Friday, December 30, 2011

The Very Last Friday Morning Videos: "Closing Time"

Well everyone, this is it: for 2011, for this most recent excursion through one-hit-wonderism, but also for Friday Morning Videos as a whole. It's closing time, in other words. I've been running this feature for over three years, and--allowing for the occasional double-posting, but also a few repeats--I've probably posted over 150 videos in that time, nearly all of them from different artists. (No, I'm not going to go back through and check.) I'd say that amounts to a pretty decent accomplishment--but whether it is or not, I think it's time to close shop, and go on to something new. My apologies to all thirteen or so readers out there who have come to depend upon my weekly servings of mid-70s through mid-90s pop, but I'm sure you'll be able to satiate your addictions somehow. And besides, check back every once in a while; I may not put up videos regularly any longer, but I'll never get them entirely out of my soul, I'm sure. Anyway, thanks for watching, and happy almost new year!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Eleven Theses on 2011 (on Democracy, Anarchism, and OWS)

[Cross-posted to Political Context]

More than a month ago, Peter Levine asked 10 thoughtful questions about Occupy Wall Street. In the spirit of one of the most succinct works of philosophy in Western history, let me provide 11 answers, as 2011 comes to a close.

1) It wasn't just Time magazine; it was a whole lot of people noticing the same thing: that in 2011, a whole lot of ordinary people--generally not-wealthy people, generally not-politically-engaged people, generally people who apparently would have preferred that the political and economic contexts upon and through which their ordinary lives operated not be playgrounds for elite exploitation--took a whole lot of risks, and made a whole lot of noise. The risks were hardly equally shared: the protests and rebellions across the Arab world that began a year ago involved lives being put on the line (and frequently lost), while the protests in Madison, Wisconsin, last February, or the Occupy Wall Street protests that spread across the country beginning last September, usually involved nothing more than being willing to stand outside in uncomfortable weather and possibly face occasional rough treatment at the hands of the cops. But nonetheless there is a common thread through them all: it was a year in which hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of people, throughout the Middle East and Europe and North America, went to the streets to be heard.

2) Getting outdoors and into the street--leaving the privacy of one's home and attempting to literally "occupy" public space--is a principle of deep importance to democratic thinking. It is not, for the most part, a liberal democratic principle, focused on ensuring the privacy and protection of individual rights, but rather is a communitarian/populist/socialist/anarchist principle, underscoring the idea that for a people to govern themselves, to be heard as themselves, then they must assemble as a people, and not from a distance, through (established, and perhaps thus easily co-opted) state channels and experts and forms of representation.

3) Once people assemble together--really assemble, not to listen to already-appointed authorities, but to constitute their own authorities--one result is a community of equals. Again, not equals in the liberal sense--in which all individuals, in their place and with their claims, are duly recognized in the context of a general pluralism--but equals in the sense of being joint participants in a general, collective project.

4) A project such as that potentially leads--or at least potentially should lead--to the disappearance of the lines and norms which keep socio-economic classes and racial groups and genders separate from each other. Obviously, this is not a development which takes place without some context, and in so many of 2011's protests, from Greece to Wall Street, the context was already pushing many members of the liberal elite into a confrontation with lower-class sensibilities, leading to a re-evaluation of what unites the middle classes with the poor, and a deeper appreciation of thinking in more immediate ways about "sustainability" and "equality." Was this sort of philosophical realization taking place concomitant to all OWS protests, and all those different types of contests with power which proceeded them? Probably not--but it did take place in at least some of them, or else you wouldn't have seen the political discourse change as much as it did. (The far-from-complete-but-still-real changes in the public role of women in Arab countries following the revolutions there is another example of this.)

5) Of course, these kind of philosophical realizations usually don't happen through simple intellectual conversation; they happen as people plan and eat and rub up against and work with one another. They happen, in other words, through dozens, hundred, thousands of people finding ways to keep their assemblies going and succeeding, in the radical changed context which the people involved have placed themselves (or been placed) in. It's easy to mock some of the at-times-infuriating (even to those involved!) procedures which evolve as "mobs" try to figure out how exist amongst and alongside themselves as equals, but the slow work of participatory democracy is a great teacher nonetheless.

6) One of the key ideas which being assembled together into a community of equals makes clear is that many categories and labels--most of which presume a liberal individualist model of social organization--don't actually fit. Is OWS a "liberal" movement? Only in the most circumstantial sense of tending to push causes that have a somewhat greater likelihood of being embraced by "liberal" political parties. One could, however, just as easily argue that there is a deep "conservatism" to these protests, in the sense that they are powered by people wanting to conserve the social contracts and communities that they have built (or have attempted to build) their livelihood and neighborhoods upon, social contracts and communities that are being challenged by financial institutions that view homes and retirement funds as speculative playthings, by political parties that are ripe with corruption, and by governments quick to align their interests with those of austerity-minded corporate players. Protests like OWS are liberal, conservative, socialist, and most importantly, anarchist, all at the same time.

7) The anarchism implied by the assembled, democratic power of people in the streets and the parks has prompted a great deal of commentary, and that's for the best: it is important for the left to be reminded that the power of collective, utopian thinking about equality is greater than that the forms by which it is usually institutionalized in liberal governments and state policies. But it is also essential that the anarchist reflections which 2011 has generated not be reduced to individualistic bromides; to say that the genius of anarchism is that it combines a "thoroughly socialist critique of capitalism" with a "liberal critique of socialism" misses the mark; to blithely combine the promise of "autonomous associations" with an unspecified "freedom of the individual" does not serve anarchism, or the promise of general democratic assemblies, particularly well.

8) The importance of this ideological observation is demonstrated by simply looking at the actual history and development of the various uprisings of 2011: leadership was always necessary, and always involved, from the very beginning of each of them. Whether it was done formally or informally, invariably community bounds were set, rules were developed, and thus a sense of identification, of mutuality, and of responsibility followed. To pretend otherwise--that 2011 represented some complete break from the nature of human beings as social animals, as creatures that need some sort of structure and stability for their language and passions to even make sense--is to set up these movements for failure before their work is half-started.

