Saturday, October 29, 2011

Getting Our Jack On

As is probably obvious to anyone who has spent any time following this blog at all, the Foxes take our holiday traditions seriously. There are things that we have to do together (or at least as together as we can manage), and there are ways we need to get it done (though the sequence can vary a little form year to year), or else the whole routine just won't be as meaningful as it might. Halloween included! Sometimes it doesn't work out, of course--but this year, I have to say I'm pretty proud at how our Jack-o'-lantern carving orgy turned out this year.

You can't do it too long before Halloween, because prolonged exposure to the elements will give you collapsing and, often, stinky pumpkins. (I've sometimes wondered about carving some other kind of gourd, to see if they have better holding power through unexpectedly hot days and/or freezing and/or rainy nights, but I've gotten around to trying.) But of course, waiting until the day of their display really defeats the purpose; you won't get any enjoyment out of them then. So we always find an evening three or four days before the holiday, and we all dig in. (This evening we were joined by a friend of Alison's, who joyfully joined it.)

I doubt we're particularly unique in this family carving night, but I do think we have one twist that is a little peculiar: we always have It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown playing while we do so. I'm not sure how it started; I suppose I or someday else decreed, years ago, that we had to watch that show (it's my favorite of all the Peanuts specials) every Halloween, and so doing it on carving night made the most sense. I can recall that in distant times, long ago, we would actually haul the television set and the dvd player into the kitchen, or else move our carving to a table in whatever room our one tv sits in. So chalk one victory up for technology, I guess.

Anyway, they turned out great--mine in particular, he says rather smugly. (Though one of our tiny carving knives broke while we were working on it; we'll have to replace it with a new one once all the Halloween stuff goes on discount sale in three days.) Fun times at the Foxes, for one and all.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Friday Morning Videos: "Life in a Northern Town"

Scotland, northern England--it's all good. With Halloween around the corner, and fall having finally begun around here--it was actually a little chilly a couple of mornings ago!--well, after our exhaustingly hot summer, a little cool weather melancholy fits my mood quite well.

And just because it's awesome, version two:

I actually can't remember which of these two versions I remember seeing first when I was 16. And I had no idea who Dream Academy was singing about; I wouldn't learn about Nick Drake until another decade or two had gone by. Sad, but true. The things you miss out on...

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Has it Been Ten Years Already?!

Nearly ten years exactly since I got together with all my brothers at a movie theater in Sandy, Utah, and took in the first of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings films. My first thought after the movie was done: damn, I really need to get a dvd player.

Well, I got the dvd player, and I've watched all three films, over and over again. All the family has. And are we waiting for The Hobbit? Yes, indeed we are. But this is a nice little blast from the past. Thanks, Empire Magazine! Getting the gang back together indeed.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Finally Weighing in on the Jeffress-Romney Thing...

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

(I've no deep interest in the whole current morass of Republican party politics and anti-Mormonism, partly because I've gone through the whole thing before, and partly because many others have weighed in with thoughts much better than my own. Still, last Friday I sent this editorial off to my local newspaper, responding to a piece by Robert "Mormonism is a cult" Jeffress which had appeared that morning, and today they actually ran it, though I had to cut down my essay to under 600 words, which was simply criminal. Anyway, here's the original, longer version of the piece. Read and enjoy.)

The Washington Post opinion piece by Robert Jeffress in Friday’s Wichita Eagle (“A candidate’s faith should matter to voters”) got me thinking. Jeffress was defending the political legitimacy of some negative comments he’d made recently about Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, in which he labeled Mormonism a “cult” and suggested that mainstream Christians are to be preferred by voters over supposed cult members. Those sorts of comments--and the debates over their proper place in electoral politics--aren’t at all new; I heard them all throughout 2007 and 2008, when Romney ran for president the first time. And there is, I agree, some legitimacy to them. But since I share Romney’s religion, and since Romney appears likely at this point to win the Republican presidential nomination, and since that means my many non-Mormon Republican friends and neighbors here in Wichita are probably going to be faced with the prospect of voting for a Mormon for president in a year’s time, I figured it might be worth responding to him just a bit.

Jeffress’s essay implies--among other things--that in making those negative comments he was enacting an important democratic principle: namely, that citizens are free to take whatever issue they wish, including concerns about a candidate’s religious faith, to be relevant as they decide who to vote for. I agree that is an important point--but draping himself in that principle shouldn't protect his comments from criticism, in particular because he is misleadingly making himself out to some kind of constitutional martyr while doing so.

