace, Catholic union workers voting for Ronald Reagan, and white small businesspeople voting for Ross Perot. The tension between these voters and the neoliberals who, since the 1980s, have come to control much of the Democratic party establishment isn't merely a hold-over from fights over segregation and civil rights (though there is a lot of that), and it isn't entirely over immigration either (though Perot's attack on Clinton for supporting NAFTA was perhaps the single most important factor in bringing him to national prominence). Religion has much to do with it as well; to a degree perhaps far greater than anywhere in Britain or even all of Europe, what is called "left" in the US has become closely identified since the 1970s with various culture war conflicts, with the result that large portions of the white Christian population has come to view attempts to articulate populist concerns in a democratic or egalitarian--that is a "liberal"--context as suspicious, to say the least. The populist left thus remains to be articulated pretty much solely by those occasional Democratic and other liberal political leaders that are willing to use the particular language of religion, civic identity, patriotism, and the common good. Politicians like Jon Tester and Bob Casey, Jr., have some of that, but they mostly remain within the neoliberal mainstream; you don't see them in a position to organize real leftward movement in their party anytime soon.

3) The eco-left. Chris took a fair amount of flak for this label, but I like what he was trying to capture in the label--people who are neither fully localist nor fully cosmopolitan, but have both communitarian and anarchist sympathies, and strive to incorporate both environmentalism and egalitarianism into their worldview. The Green party is probably the most obvious manifestation of this conglomeration of ideas. Throughout Europe the Green party is a serious reality, having developed egalitarian and environmental agendas that have a strong records of implementation and contestation. In the US, by contast, the Greens have become a tiny catch-all site for all sorts of anti-globalist, anti-corporate, anti-military, radically localist, vaguely socialist, strongly environmental (or, indeed, eco-centric), pro-immigrant, pro-union, counter-cultural attitudes. A minor mishmash like that doesn't make for much of a coherent movement, and to that degree what Chris called the "eco-left" makes about as much sense as the way the people in the US speak of the "WTO anarchists" that gave us the Battle of Seattle. However, while anarchism holds probably a more-or-less identical position in the US as it does in the UK--that is, it is an ideology with an appeal overwhelmingly limited to relatively well-off and directionless young people, as well as your occasional intellectual activist--it is undeniable that at least some form of this kind of anti-establishment discontent has had a surprisingly unpredictable, even robust, history in the US over the past 50 years, from Students for a Democratic Society and onwards...or even, if one is so inclined, going all the way back to the beginning, with Thomas Jefferson speculating about "ward republics", Henry David Thoreau retreating to Walden, and various communal experiments spreading throughout the countryside. What is really at work under this label is what Sheldon Wolin called "fugitive democracy", and what Erik Olin Wright refers to as "interstitial movements" towards greater egalitarianism and democratic emancipation: it is the perennial hope of people being able to find some reliable (even if necessarily transitory) way of directly managing their own local affairs, and making social and economic decisions not wholly subject to technical powers which presume--or indeed, necessitate--demand corporate and government managers handle it on their behalf.

Unfortuantely, in the American context this sentiment frequently bleeds over into a vulgar, leave-me-alone libertarianism, one which either makes its peace with corporate power and economic inequality (because buying into the American dream of wealth and a good choice of suburban schools and a nice home in a gated community is a kind of "sovereignty", after all), or else is distracted from such concerns by more crudely nationalist appeals (of the "Obama isn't really an American" variety). This is one of my greatest personal frustrations when it comes to ideology--why are so few localists, people deeply committed to their local community, folks thoroughly convinced of the need to organize their neighborhood and get things done, so resistant to applying that passion to the corporate powers that be? I suppose the career of Ralph Nader becomes an important part of the answer: his accomplishments in taking the safety and health needs of consumers directing against entrenched business and government interests made him, at one time, one of the most trusted men in America--but the neoliberals hated him, dismissed his political and economic critiques as elitist, utopian, and irrelevant, and especially loathed him for refusing to recognize the legitimately important differences between the two main parties when it came to the "status issues" so crucial to establishment egalitarianism today. And that, in the final analysis, is perhaps the strongest distinction between how these categories can play out in Europe versus the US. In Chris's view, the members of this incoherent, highly participatory left is "closely connected to the social movements that have in fact given us most of the left’s real policy gains in the past 40 years". But in the US, with the exception rabble-rousers like Cornell West, this mostly not the case. The moral power of the 60s civil rights narrative here in America shapes nearly all debates amongst all those who feel some sympathy for the left, and the fact is that relatively few radicals in Nader's leftist/anti-globalist/pacifist camp (I think of Bernie Sanders, Wendell Berry, Dennis Kucinich, or Bill McKibben) have strongly identified with the cause of civil rights liberalism, and some have questioned some of its verities (Nader once derided the focus of liberals on "gonadal politics"), with the result that they are not seen as truly serious about the real problem that any left ought to tackle--namely, discrimination. The civil rights movement's legacy has been spread throughout several different streams of democratic and egalitarian thought (Martin Luther King himself, though he never formally associated himself with such, clearly embraced democratic socialism), but by and large the feminist or racialist critiques of America which connected fighting discrimination to fighting capitalism and the "growth" mentality have faded, and civil rights in the US today is mostly associated with the same sorts of affirmative redistribution which is the bread and butter of mainstream neoliberal Democrats. And that is, again, for all the good it does, a real shame.

4) Finally, the old hard left. It is, if anything, an ever more marginal presence in American life than it is in Europe, and there Chris calls it "washed up, marginal, authoritarian, and unappealing". Obviously, in a nation of over 300 million people, you get your exceptions, and it is true that there have been various communist and socialist organizations and parties throughout American history--and sometimes those groups and movements have played an important role (such as in the earliest years of both organized unions and the civil rights movement) in American politics and culture. For example, Michael Harrington--the founder of the Democratic Socialists of America, a group I'm a proud member of (that's their symbol to the left)--profoundly shaped the better egalitarian directions of the American welfare state as it developed through the 1960s and 70s. But by and large, the simple fact is that when it comes to organized socialism, even amongst the American left, it just didn't happen here.

So, after all that, what do I think is--or at least, what do I want to be--the hope for the left in America? Chris expresses the greatest sympathy for what he called the eco-left, and I mostly agree with him; I think that my fellow anti-capitalists need to recognize, first, that markets are pretty fundamental to human society; second, that markets are much less likely to be exploitative or the cause of great inequality when they are subject to democratic control, via unions or workers cooperatives or any number of other similar innovations; and third, that this democratic control over markets, if it is to avoid all sorts of problems associated with regulatory capture, special interests, and corruption, pretty much mandates that both economic life in general, and government in particular, remain, wherever appropriate, relatively small, decentralized, and local. That means state socialist policies should have a fairly minor in any future argument for democracy and equality. But I think it also means a strengthening of the community bonds, civil associations, and sources of collective solidarity which would make it possible to pursue socialist goals across disparate local conditions. Hence, I don't think you can, or should, aspire to build a socialist future out of the anarchism/localism/eco-centrism of stream #3; you're going to need to conserve the popular, cultural, even national grounding which stream #2 represents as well. So call me a Leftist 2.5, halfway in between the populist and the localist. How to put together what are, in a certain sense, this most "conservative" potential of the American left with its most radical part? Well, I have my ideas. But I can understand why, when confronted with the unlikely prospects for such conceptually complicated, interstitial efforts, and recognizing the lack of appeal for the old Marxist unities which once claimed to pull it all together, anyone interested in even a little equality is likely to support the neoliberal mainstream. They get results (sometimes, occasionally, a little bit, maybe), after all.