9) This is not a contradiction in terms--the reality that these assemblies of protest were organized and had some community integrity and structured maintenance doesn't mean they were no different from the liberal movements and organizations which they often rejected. The key difference was the presence of these organically emerging and developing community forms; the fact that these movements and their leaders were grounded locally and focused locally. It really is a misnomer, though a handy one, to globally speak of 2011 as "The Year of the Protester" as a singular; I would argue, in contrast, that the reason why so many of these movements had as much success as they did in their various challenges to the many entrenched powers that be, was that they were multiple, springing up and taking shape, whatever their ideological inspiration, in the context of the specific abuses and threats felt by those who shared (and contested over!) these very same cities and institutions with one another. (By the end of 2011, there have been close to 3000 different "Occupy" movements around the United States and throughout the globe; such decentralized, local assemblies are, in the eyes of some, a model for where capitalism needs to go.)

10) The fact that these assemblies of protest and organic communities of equals were so variable and didn't fit into any universally established procedural boxes was a constant frustration to many. Again and again, commentators who claimed to be concerned about inequality and all the rest looked at OWS and wondered what it was all about, scratched their heads at the supposedly fuzzy-headed notion of that democratic communities have so much to do with "feeling," and groused that populists fail to recognize--as the neoliberal technocrats presumably do--that democracy is ultimately about political power, and that you can't have that unless you have a hierarchy setting priorities and getting results. Such carping has a point, of course; to be carried away in experience of democratic belonging, of real in-the-street-change-making, gets one away from the fact that there are allies who are equally grounded, equally local, and equally exploited ready to assist in the protest, so long as those in the community don't get confused as to who their real friends are. But in the end, the critics missed the point: the ability of people to govern themselves, to truly being sovereign, is fundamentally tied to being, and feeling, outside of and larger than themselves, to being awash in the Arendtian demos. That is, to be sure, a sometimes frightening and dangerous thing, which is why liberal protections and retreats to privacy have an important place in free societies. Moreover, all that is rarely a good recipe for making concrete judgment calls about the wheres and whens and hows of an assemblies operation, and while all of these assemblies did have the kind of evolving, localized, informal leadership which has to happen whenever people get together, it's probable that, as weeks and months went by, the legitimacy of such structures needed to be better, more fully, recognized. But to insist on such recognition before the experience of being in a community of equals even begins is, I think, to misunderstand the interpenetrative, and interpretive, nature of politics entirely.

11) Finally, remember that in an important sense all of this is besides the point. The real purpose of these hundreds of thousands, these millions, of people who captured the imagination and inspired the rage of millions of others was not to understand what was happening around the world in 2011; on the contrary,the real purpose of 2011 was to change the world itself. And to a small degree, perhaps it did. Let’s hope for more of the same next year.

The 10 Most Intellectually Stimulating Books I Read in 2011

In alphabetical order by author:

I received a copy of Sigal Ben-Porath's excellent Tough Choices: Structured Paternalism and the Landscape of Choice last year, and started it immediately...but then was distracted by something, and didn't get around to finishing it until early this year. I'm very glad I did; it formed the basis of a couple of the most important lectures I gave in my "Simplicity and Sustainability" class this year. Her argument for the relevance of paternalistic policies, moral norms, and other communitarian truths (though she doesn't call them by that name, for reasons I found both curious and perhaps limiting) that can and should work to shape public choices in a liberal egalitarian society was persuasive, thorough, and original.

Jim Faulconer's Faith, Philosophy, Scripture is a collection of essays by a former, and much beloved, Mormon professor of mine back at BYU; I wrote about it, and the significance of his many ideas (as well as some unfortunate limitations arising from what was and what wasn't included in the book), with effusive praise here.

Shannon Hayes's rambling, always eye-opening Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, is, despite its several missteps, a superb challenge to the sort of bourgeois thinking which limits the "radical" potential and understanding that she asserts, persuasively, in embedded in the most conservative and traditional of family and economic decisions and actions. It is also a book I blogged about, here.

This collection of essays by Alan Jacobs, appropriately and lyrically titled Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant, was a delightful read, at times haunting, stimulating, sobering, and hilarious. I discovered Alan through our mutual love for Harry Potter, but now I'll read just about anything he writes.

Leigh Jenco's serious, meticulous Making the Political: Founding and Action in the Political Theory of Zhang Shizhao is a tremendous and concise work of scholarship. I've run into Leigh many times over the years, and been on the receiving end of her brilliantly intelligent (and usually harshly accurate) criticisms more than a few times as well (most recently at the conference I attended in Hong Kong last January), but reading this book was the first time I really understood the grandness of her aims: she is convinced (and she came close to convincing me) that the worldview of East Asia--call it the "Confucian tradition" if you'd like, though she doesn't--provides sufficiently distinct alternatives to how we think about political action and revolution that whole theories of the political can and should be worked out using those resources alone, without much (if any) reliance upon Western terminology or references. Leigh has gotten me to think differently about how communities are constituted before; through the writings of Zhang Shizhao, she's gotten me to rethink even more differently again.

American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us is huge, magisterial, encyclopedic, and endlessly surprising and fascinating, even when it is only providing data which provides evidentiary support for something that I, as a pretty solid member of a religious community myself, always suspected was true. I'll be making use of this book in a writing project this year, and I'm not the only one; it's going to be discussed for years and years to come.

I read Jeffrey Robbins's Radical Democracy and Political Theology to review it for a journal, but ultimately found it the sort of book I would have wanted to read anyway. A book that probably tries to do too much, but which has packed within its narrow covers insightful readings of Carl Schmitt, Alexis de Tocqueville, Sheldon Wolin, and many more. If nothing else, it made me think hard about what it means to affirm democracy, especially being a member of a fairly non-democratic religion myself.

Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less is a somewhat older book, another book which I had my students read for the aforementioned "Simplicity and Sustainability" class, and one that didn't go over with them terribly well: they found it often obvious and repetitive. I did too. But I also haven't read a great deal of psychology in my life, and so much of the sort of research that Schwartz presented, and the kind of issues and questions he brought up in the context of that research, I found engaging and insightful. His basic thesis--that, both socially as well as economically, we are healthier when we do not allow our lives and our societies to be littered with excessive, technologically-enabled, often meaningless-apart-from-status choices--is intuitively obvious, but no less valuable for all that.

A fine, at times surprising and perplexing, but always entertaining read about, appropriately enough, a constantly surprising and perplexing entertainer. I blogged about Sean Wilentz's idiosyncratic paean to the greatest poet American pop music ever created here.