To be sure, there are many people who are confused or ignorant about what the Constitution says and does not say about religion. (The simple answer is: it says almost nothing.) This ignorance and confusion occasionally leads to nervousness when people like Jeffress, or anyone else for that matter, starts suggesting connections between a candidate’s faith and their vote-worthiness. And admittedly, sometimes this confusion or ignorance is strategically cultivated; after all, if you work for or are committed to a candidate, like Romney, who belongs to a small and somewhat unpopular religious faith, you might want people to be nervous about and thus hopefully to turn against critics like Jeffress.

And there are also, of course, many committed liberals or principled secularists who do honestly and completely reject the idea that a candidate’s religious faith ought to be discussed as part of the debate over whether or not they deserve a voter’s support. (I've tangled with one of them, my friend Damon Linker, several times before.) But for the majority of my fellow Mormons--who tend to be, in America at least, generally rather conservative, values-centric voters, people who are mostly at peace with making judgments about a candidate’s moral character part of their decision-making process--the complaint with Jeffress is not the fact that he is saying what he is saying, but rather that what he says about Mormonism is misleading, and thus benefits from the aforementioned constitutional confusion.

When Jeffress talks about Christian and non-Christian candidates in the public arena, pitching his message to fellow Republican primary voters, he is relying upon some well-established, broadly agreed upon, rhetorical concepts. Scholars have usually described these rhetorical concepts under the label “civil religion.” America’s civil religion--the religious aspect of our political culture--has been grounded in a familiarity with the Bible, an acceptance of fundamental Judeo-Christian ethical principles, and an association (whether devout or merely distant) with the Christian worldwiew and its general moral aspirations. This is the civil religion of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, of the line “In God We Trust” on our currency, of the sort of “ceremonial deism” which continues to be fought over in our federal courts as American society becomes ever more diverse. Like it or oppose it, this is what presidents are doing when they conclude their speeches with “God bless the United States of America.”

Jeffress has absolutely no basis (really, none at all) to affirm that there is anything un-Christian, in this civil sense, about Romney’s Mormonism. Now an argument could be made that Mormonism presents a certain kind of challenge to our civil religion, and some scholars have in fact advanced that argument, but doing so requires one to dig deep into matters of political theology and the nature of our liberal democracy. But in any case, that is plainly not what Jeffress is doing. Instead, he is making a broad civil claim, but one grounded solely upon pretty narrow issues of sectarian Christian theology: Mormons are a non-Christian cult because of their distinct understanding of the Trinity, because of their particular religious ordinances and practices, because of their notions of the Judgment and the afterlife, etc. There are, no doubt, some tiny number of Republican voters who are likely to think it important that their elected representatives have an orthodox, mainstream Christian notion of God, or else their prayers will not be answered. Now if Jeffress wanted to influence those voters, he could make use of that kind of theological language. However, he surely also knows that the number of such voters is utterly marginal: on the contrary, the values which the huge majority of Republican voters are likely to care about are those basic Christian principles--the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the sovereignty of God--identical with America’s civil religion. And so he must speak a civil language, calling Mormonism "non-Christian" in the broadest possible terms. It is perfectly legitimate for him to do so. But it is also, in the context in which he speaks, wildly misleading.

Can someone legitimately speak out against a candidate for sectarian theological reasons? Or course they can. Citizens may legitimately be motivated by all sorts of reasons. But just because an act of reasoning is acceptable doesn't mean it is responsible or wise (or likely to gain much popular support). In 2008 there were apparently a small number of people--not many, but a few--who voted against Barack Obama because they didn't want an African-American as president. That is, to put it plainly, allowed. Yet of course, voting against a candidate for reasons of race has been broadly accepted as stupid and wicked. Now voting against a candidate because of sectarian theological disagreements may be a bit more complicated an idea than that of opposing them due to their race, if only because religion is still somewhat relevant to our culture and government in a way which race (thankfully!) increasingly isn't. But still, the general point holds. Several generations ago, Catholic beliefs were considered outside of America’s civil religion; as a result “papists” were marginalized in American political life. In time, this came to be recognized as what everyone--especially most values-motivated conservative Republicans!--now knows it to have been: a theological disagreement between Christians which pushed a misleading, stupid, even wicked judgment upon voters. Whether in this election or in the next, the same thing, I think, will ultimately be recognized about Mormonism.