Ethan Yorgason's cultural and ideological study of how Mormon culture changed from the late 19th century up through the middle of the 20th century is an important and insightful addition to the more famous historical study of that same era by Thomas Alexander. Yorgason insightful reading of the relevant texts as well as his sociological analysis helped me see the much-belabored "Americanization" of Mormon communitarianism, feminism, and patriotism in a new (and perhaps, for a left-leaning Mormon like myself, even more tragic) light.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Why I Want Ron Paul to Win the Iowa Caucuses

[Cross-posted to Political Context]

My old friend and frequent leftist conscience Matt Stannard has taken to task, in a strong and persuasive editorial for Political Context, those left-leaning individuals who are cheering for Ron Paul (whom he calls "an opportunistic, dishonest, 76-year-old charlatan") to go the distance in the Republican primaries. The number of these Paul-supporting progressives, left-liberals, Greens, and socialists of various stripes is pretty small overall, but not negligible, and it include some fairly (in)famous names, like Ralph Nader, Dennis Kucinich, Tom Hayden, and others. Nader--whom I've defended before and still admire--isn't in denial about the huge gap between those on the left and Paul's style of libertarian-conservatism when it comes to social spending and welfare, but he does think that supporting a real challenge to "corporate-conservatism" is worth it, particularly if it could mean undermining or at least scaling back the military-industrial complex and corporate welfare. Matt is having none of that. As he writes, before thoroughly dismantling Paul's supposed appeal to left-leaning voters:

“Left” is an orientation, not a list of policies. The policies emerge from the orientation. That similar policies may emerge from another orientation does not justify forming a political coalition with the far right. Working people, people of color, and the poor, cannot and should not latch onto Confederate, rich-white-guy libertarianism just because it converges with progressives on anti-imperialism and the war on drugs.

I agree with Matt here completely; to stand on the left, whether one does so with a populist or an anarchist or a social democratic or a communitarian or an egalitarian perspective (or some combination thereof), means at the very least to begin with a foundational belief in equality. To begin instead, as Paul does, with a foundational belief in individual liberty and property has generally resulted, in the American context, in the sort of attitude which Jacob Levy (a libertarian himself) has rightly condemned: "the interpretation of American history that says 'we were free until 1937'--an interpretation in which the restriction on Filburn's wheat production is slavery but actual chattel slavery and the tyranny of Jim Crow are asterisks." This is correct; even if this sort of libertarianism would advance many causes I think valuable, it carries with it much too much for any clear-thinking leftist to find it worth embracing.

However, "embracing" and "voting for" are not the same thing. I recognize that voting is in many ways an expressive act, and legitimately such...but it's a strategic act as well. In that sense, I disagree with Matt, as I can see some real value, as a leftist, to nonetheless supporting Ron Paul in certain circumstances. For example, should he choose to run as an independent candidate for president after he fails to win the Republican nomination and his name appears on the ballot here in Kansas, which will surely send its electoral votes in the direction of the GOP candidate, I might vote for him, depending on whomever else is on the ballot, to complicate local Republican politics if for no other reason. More immediately, I'm pulling for him to win the Iowa Caucuses next week. Why? Here are three reasons:

1) Because I have three students who are part of Christmas with Ron Paul and are traveling the back roads of Iowa right now--I want them to feel as though their work was successful, as well as educational. I'm actually quite curious to hear their reports when they return. None of them are committed libertarians and only one of them has ever appeared to me to be an active social conservative; one of them, in fact, is a supporter of Occupy Wichita and has told me that the best thing that could be done for American capitalism (which he proudly affirms his devotion to) would be overturning the Citizens United decision. So I'm hoping for Paul's success in Iowa because such would be a nice addition to their own continuing development as citizens.

2) Because Mitt Romney is all but guaranteed to easily win the New Hampshire Republican primary, and if does so after pulling off a win in Iowa, then he'll be able to sail without serious trouble through whatever reversals primaries in southern states may throw at him through the rest of January on his way to a bunch of wins in February and then eventually to cleaning up on Super Tuesday in March. Again, I repeat: absent huge unpredictable events (sex scandals, al-Qaeda attacks, meteors from space, etc.), there is no serious political science model which presents any other likely result besides Romney being the Republican nominee for president. And...that's boring. I'm a political junkie, I like political contests, and so I'd like this one to be kept alive and not-boring as long as possible. A Ron Paul win in Iowa would help that one along.

3) Most importantly, because--note reason number 2--a Ron Paul win in Iowa has almost no chance whatsoever in advancing Paul in a serious way towards the Republican nomination. Hence, his whole campaign is best viewed as an occasion for argument. An argument amongst the GOP itself? Would that such would be the case! But no, the Republican establishment's dismissal of Paul is pretty obvious; they will just tune him out, as always. The truly interesting argument is the one which the rise of Ron Paul as arguably the leading figure in American libertarianism has caused amongst those sympathetic to that position. The aforementioned Jacob Levy being a case in point, but you also see it the writings of Erik Kain, Mark Thompson, and, especially, Steve Horwitz: Paul is causing a real struggle amongst libertarians, as they (some of them, anyway) attempt to distinguish their distrust of concentrations of state power from the sort of fetishistic individualism which has, in recent decades, joined up with federalist (or neo-Confederate)-inspired dreams of reaction against all the political, social, and cultural (but, unfortunately, rarely the economic) developments in America in the 20th century. As a student of political ideologies that has long hoped a serious libertarian challenge could emerge in America which would break apart existing Republican and Democratic coalitions (and, not coincidentally, perhaps even turn the Democratic party back towards its old-school, religiously-informed sense of populism and social justice), I can only see this as a good thing.

Does this argument amongst libertarians require a Ron Paul win in Iowa to keep happening? No--but it certainly wouldn't hurt it, and if anything it might help it along even further. Imagine Ron Paul winning big in Iowa, and actually making a decent showing in New Hampshire. The Wall Street money which supports Mitt Romney would have to come out in force, pushing back against Paul (as Gingrich has been forced to) in regards to his record on racial and gender issues, his 19th-century economic ideas, his isolationism. Much of those beliefs of Paul's are embarrassing and ugly nonsense, but some of them are actually intriguing--and continually pushing the argument over all stuff that into the front of the news cycle could force libertarians to continue to do some clarifying work over their movement. I see relatively little value in libertarianism-as-classical-liberalism myself--but to the extent that libertarianism evolves closer to, at least in the minds of its most educated advocates, something progressive, something that recognizes the need to begin one's defense of liberty not with property, but with a society of equal individuals, then it's something I can learn from (as well as contribute to). Any leftist could, I suspect.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Christmas, Everyone

This, or something very much like this, is perhaps my oldest Christmas memory. Also one of my best.

Best wishes for a great holiday tomorrow.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Occupy Food! (And Other Simple Things)

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

As Christmas and the end of 2011 approaches, I find myself thinking gratefully about what Leroy Hershberger has enabled my students and I to learn this year, and what that learning has meant to me. Leroy (the bearded gent on the far left of the second row) and his family have twice this year (first on the excursion linked to above, and more recently as a contribution to my class on "Simplicity and Sustainability") generously opened their home to my students and I, enabling us to observe, visit with, and learn from various local farmers, producers, and homesteaders living and working in Reno County west of us here in Wichita, KS. I doubt the Hershbergers would necessary agree fully with the conclusions I've drawn from these "Local Food Tours," but I'll stand by them nonetheless: what the people we learned from are doing, in developing locally and from the ground up their own markets and strategies for producing and providing food, is a fulfillment of some (not all, but some) of the best aims of the whole Occupy Wall Street movement. They are, in other words, in their own--usually religious, usually conservative, always humble--ways, radicals and anarchists and utopians and occupiers, every one of them.

Consider John Miller and his family, for example. Twice we've taken a fascinating tour of what the Millers--through their company, Cheney Lake Tomatoes--have accomplished, and it's eye-opening. They've turned themselves into thriving year-around tomato producers, selling their produce at local markets and stores throughout the area. On the one hand, it is thoroughly small-scale, low-tech operation: the Millers themselves provide all the labor, and John Miller himself has designed and maintains all the often jury-rigged machinery necessary to rotate his crops and keep them flourishing. The greenhouses are heated by pipes carrying water from wells that the Millers dug themselves, and the heating come from wood chips that power a furnace they also made themselves. The wood is just scrap which they collect from all over the county. The result is an essentially cost-free--and environmentally clean--way of providing an essential component of his business. Pretty simple and sustainable, yes?

Yet on the other hand, he makes use of some pretty sophisticated growing practices and resources to increase productivity (planting his tomatoes in perlite instead of soil, for example, or depending upon shipments of bumblebees to keep his plants pollinated). There is nothing ideologically pure about what he is doing, but the results have ideological importance all the same: in having constructed a business without extensive dependence upon cross-country marketing or massive investment of capital, he's an example of the sort of practical economic self-sufficiency that could be actually achievable more broadly, assuming the corporate powers which dominate markets, buy off governments, and drive up the burdens and costs for small-scale producers could be, shall we say, persuaded to get the hell out of the way.

Or consider Phil Nisly and the Nisly's family farm, from which my wife and I have bought chicken and eggs for years, and which just this year took a step they'd been planning and saving for years for: setting up their own processing facility, so they would have complete ownership over the food that they'd built their family business upon. We visited Phil's facility a week before Thanksgiving, and they processed close to 200 turkeys that day. They were busy, to say the least, and they looked it. But he proudly showed us around the facility, talking about how he--just a local farmer--was tapping into not just available markets but specialized ethnic ones as well, all across the state of Kansas and beyond.

The real heart of Phil's tour began with their slaughtering shed. Their turkeys are free-range, raised from chicks, and haven't spent anytime (besides during the occasional stormy night or tornado threat) in cages up until the time Phil and the locals he'd hired for the day cut their throats. A couple of my students had a hard time dealing with what they were seeing, but it was good for them to see it--both in the sense of getting them a little more familiar with where their Thanksgiving turkeys come from (my family's turkey this year was one of those you see in these pictures), as well as enabling them to appreciate the difference between a process done by hand--and all the tools and strategies which the Nislys have adapted their work to so as to keep those practices functional even as the demand for free-range, local turkeys has sky-rocketed--and one that is done impersonally and mechanically.

Phil and I have often talked about how he has worked with state and local officials whose job it is to inspect his family's work; here, the on-site inspector is wearing the hard-hat, while Phil's wife Lucy (with glasses) and some family friends continue the work. Phil's a businessman, so he has his frustrations with accommodating the health, safety, and cleanliness demands of the state...and moreover, he recognizes that those demands in many ways come down harder on local producers like himself, because he--by choice and by necessity--does not rely so much upon the more easily (if less accurately) surveyed mechanical tools and assembly-line procedures which large agribusiness and meatpackers usually make use of. The upside, however, is learning how he and his family have developed friendly, trusting relationships with the inspectors over the years, and negotiated ways of keeping all of those interested in the process satisfied. (Interesting note: inspectors are harsher on the practices they are surveying when there are more than one of them in attendance; according to Phil, one inspector will make informed, reasonable judgments, whereas two will often end up trying to compensate for or over-inspect one another.)

I could go on with this--I could talk about the Borntrager's Dairy, and the strategies they (and their customers!) pursue to make it easier for those who want to purchase some fresh, non-pasteurized, non-homogenized milk to do so. There was Dwight Miller and his family, who see their commitment to provide local milk and produce to their neighbors and to produce all the income they need from their own small plot of land in terms of a "ministry" which they had been called to. And wherever we went, we saw the relative absence of the same thing: high levels of debt, extensive financing packages, and disruptive economic burdens generated by big corporate players. Not that economies of scale were entirely absent from these producers lives; that was hardly the case. (John Miller imports his perlite from Sweden, Phil Nislys gets his chicks from Missouri, and the DFA is a major buyer for much of the milk produced by the Millers and Borntragers--though note that the DFA itself is a farmer-owned cooperative!). The best of these local farmers were continuing experimenting with better ways to make use of, without being dragged down by, the culture of bigness which surrounds them. For the most part, they seem to be doing quite well.