Jeffress has every right to press his theological case, but when he dresses himself up as one doing his civil duty, he ought to be called on it. When he says a candidate’s faith should matter to voters, he’s right, but when he claims (without ever explaining how) that Mormonism's particular Christian theology has all sorts of civil implications, he’s simply wrong (or at the very least, really stretching things). Maybe Jeffress would like American elections to be more openly sectarian, with Catholic and Mormon and Protestant and Jewish political parties competing with one another? He wouldn't be out of bounds saying so; he could easily advance the argument that only an orthodox, mainstream Christian candidate, with theologically correct ideas about God, can effectively create an alternative to the "moralistic therapeutic deism" which some see as sapping the strength of our culture. Of course, he obviously realizes that he'd be speaking to nearly empty halls if he did that, and so he doesn't say so; he doesn't present his sectarianism honestly, but cloaks his words in the Christian rhetoric of America's civil religion. He ought to be called out for doing so, for implying something otherwise than what he says, and relying upon our religiously open-ended constitution to do his work for him.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Friday Morning Videos: "Big Country"

There are some faculty members planning a trip to Scotland. Who wouldn't want to go with them? I sure would.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday Morning Videos: "Red Red Wine"

Before you say anything, yes, you're correct: I can't relate to this song at all. Can't relate to most ska or reggae or punk songs, for that matter. Still like them though.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

George F. Will and the Decline of the Tory

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

I don't know how many people in the conservative public sphere read George F. Will closely any longer--maybe lots of them do, but as I don't particularly identify myself with that sphere, I wouldn't know. Perhaps he's long since been filed away as predictable, establishment, whatever. But I'm pretty certain there was a time when the pronouncements of Will in his weekly columns carried a good deal of weight. They certainly did with me. Back in the 1980s, as a smart little Republican, I devoured the man's writings. I had collections of all his old columns, never missed his bimonthly missive on the back page of Newsweek, and imitated his style whenever I could. I watched "This Week with David Brinkley" whenever I could, because Will was on there; when he showed up on "Donahue" or "Late Nate with David Letterman" (yes, he actually appeared on that show), I caught that too. Here's how much of Republican intellectual dork I was back then: in my senior picture in our high school yearbook, I'm visibly clutching a copy of Will's Statecraft as Soucraft: What Government Does, which remains his best book.

Unfortunately, also his only good book, and one that I doubt he could write today even if he wanted to, which clearly he doesn't. (I say unfortunately because it's a great book; I use it regularly in classes of mine today.) I don't know when Will's weekly pontifications lost their appeal to me; perhaps during the first Bush administration, when his irrational dislike for George Herbert Walker Bush came through in his arguments almost palpably. In any case, by the 1990s my evolution towards the left end of the political spectrum was well underway, and there came a time when running across a Will column would remind me that I hadn't checked out his writings for years. I wonder how much that remains the case for conservative activists today. Certainly, from what I can tell, most of those on the left don't even bother attacking his by-now exceedingly predictable, however erudite and intellectually sophisticated arguments any more; by the Clinton years Will was, with all his eloquence, still just another pretty reliable straight-laced Republican voice, and despite occasionally expressing some dislike of different elements of this or that aspect of the second Bush administration's policies, for the past 15 years he's remained that way.

It's been interesting, then, to see Will's recent attack on Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard law professor who helped design the Obama administration's Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and has just announced her candidacy for the U.S. Senate, receive such a thorough trashing in different parts of the mainstream media. Response from E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post, or Bill Galston in The New Republic perhaps aren't surprising, but for Rod Dreher to spend not one but two of his posts on the American Conservative website addressing the weakness of Will's argument against Warren has to raise at least a couple of eyebrows. I don't see a need to rehash all of this; suffice to say that Will's attacks on Warren as a closeted collectivist, seeking to promote a government which will "socialize--i.e., conscript--whatever portion [of people's wealth] it considers its share," thereby "intimat[ing] the impossibility" of an individual being able "to govern oneself," are frankly stupid. If Warren genuinely was an advocate of some kind of democratic state socialization, with an agenda to subject financial institutions like banks to nationalization, and to raise redistributive tax rates to those which exist in Sweden, that would be genuinely interesting. But of course, that's not the case. Instead, what we have is an apparently quite smart but nonetheless standard technocratic liberal making exactly the sort of populist noises that us on the left have been wondering why Obama hasn't been making for years. For Will to claim that Warren is part of a continuing movement to undermine the traditional liberal basics of the social contract, he has his work cut out for him.