I think for most of my students, the highlight of the day was sitting down to a simple--yet for all that wonderfully filling--meal with the Hershbergers, and talking about farm life, about different approaches to education and building a family and learning a skill and filling one's belly. Again, Leroy doesn't come off as a radical, looking to "occupy" the contested spaces of our national life for the sake of the 99% who are mostly left out of the economic decisionmaking and the financial benefits which the elite in this country jealously (if perhaps sometimes unconsciously) protect. But, for a man like himself and his family, and for all those with whom we have spoken to and learned from this year, what better description could their be? They are, in all their own various and sometimes compromised ways, fighting against a huge, petro-chemical-powered, debt-financed, corporate-governed food industry, attempting to resist its dominance of prices and regulations by delivering something healthy, local, and sustainable. The small English village which is aiming at total food self-sufficiency is doing this; the marchers from the Farmers Coalition who joined the protesters at Zuccotti Park were doing this; the young farmers who are making tiny but real changes in the long-term decline of agriculture in America are doing it. Shannon Hayes, of Radical Homemakers fame, expressed the hope embodied in what Leroy has helped me my students and I to see very well:

My experience at the Sunday rally was one of the most moving four hours of my life, surrounded by hundreds of people who cared about the same issues I do: food sovereignty, the need for city people to start building soil and growing their own food, the need for rural and urban folks to build better relationships with each other to sidestep the corporate food system. I met dairy farmers, meat producers, seed producers, vegetable growers….even some friendly vegetarians. I met food activists, senior citizens concerned about the quality of food for their grandchildren, community gardeners, college students who were trying to learn how to feed themselves ethically and healthfully. We saw American flags, held up high. One of them led our march. And I saw a side of New York City that I’d never seen before. New Yorkers hung out their apartment windows, came to sit on their steps, sat out at cafes and stood in front of their small grocery stores and food stands. They cheered and clapped as we marched by. They sang and chanted with us. We marched through community gardens reclaimed from abandoned lots. I stepped on ground that was as lush and beautiful as any earth I tread upon here upstate.

The most poignant moment for me, however, was when our march passed through a community garden and I heard cheers from up above me. I looked up and saw four urban teenagers standing in a tree house. They waved and smiled, then held up a giant sign for us to read: This land will live again.

This land will live again. It will live in America’s countryside, in her mountains and rivers, as well as in her cities. To me, that’s what the Occupy movement is all about--finding ways for all living things to thrive. And for those of us in the grassfed farming community, that’s what we’re all about too.

Small farmers like the Millers or the Nislys struggle, and our national addiction to economic practices which keep those who would keep local producers down and on the edge of bankruptcy is a primary cause of that struggle. (See here for more on that.) But in their struggles, they are also finding, here and there, ways to succeed and even flourish, because there are people like you and me who see people like the Hershbergers and recognize: living that way, eating that way, simplifying in that way, isn't a utopian dream--or even if it is utopian, it's not out of reach, it's achievable, its doable. All it takes is a willingness to explore different paths and make different compromises, to "occupy" a different way of thinking. It may not always be easy, but the results are simple, all the same.

Friday Morning Videos: "Driving Home for Christmas"

Chris Rea has had a far larger career in Europe and his home base in the UK than he ever managed in the US; over here he's a genuine one-hit-wonder-maker, with his wonderful "Fool (If You Think It's Over)" from over 30 years ago. But this fine Christmas tune of his has made the charts twice in Great Britain, and I kind of like its reflective, whimsical sound this season. This video was made the second time the song charted in England, for use by the charity Shelter, and stars a bunch of British television stars and personalities, only one of which I can identify, I think. Seems like they all had a good time, though. Anyway, Merry Christmas--and if you're traveling, drive safely!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Pompeo Goes Populist (But Probably Not Populist Enough)

Wichita's representative in Congress, Mike Pompeo, won his seat in 2010 by emphasizing again and again the most common of Republican talking points these days: lower taxes, less regulation, and most particularly the need to keep the government's hands off of businesses making the sorts of decisions which enable, in his mind, the free market to be such a wonderful source of wealth and job-creation. But in the wake of the news that Boeing, one of the largest employers in Wichita and a huge economic engine for south-central Kansas, is considering moving the work it was scheduled to perform on a huge Air Force refueling tanker contact out of the state, a contract which local, state, and federal politicians like Pompeo helped Boeing win from the Defense Department, Pompeo is sounding less like a conservative and more like a populist. This is appropriate for a Kansas politician, since the roots of the 19th-century Populist movement which challenged the disruptive and controlling effects which the decisions of large corporations had on farmers and tradesmen run more deeply in Kansas than in any other state. But I doubt--though I would be both surprised and gratified if I turn out to be wrong--that Pompeo has it in him to go populist enough.

He has certain made his frustration with Boeing clear; in a news conference, he emphasized the years of work which went it to crafting the package of tax breaks and other economic supports which Boeing felt it needed to be competitive in landing the KC-46A tanker contract, worth an estimated $35 billion (nearly $400 million of which would be spent here in Wichita). He insisted that Boeing needed to be clear on what their reasoning was for considering relocating the work to another state, and that there was a long "trail of promises" which they were honor-bound--via a "promise and a handshake"--to be true to. Then in a Wichita Eagle column, he insisted that "Kansas and Boeing are family," with decades of history behind the community's development of an infrastructure and labor pool which Boeing (among many other aircraft manufacturing companies here in the "Air Capital of the World") depends upon. To take this work elsewhere, Pompeo wrote, "under a cloud of broken promises, is beneath the dignity of this proud company." And in case pride doesn't change corporate cost-benefit calculations, Pompeo threatened the company with unstated consequences for looking to "violat[e] long-standing promises and obligations that arise from its commitments," as well as "knowingly mak[ing] false statements to the U.S. government or to federal officials during a bidding process." Hardly the stuff of radical socialism, but pretty harsh words for a business-friendly Republican.

Harsh words, though, or even impassioned pleas to the good will of Boeing, are unlikely to have the kind of effect that Pompeo--and thousands of engineers and machinists and other laborers in the Wichita area--wants them to have, simply because the corporate logic of comparative advantage and profit maximization have no room for them. Large business interests like Boeing have--or so we have been told again and again by apologists for the "creative destruction" which capitalism wreaks upon individual livelihoods and whole communities--obligations only to their shareholders, not to the communities which have supported them, not to the workers which make them function, and definitely not to the political bodies, whether local, state, or national, which make the policies that allow corporations to flourish wherever seems to them to be best. For Boeing to keep its promises to Kansas, when the present economic outlook suggests it would be best for them if they didn't, smacks of encouraging some sort of "social responsibility" upon the corporation.