So what's most interesting here isn't Warren, but Will. Because the man who wrote Statecraft as Soulcraft made it very clear that he wasn't particularly enamored with the "traditional liberal basics" of the social contract either; on the contrary, he consistently pursued, in that book and through his columns and other writings, a much more classically republican or Tory position. Galston touches on this, reminding Will of his often-quoted Burkean argument that the social contract is much more than just protecting whatever wealth an individual has been able to accumulate (there are, for example, generations past and generations yet to come to consider...); and Dionne brings up the book itself, quoting Will on the fact that a reflexive anti-government attitude leaves us with a sense of community that is pretty thin. But the real decline of Will from a fairly unique (at least amongst the mainstream media) exponent of an "Oxford Movement"-style conservatism (the label which Will said in that book best describes his own views) to a position today which is perhaps only a step or two above the socialist-mongering common amongst the contemporary Republican party...well, it's a little tragic to behold.

In Statecraft as Soulcraft, he thoughtfully argued:

Common sense, reason and history all teach that "strong government conservatism" is not a contradiction in terms....I will do many things for my country, but I will not pretend that the careers of, say, Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt involve serious philosophical differences. Reagan's fierce and ideological liberalism of the Manchester school and F.D.R.'s mild and improvised social-democratic program are both honorable persuasions....They are versions of the basic program of the liberal-democratic impulse that was born with Machiavelli and Hobbes. Near the core of the philosophy of modern liberalism, as it descends from those two men, is an inadequacy that is becoming glaring. [Anti-government] conservatism is an impotent critic of liberalism because it too is a participant in the modern [liberal] political enterprise (p. 23).

In other words, as many writers at Front Porch Republic have noted, American conservatism is simply a variation upon a particular, rather individualistic take, on the idea of the social contract which is common to the United States, both left and right. Will, at one time, could have made a criticism of Warren, and President Obama as well, from that basis--but perhaps too many years on the inside of the Republican party has shifted him towards a default libertarianism, in which the individual's prerogatives, at least insofar as the entirety of their property is concerned, are to be privileged at the outset, a shift which allows him to characterize any discussion about taxation and regulation as "collectivism." He used to know better than that.

[I]t is a non sequitur to say that because the state has a monopoly on legitimate coercion, its essence is [therefore] coercion....Proper conservatives proclaim, as Burke did, the gentling function of government. Proper conservatism teaches that...government exists to frame arrangements in order that they may, over time, become matters of trust. The enlargement of the realm of social trust does not presage the withering away of the state. But it does conduce to an increasingly comfortable fit between [government] institutions and the public, which, like a flowing river, is both a shaper of and shaped by the institutional "banks" between which it flows....[A] river without banks is incomprehensible; it is a contradiction in terms (pp. 95-96).

What about the argument that those banks have grown too large and are crowding us, that the political agenda of people like Warren and Obama are preventing individuals from building up those intermediate and democratic institutions which are the sort of banks real conservatives ought to praise? Today, it seems likely that Will might say exactly that; 30 years ago, he was willing to say something a little different:

[I]nstitutions that once were most directly responsible for tempering individuals--family, church, voluntary associations, town governments--with collective concerns [imagine: "collectivism"!] have come to seem more peripheral. Using [the central] government discriminatingly but energetically to strengthen these institutions is part of the natural program of conservatives. Far from being a rationale for statism, the political orientation I praise envisions prophylactic doses of government. It involves the use of government to prevent statism by enhancing the social competence of citizens....One way the government strengthens such institutions is by not usurping their functions. But that is not the only way. Government can plan positive inducements to vigor (pp. 151-152).