In other words, if Pompeo and others like him want to go head-to-head with Boeing and insist upon them keeping their promises to Kansas, then they're going to have to be willing to think in terms that present the notion that Boeing is "integral part of [the] community fabric" of Wichita as something more than talk; they're going to have to see that notion as having real political meaning and force. They're going to have to, in other words, not just talk like a Populist challenging decisions made by distant corporate calculators; they're going to have to admit those Populists have a point.

This doesn't mean denying "Boeing’s right to run its business as it sees fit," as Pompeo wrote; it does mean thinking again about what is Boeing's business...and what, by contrast, is properly at least as much the business of workers and citizens and taxpayers throughout Kansas and beyond. It means being willing to think the way the Populists were thinking, when they were faced with railroad corporations which charged bankrupting rates across Kansas, after having encouraged farmers to move out along those rail lines by implicitly promising them ready access to markets for their crops. It means, in short, being willing to think about things like economic sovereignty--about the ability, and the right, as least to a limited extent, for communities to claim some ownership over the economic engines which they enable to function through their labor and to flourish through their tax codes and other corporate-friendly policies.

There is no easy or obvious way to implement or resolve these claims, especially when dealing with a huge, global corporation like Boeing, at least not without embracing a full-scale revolution in favor of employee ownership, economic socialization, and market decentralization (and as good and justified as I think such a revolution might be, it would bring with it a host of problems all its own). But if Pompeo and others, as they engage in the difficult fight before them to change corporate minds and save thousands of jobs, aren't willing to at least acknowledge the point of the old Populist vision, then they'll be setting aside one of the relatively few resources which Kansas politicians have at their disposal: a history, one even older than Boeing's in Wichita, of measuring the power of citizens defending their livelihoods against the impersonal demands of corporations, and determining that the power of "community fabric" ought not be so easily set aside.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

It Is....Precious

Forget the election. Now, 2012 really has something going for it.

Monday, December 19, 2011

But Speaking of Christmas Pop...

...Stuart Elliot's "Holiday Music That Doesn't Suck" series of rock, jazz, and R&B tunes has been pretty awesome. Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Denise Lasalle, and the Sonics? I can't wait to see what he comes up with next. (Maybe this one, Stuart?)

The Five Best Christmas Pop Videos Ever

If I can do it with television specials, I can do it with pop songs. Again, no claims to objectivity here; these are just my favorites. Remember, these are actual pop or rock tunes, not carols or hymns or traditional favorites funked up by some electric guitars. An arbitrary distinction, I know, because if "The Christmas Song" or "Jingle Bell Rock" didn't start out as pop songs, then what were they? So nothing older than the 1970s here. Also, please note: despite my acknowledged, unapologetic fondness for it, I'm not going to list "Do They Know It's Christmas?" here. (Though I probably should.)

Anyway, let's start with a sentimental 80s favorite...not because of Billy Squire (about whom I have no memories whatsoever) but because of Martha Quinn (about whom I have many, most of them involving late-afternoon period daydreams) right behind Billy in the choir.

Now some great old Elton John, with a song that I think still holds up today.

A lot of people probably prefer the U2 cover of this next song, and I admit it's quite fine, especially The Edge's spare, clean guitar work. But I've got to stick with the Brian Lake original, for musical earnestness sake if for no other reason. John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" may be more famous, but I don't think it can touch this.

Who doesn't love the Kinks?

And of course, we've got to finish up with the greatest of them all; a pretty much flawless melding of music, imagery, and story. If people watched this instead of Celine Dion, this would be a better world.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The (Not So) Radical(ly Conseravtive) Mormon Priesthood

[Cross-listed to By Common Consent]

As any reader of this blog knows, I'm the sort of egghead who likes to speculate about what it means (or at least what it could mean, for purposes of questions of justice or community or whatever) to be something other than liberal. That is, in the philosophical sense, to be something other than an individualist, concerned first and foremost with rights and property and all that. Hence my continuing fascination with almost all things communitarian and utopian.

This arguably fits in well with my religion, of course. That Mormonism was at one time a radical movement which challenged dominant American liberal norms--most famously regarding marriage and sexuality, but also (and I think more importantly) regarding economics and government--is pretty well understood by most who have even a passing familiarity with Mormon history. (If that's not you, see here and here.) That Mormonism today--at least American Mormonism, at least if the dominant voting patterns and preferred modes of discourse amongst the majority of American Mormon wards are taken as evidence--is no longer much committed to radical communitarianism and egalitarianism, to radical re-organizations of social life, to radical distinctions in how one talks about sovereignty and loyalty, is also pretty well understood. (Again, if you're lost, begin here and here.) America is a different place than it was in the late 19th-century, to be sure, when the U.S. government invested considerable effort to imprison church members and break apart church operations...but then, we are also a significantly different church than we were then, far more at peace with, and far more aligned to, dominant American ways of socializing, making money, electing our leaders and living our lives. Sure, we could point to all sorts of contrasting evidence--but we're much more sexually traditional than most Americans! we challenge all sorts of trends regarding divorce and family! we're considered weird by people in Hollywood!--but all that is, I would assert, fairly circumstantial: fundamentally, for better or worse (or both), the "Mormon moment" has come, in all its multicolored variety, and its conclusion is: even allowing for our mostly traditional mores and mostly conservative politics, here in America we are, I think, undeniably a pretty modern mix of mostly independent individuals, just like nearly everybody else (or, more honestly, just like nearly every other mostly white, mostly suburban church in America).

Rosalynde Welch, one of the best thinkers the Mormon community has around, would presumably disagree with me: in her latest Patheos column, she calls Mormonism a "demanding, distinctive, and stubbornly un-modernized—possibly un-modernizable—church." I suspect our disagreement here is more a matter of our focus rather than our conclusions; I am talking about Mormon life, popular culture, and everyday practice, while she is talking about our institutions, doctrines, and forms or organization. This is an important disagreement, because in a church which presents itself in the lives of its members in such a comprehensive fashion, it's not always clear where (or if) one should end and the other begin. (Moreover, I think a good argument can be made that even our forms of organization have become increasingly professionalized and, as a result, assimilated to modern American expectations and practices in such a way as to challenge the thesis of Armand Mauss, who famously saw in the second-half of the 20th-century, at the same the time when a thoroughly correlated bureaucracy was developed throughout the church, a period of retrenchment into the unmodern and distinct. Mauss notes this critique and argues with it in the most recent issue of the Mormon journal Dialogue.) But that argument aside, Rosalynde's disagreement with me is one I take seriously, because in her column she focuses on one element of Mormon life which arguably has remained "un-modernizable": the way notions of "priesthood" leadership function in our community. That is not an easily challenged claims--indeed, I would hardly challenge it at all, especially given that she uses this observation to call attention to one of the greatest theoretical resources which Mormonism has, and one that is extremely appealing to me: namely, a familiarity with the costs and benefits which come from refusing the lure of the liberal meritocracy.