Now what we see here is the outlines of genuinely interesting argument, an argument between an American-style Tory and a progressive American liberal: is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau--or, for that matter, President Obama's Affordable Care Act, or any kind of social insurance or income redistribution program, whether Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid or the Veteran's Administration or just about anything else--a government program capable of "strengthening" citizens in their ability to contribute positively, through various local institutions, to the development of their communities (including the American community), or is it an instance of individual responsibility or local organizations being "usurped," thus contributing to the degradation of the citizenry? Presumably, the answer would differ in each case, because in each case we would be looking at a distinct government program with a distinct agenda serving a distinct population and funded through a distinct system of taxation. The Tory conservatism which Will used to endorse (and--who knows?--perhaps still does, behind the closed doors of his columns' words) would have quickly acknowledged this kind of prudential judgment. But today, to admit, much less to intelligently engage, in that kind of argument requires one to acknowledge that there is more going on in contemporary politics than those who want to defend the One and Only True individualistic take on the social contract, and those who hate individual freedom and thus want to change the contract. Politics isn't that tidy, and we shouldn't pretend it can be.

Will ended Statecraft as Soulcraft with warning: that if conservatives were going to be able to add anything to this kind of argument over the balancing of various prudential demands and needs, they needed to face up to the fact "that government, although of human manufacture, is 'natural' natural to man as clothes and shelter because it serves needs that are natural to man" (p. 160). There is an argument going on this country, to be sure, and it is an important one--but those who take the Tory side are few and far between. That's a loss, and not just for a columnist who used to regularly have interesting ideas to go along with his very pretty words.

[Note: I just noticed that Scott Galupo made this same argument, months ago--though as a self-identified conservative, he may be able to make it much better than I. Check his take on Will's decline out here.]

Help Me Like the Man who Will Probably be Our Next President, Everybody

I woke up this morning, thinking about last night's Republican primary debate, and had a premonition: there's a very good chance Mitt Romney will be inaugurated on January 20, 2013 as the 45th president of the United States of America. So maybe I should just start getting ready for that probable result right now.

The election is, of course, more than a year away. The nominating conventions themselves are still 10 months away. Millions of things could happen between now and then. Candidates could die from heart attacks. Game-changing issues could rise to the forefront of public debate and throw dominant campaign strategies into an uproar. Last-minute candidate secrets could provide all sorts of scandalous fodder for attack ads. Greece could invade Florida. Jesus could return to earth. Etc., etc., etc. But of course, as anyone with the ability to do more than just scan a couple of headlines knows, there are political structures in place in this country, both formal and informal, both implicit and explicit, which put fairly severe restrictions upon unexpected, unanticipated events having the sort of radical, surprising effects which we all occasionally fantasize about. The simple truth is that it is extremely, even ridiculously unlikely, even with the Republican party base more fired up with anti-government conservative ideology than they have been since 1980, or perhaps even since 1964, that anything like an even tiny majority of Republican primary voters will fall behind a candidate making truly unconventional economic and political promises. The majority of big money donors will not support any of them, and ditto for the life-long party operatives, the influential media figures, and the masses of committed-but-not-ideologically-locked-in GOP voters. Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, even the (to the Republican establishment) potentially threatening Ron Paul, all of them: the media-acknowledged and party-anointed front runners, the Rick Perrys and Mitt Romneys, would have to make serious mistakes, and national and world events would have to develop in truly unlikely ways, for any of those non-establishment figures to get the nomination. In short, it's probably just not going to happen. (In retrospect, it's rather astonishing that the establishment-challenging Mike Huckabee got as far as he did in the Republican primary contests of 2007 and 2008.) This is a Perry vs. Romney slugfest, and Romney is almost certainly going to win it.

And what does that mean? That means a good-looking, moderate (even, arguably, somewhat liberal!) technocratic Republican, one with excellently spinnable private and public executive experience to draw upon, is going to be able to run against a moderate, technocratic Democrat, who has been unfairly--and more importantly, inaccurately--tarred since the beginning of his administration as a socialist revolutionary (if only!). And all this during a time of significant economic pain that, by all accounts, has almost no chance of going away anytime soon. To be sure, the resources--again, both formal and informal, both implicit and explicit--which benefit sitting incumbents in our system, perhaps especially an incumbent president, are significant. But they are, as things stand now, quite unlikely to be enough to overcome the depressive effects that declining incomes, disappearing pension funds, and high levels of unemployment have on both voter turnout and incumbent support--and all that doesn't even take into consideration the often frustrating, and sometimes downright poisonous, atmosphere which has dogged the Obama administration through the health care debate, the stand-off over the debt ceiling, and so much more.