Rosalynde writes:

The hierarchical, authoritarian nature of the church, with its orientation toward group roles and obedience over individual rights and freedoms—that is to say, everything about the Church that rankles in the context of modern liberal democracy—can provide a set of emotional and intellectual tools with which to examine the buried assumptions of that liberal democracy....I want to suggest an example of this dynamic, by which the apparently illiberal features of a conservative church can usefully destabilize the silently-encroaching paradigms of modernity....[by floating] the idea that the all-male LDS priesthood enacts a critique of the notion of meritocracy that vibrates at the center of the American dream....

From some perspectives, an all-male priesthood is nothing more than an atavistic institutional carryover from the days of hard patriarchy, sexism pure and simple; from other perspectives, it's a divinely-ordained reflection of the deep cosmic order that secures and connects individuals in a harmonious chain. Either way, a male priesthood is difficult to explain, much less justify, in the language of liberal meritocracy. Indeed, an organization in which an arbitrary half of its membership has no access to institutional authority is the opposite of meritocracy; leadership is not a reward for ability, hard work, or worthiness—it can't be, since many of the most able, dedicated, and worthy members of the church will never hold positions of executive leadership simply by virtue of their female condition....

A male priesthood, then, stands as an enacted rebuttal to the idea that meritocracy is natural, inevitable, or necessary. The encroachment of merit-based thinking into a Christian community would be disastrously corrosive to gospel teachings on humility, love, dignity, and status; one can never win one's mansion above or compete for salvation. There are no merit-based scholarships to heaven....Spiritual meritocracy is poison. The all-male LDS priesthood, for which no merit-based explanation can be offered, reminds us of that the kingdom of God is not a meritocracy.

There are, of course, some problems with this insight of Rosalynde's. Most crucially, there is the reality that in this mostly voluntary church, despite our affirmation that merit and skill have little or no influence over matters of faithfulness and worthiness, the truth remains that some of the callings to service which are extended are, shall we say, more equal than others. (Please give me a ring the next time a deeply devout, unfailingly generous, but also unemployed, public-transportation-dependent Mormon is called to be his ward's bishop.) This point becomes all the more incontestable the further one moves into the Mormon church hierarchy, away from purely voluntary pastoral responsibilities and into the full-time ecclesia...which nonetheless remains, for all it's adaption to professional norms, also thoroughly committed to some understanding of priesthood authority. This trickles down into ordinary Mormon practice, which inevitably leads to situations where presumably merit-rewarded positions often carry with them traces of priesthood authority (as long as the holders are male), and conversely priesthood callings are often seen to carry some patina of intellectual or administrative competency or merit, so that we not infrequently see the overruling of technical or administrative decisions or policies made by non-priesthood (that is, female) workers who were, until they ran up against some unthinking, perhaps power-jealous individual, providing important service to the church.

For all that, though, her point is an enormously valuable one: in the pews and duties of everyday American Mormon life, hundreds of thousands of people, in millions of day-to-day ways, are arguably taking a break from the competitive, zero-sum, measurement-and-outcome-based meritocratic world they encounter and (unfortunately, I think) mostly take for granted as workers, students, employers, and citizens. Instead are invited into a world of grace, of gifts, through the example of a radically conservative institution--an all-male priesthood--which in principle refuses to acknowledge both the appeal and the dangers of turning every kind of authority into merit-based, process-bound, context-and-culture-be-damned, administrative procedure. That has to mean something--it has to be the sort of thing that could lead Mormons to recognize, even internalize, a critique of the modern liberal project, and open themselves up to alternative (even radical!) forms of organization and behavior, even at the cost of setting themselves against the American behemoth. Doesn't it?

Maybe not. To be sure, some have asked these broader questions. They've been discussed on blogs, and sometimes you even see them reflected in church leaders' warnings about trusting too much in accomplishment and forgetting about grace and gifts. But, in light of my general assertion above, I would continue to argue that Rosalynde's acute observation about the meritocracy-critiquing potential of the Mormon priesthood--a potential that it has by virtue of its radically conservative, and therefore illiberal, presumptions--does not travel: her "enacted rebuttal" to meritocratic liberalism enacts, and thus rebuts, relatively little. Why not?

Forty-five years ago, the social critic Christopher Lasch also wondered why Mormonism--which he didn't like and happily mocked, even while admiring it in some important ways--didn't (or, at least, didn't any longer) follow through on its embedded critique of modern American life. His answer: it's the federal government's fault (or, more particularly: it's the economy, stupid):

From the point of view of liberal Christianity, the Mormon experiment was impossible to understand....In Utah, under Brigham Young's leadership, the Mormons created a self-sufficient, cooperative, egalitarian, and authoritarian economy devoted not to individual enrichment but to the collective well-being of the flock....Cooperation and planning caused the desert to bloom, in marked contrast to the exploitive patterns of agriculture which on other frontiers exhausted natural resources and left the land a smoking waste. These practices of the Mormons, however--so successful both from a human and from a technological point of view--ill accorded with the prevailing drift toward laissez-faire....Beginning with the "Mormon War" of 1857-58, when federal troops tried unsuccessfully to break up the Mormon settlements, the government harried the Saints by a combination of military, legislative, and judicial action....The destruction of the temporal powers of the church put an end, for all practical purposes, to the Mormon enterprise...[though] the Mormon church continues to grow. It grows because it can offer special attractions of its own--more community sense, more social discipline, more mystique than other churches competing for lower-middle-class converts, a combination that is appealing to those reared strictly who find things falling apart. But the growth of the Mormons...has been achieved by sacrificing...the conception of a secular community organized in accordance with religious principles....From posing a challenge to the American way of life Mormonism has become a defense of its most reactionary aspects. (Lasch, "The Mormon Utopia," in The World of Nations [Viking Books, 1974], 66-68)