Very simply, things don't look good for the man I voted for--and if he runs against Romney, as he probably will, then things look even worse, because many of his most-plausibly-vote-winning lines (the GOP will steal your Social Security, the GOP will dismantle your schools, etc.) will be difficult to connect to him once he escapes--as he probably longs to--the ferociously overheated Republican primaries and starts his national campaign. So yep, maybe I ought to start making my peace with the likely front page news 15 months from now as soon as possible.

For example, I could take some joy from the fact that Mitt Romney, despite having stated repeatedly that he would repeal the Affordable Care Act, probably doesn't really believe that would be a good idea, especially given the fact that some of Romney's top people worked closely with the Obama administration in crafting the ACA. He would probably wants to see elements of the program tweaked and restructured, and he probably wouldn't mind if the Supreme Court found the health insurance mandate unconstitutional and thus removed the whole issue from his plate, but by and large I can't see him as a deep enemy of the whole idea. Except that there's a pretty decent chance the Republicans will have control of the Senate in 2012, and the odds of the Republicans losing control of the House of Representatives are very long. Which means we'll have a moderate (liberal?) technocratic Republican who has made a career of, shall we say, adapting his views to fit the needs of his audience...and his relevant audience will mostly be a bunch of health-care-reform-hating conservative Congressional Republicans, so who knows where he'll come down?

Reid and the Democratic minority will still be able to cause a lot of obstructive trouble through the ridiculous rules of the Senate, of course, and I suppose there may be the possibility that some sort of Deep Inner Mitt will come through, as he sits down, Mormon to Mormon, with the likely Senate Minority Leader. And there is that--maybe I should just be happy one of my co-religionists is probably going to be elected president? Not that I think that will help the country much, though. Give me some help people; I'm coming up mostly dry here.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Cat-Haters, All your Prejudices Have Been Confirmed

While biking into work today, I passed a dog (looked like a German Shepherd mutt) happily leaping about, while tearing up an old plastic kids' swimming pool. It put me in mind of this secret document, which I recently discovered.

The Dog's Diary

8:00 am - Dog food! My favorite thing!
9:30 am - A car ride! My favorite thing!
9:40 am - A walk in the park! My favorite thing!
10:30 am - Got rubbed and petted! My favorite thing!
12:00 pm - Milk bones! My favorite thing!
1:00 pm - Played in the yard! My favorite thing!
3:00 pm - Wagged my tail! My favorite thing!
5:00 pm - Dinner! My favorite thing!
7:00 pm - Got to play ball! My favorite thing!
8:00 pm - Watched TV with the people! My favorite thing!
11:00 pm - Sleeping on the bed! My favorite thing!

The Cat's Diary

Day 983 of My Captivity

My captors continue to taunt me with bizarre little dangling objects. They dine lavishly on fresh meat, while the other inmates and I are fed hash or some sort of dry nuggets. Although I make my contempt for the rations perfectly clear, I nevertheless must eat something in order to keep up my strength.

The only thing that keeps me going is my dream of escape. In an attempt to disgust them, I once again vomit on the carpet. Today I decapitated a mouse and dropped its headless body at their feet. I had hoped this would strike fear into their hearts, since it clearly demonstrates my capabilities. However, they merely made condescending comments about what a "good little hunter" I am. Bastards!

There was some sort of assembly of their accomplices tonight. I was placed in solitary confinement for the duration of the event. However, I could hear the noises and smell the food. I overheard that my confinement was due to the power of "allergies." I must learn what this means, and how to use it to my advantage.

Today I was almost successful in an attempt to assassinate one of my tormentors by weaving around his feet as he was walking. I must try this again tomorrow, but at the top of the stairs.

I am convinced that the other prisoners here are flunkies and snitches. The dog receives special privileges. He is regularly released, and seems to be more than willing to return. He is obviously retarded. The bird must be an informant. I observe him communicate with the guards regularly. I am certain that he reports my every move. My captors have arranged protective custody for him in an elevated cell, so he is safe. For now ...

Friday Morning Videos: "Mirror in the Bathroom"

Okay, if I'm talking ska, I can't ignore this one.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Global Warming, Local Farming, and Naomi Klein: A Trip to the Land Institute

[Cross-Posted to Front Porch Republic]

A couple of weeks ago some fine intellectuals, political figures, journalists, and activists associated with Front Porch Republic gathered together to talk about localism, and specifically how one might discover in our local communities resources for pursuing the common good in an age of globalization. I wish I could have been there. But at the same time they were meeting in Emmitsburg, MD, I was spending time with some students in Salina, KS, listening to Naomi Klein and a couple of earnest agronomists and botanists, and in a sense they were all talking about the exact same thing as was being discussed at the Front Porch Republic conference: how a particular sort of local work and community investment is inseparable from any serious pursuit of that which is the common good of us all. So perhaps, ultimately, I didn't miss anything at all. In any case, it was a delightful day.

This is the second year that I've made it out to the Land Institute's annual Prairie Festival, and like last year, which featured a presentation by Wendell Berry, I came away last Saturday with a dozen different ideas about how I could push my students to think a little more critically about how the food they eat, the cars they drive, and the lives they live all impact the natural environment upon which we depend, and either add to its potential sustainability or contribute to its destruction. That may seem like a somewhat stark distinction, but it was central to Klein's presentation, and my students in "Simplicity and Sustainability"--a course I've invented and am teaching for the first time--needed to hear that starkness, so as to perhaps shake them out of their complacency, and maybe even help them recognize that the simplicity I've been trying to point them towards is being undermined by the ever more abstract and complex (and self-justifying) systems we allow to be constructed around us, or help to build ourselves.

Klein's presentation was, in many ways, a tribute to starkness of vision: particularly that vision which characterizes global warming deniers of all varieties, whether they be the corporate powers that be or conservative foot-soldiers in the Tea Party. Klein praising the Tea Party? Yes, that's what she did, repeatedly, in her hour-long presentation. Because, as she insisted again and again, "they get it." They get that the stakes in this battle--a battle between, to speak broadly, essentially unrestrained technological growth on the one hand, and a fear for the trampling of essential limits, disciplines, and attachments which a fundamentally self-interested gospel of expansion teaches us to ignore on the other--are nothing less then our basic economic system itself. In their paranoid accusations against President Obama--that he is not "really" an America, or that he is some sort of radical post-colonial socialist at heart--reveal their confused but fundamentally sound grasp of the central matter: if the arguments which make the case for global warming are accepted, then our whole way of life--primarily, its reliance upon non-renewable energy sources like oil for easy mobility, cheap goods, anxious consumption, irresponsible levels of waste, and a casual and inattentive relationship with the planet we live upon and the food from it which we eat--must change. Capitalism must change. And that, Klein argued, I think rightly, is a stark challenge that most self-identified liberals (though maybe "neoliberals" would be a better description) and environmentalists just don't appreciate.

Klein discussed the months she has spent researching her current project, a project that took shape most particularly through the BP Oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, where she said that, in looking at videos of that "hemorrhaging wound" in the ocean floor, she was struck more viscerally than she'd ever been before by how much collateral damage our highly technical, highly complex, global capitalist system is willing to allow to be built into into one or another corporation's profit/loss statements. She said that she felt that the overwhelming message of that disaster is how pointless, and counter-productive, the technical efforts of many who simply want to modify our current extractive practices really are. Well-intentioned liberals and scientific experts, studying just how much of a temperature increase existing staple food crops can handle, geo-engineers thinking about ways to seed the atmosphere with certain compounds that could more effective absorb existing thermal outputs, talk about "solar radiation management": it's insane, Klein felt (and the crowd--a bunch of people who all believe in exploring what can be done with the planet, not to it--loudly agreed). Such a mentality--the mentality of "green technologies," and the promise of a transformation of our current consumptive patterns into ways of building and spending which can absorb all the changes we have unintentionally introduced to the planet around us--may have honorable intentions, but in the end it just leaves us all no different from those who drill the dirty deep-sea oil wells: it leaves us as mere consumers, finding entertainment and validation in our supposed individual ability to "slap mother nature in the face."

And so, Klein called for starkness--for recognizing that global warming is not something that can be fixed or moderated or addressed by us; it is, rather, something that, if we want to survive as a civilization and a species, demands something of us. She said her tentative title for her next book is "What Climate Change is Telling Us About How We Must Evolve"....and she credits the global warming deniers for at least recognizing that demand for what it implies. In the same way powerful corporate interests attack unions, push for deregulation, insist on the legitimacy of their habits of consumption, praise globalization, denounce all forms of protectionism, and defend their wealth from the demands of the commons, they also fight the science of global warming tooth and nail--because to give it credence would be to invite a fundamental economic transformation, one that would undercut their position of privilege entirely.

What would that transformation entail? Not, Klein believes (and again, I tend to agree with her) a "green Keynesianism"--that kind of state-heavy redistribution, or even industry nationalization, may have its place in some areas of our social lives--and may even be have to be relied upon as the only tool powerful enough to turn the profits of the world's largest energy corporations towards paying for the transition to come--but by and large that vision of the world would depend (as E.F. Schumacher presciently noted long ago) on the same sort of acquisitive, growth-centric capitalist mentality which created the conditions of the problem in the first place. And the needed transformation must certainly not, Klein insisted multiple times, take us in the direction of state socialism, which is the only economic system worse for the planet than a corporate-friendly free market (she noted with some humor that, looking at long-term environmental trends, the single best news which the planet's supplies of breathable oxygen and drinkable water had received in the past thirty years was the collapse of the Soviet Union). No, what we need out of the necessary economic transformation which faces us is a recovery of the lost art of "decentralized planning": of turning our knowledge of the planet towards diverse ways of tending to it, locally and sustainably. (If you think that sounds like a kind of anarchism or mutualism, you're probably not wrong; Klein is enough of a radical democrat to be hanging out in New York City with the Occupy Wall Street crowd, arguing that there is something to be said for putting yourself bodily into a struggle, given that voting doesn't always seem to be enough to make changes these days.) Which is what bring us around to the vital--and very practical, hands-on, and bodily--work being done at the Land Institute itself.

After listening to Klein, and speaking with some "sustainable community" organizers and urban farmers visiting from St. Louis, we took a tour with a couple of enthusiastic graduate students, who showed off to us all, and talked about the prospects for further developing, their experiments with sustainable agriculture. Their goal is to use such native perennials--often more commonly known as "weeds"--as Illinois bundleflower, switchgrass, Kansas sunflowers and others, as resource for creating hybrid food crops (grains and legumes, mostly, with particular attention paid to wheat and sorghum) that will require minimal irrigation, need few or no pesticides or herbicides, have deep root systems (thus cutting down on the soil erosion experienced during every harvesting season), and--most importantly--produce sufficiently high yields to be able to feed local populations without a heavy reliance upon the networks of contemporary agribusinesses. This is not, to be plain, easy or easily rewarded work. In attempting to work with only those resources that the Plains states provide (most of the work of the Land Institute is, of course, done in Kansas, but they have research programs working at locations in Minnesota and elsewhere as well), they are looking to turn agriculture away from the oil-based industrial basis that has been assumed as the only route to making it sufficient for current population levels and ranges for more than sixty years, if not longer. This doesn't just mean developing more perennial options; it also means changing our expectations for food productivity and food consumption itself. (For example, one of the problems with Illinois bundleflower is that, though potentially a wonderful food staple, with a high nutritional content, a minimal environmental footprint, and excellent climate resistance, it tastes so terrible that most birds won't even eat it.)

There have been successes, like the development of an edible perennial hybrid wheatgrass called Kernza. But those successes don't come quickly or easily, and no one should expect them to: Wes Jackson, the founder of the Land Institute, has called the quest for sustainable agriculture a "10,000 year problem". There is a reason why human communities the world over have, for centuries, been drawn to the appeal of cheap energy and rapid growth, even if such does involve them in increasing complex and corrupt economic and political systems which distance them from any real stewardship over the very goods and goals they were trying to achieve and produce in the first place. But in this little corner of north-central Kansas, there are people both talking the talk and walking the walk that a revival of sustainable, local, environmentally wise and democratically achievable stewardship. I wish I could have seen all there was going on at the Land Institute that weekend (see here for an additional write-up); I wish I could take my students up there every other week. I do think a liberal arts education in the principles and practices of politics, philosophy, religion, science, history, economics, and more is a good thing...but then again, this is Kansas, and learning a little bit more about how, seed by seed or provocation by provocation, we can wean ourselves away, or teach others how to get away, from a capitalism which is imperiling the globe and exchange it for the humbler work getting most of what human beings need from the resources they have on hand...well, that may be a better and more appropriate thing altogether.