Lasch's observations are not nearly as careful as Rosalynde's, nor are they as accurate. For one thing, Lasch's comments were written before the 1978 revelation which thankfully ended priesthood discrimination against black males, and thus are historically dated (Proposition 8 notwithstanding, institutional Mormonism almost certainly cannot be legitimately awarded the "most reactionary" prize any longer); for another thing, Lasch fails to appreciate the spiritual important which we believing Mormons attach to our own history. But for all that, there is a sense in which Lasch here provides an important historical correction, or shall we say a complement, to Rosalynde's hypothesis. Lasch acknowledges that modern (post-polygamy, post-theocracy) Mormonism offers much of that Rosalynde herself mentions: "the rewarding communal experience of serving in a Mormon community, the trust, fellow-feeling, practical support, and, yes, the opportunity to practice forgiveness" which dwelling with a context of authority and solidarity may provide. But that isn't the aim of Rosalynde's piece; rather, she is looking for Mormonism, and particularly our Mormon doctrines of priesthood to "provide useful critical views of liberalism's unfinished or unfounded projects." The critical view may be present, but is there any sense of it being used by Mormons to articulate an actual critique of America's meritocracy? Given the accommodation of Mormonism with American public life, civil religion, and state power, I see little evidence of such. Lasch suggests that this absence is the result of the collapse of the Mormon church's temporal power over a hundred years ago, and while that is a simplistic answer, it has the virtue of making good sense. It's hard to rebut liberalism--which, as Rosalynde notes, is "firmly entrenched in the common sense that governs everyday experience in modern America"--when you don't have much of a place to stand apart from it. (This is, of course, a central problem with nearly all so-called conservative thought in America today--which, as Alasdair MacIntyre noted long ago, has become, since its embrace of the mobility and creative destruction of modern industrial capitalism in the decades following the Civil War, almost wholly a species of liberalism itself. For good and for ill, Mormonism was "radically conservative" once, in a way not dissimilar to how the Confederacy was radically conservative: because there were specific forms of community organization which it sought to conserve against modernity. Nowadays, not quite so much.) In short, Lasch's observation takes some (though perhaps not all) of the wind out of the sails of Rosalynde's argument about the Mormon priesthood: even if she is right about her reading of it--and I think she probably is--there is good reason to recognize that, given how our shared church currently constitutes its own place within the American liberal order, probably little will come of it.

Here's one final observation: would any American Mormon today, including Rosalynde herself, even want more to come of it? I frequently and happily express my preferences for a more populist or socialist or communitarian order, and think there is more to learn from radical utopian ideas than progressive ones (particularly in the Mormon sense)...but ultimately, I myself am mostly in favor of mildly distasteful progressive compromises with modernity, and I suspect that nearly every other Mormon I know who has benefited from the way the church has evolved over the past century would agree. Remember that if Lasch is correct, then probably the only way to fully enact Mormon radicalism would be through the re-establishment of real Mormon political and economic sovereignty and territoriality. To be part of such an establishmentarian project would obviously constrain us modernized American Mormons even further--and it would especially constrain women. As someone with real feminist concerns (if not an allegiance to any particularly aggressive feminist agenda), Rosalynde rightly worries about the costs involved in maintaining our radical(ly conservative) priesthood alternative, even if just on the level of theoretical argument: "even if some social good does come of the anti-meritocratic critique embodied in a patriarchal priesthood, who is to judge how that good might compare to the pain and confusion that some women feel as they try to make sense of their own identity in a patriarchal institution?"

This is the liberal side of all us modern American Mormons, peeking around and out of the church we have joined or inherited, filled as it is with much spiritual good and even truth, but also filled with remnants of a radical project--a conservative and authoritarian one, to be sure, but a powerfully egalitarian and communitarian one as well--that now exists mostly (if not entirely) as an echo. There's a part of me which is looking for that echo to once more sound robustly; I want an alternative to the liberal order. Rosalynde, more Burkean than I, isn't sure we should want that, and as one who feels the force of Mormon illiberality much more seriously than a white man like I probably ever will, her caution speaks more authentically than mine, I suppose. But still, thanks to her essay, the next time I sit in church and observe my fellow Mormons and myself go through our highly unmeritocratic ritual practices, I won't be able to do anything but hope that we're learning something.

Friday, December 16, 2011


The second in an occasional series about how much we've all forgotten about how to use our own language.

Godspeed, You Brilliant, Thought-Provoking Ass

Finally finished with finals, leaving me some breathing space to start getting caught up on some things that need to be said. And first up on the list comes the news this morning, that Christopher Hitchens has passed away, from pneumonia, contracted in the process of his twilight struggle against cancer. RIP, I say.

Why do I say that, about a man who I've never met and whose ideas I disagreed with more often than not? First, because wishing Hitchens's immortal soul Godspeed would piss him off, and he liked being pissed off. Second, because I'm a softy, in the way that Rod Dreher is a softy, who commented in a post of his, put up late last night, that he finds it "impossible not to like someone as, well, original and as gifted with the English language as Hitchens." (And gifted he was; there are many, many people who attempt to put on the mantle of George Orwell, and appropriate the attitude and emulate the skill demonstrated by the controlled fury and exacting brilliance of Orwell's prose: for Hitchens, unlike nearly everyone else, the comparison very nearly works.) But third, and most importantly, because in my disagreements with him, even more than my agreements, I came to understand something essential about conservatism, and about myself.

I read Hitchens's The Missionary Position, his ferocious screed against Mother Teresa, while I was working as a bookseller while still in graduate school. (He later repeated his basic thesis against Mother Teresa in Slate magazine, here.) After finishing the book, I realized something: I agreed with him. I agreed with his claim that Mother Teresa wasn't at all engaged in the humane act of healing the world which most of her admirers the world over imagined she was. Mother Teresa made Hitchens's angry, and he liked being angry, especially at anyone who believed in a God: she's just an illiberal authoritarian who cares more about building her little kingdom than solving any actual social problems!, his book screamed. (Or, as he summarized his complaint in Slate: "Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction. And she was a friend to the worst of the rich, taking misappropriated money from the atrocious Duvalier family in Haiti, whose rule she praised in return, and from Charles Keating of the Lincoln Savings and Loan.") My response to his attack, both when I read it originally and anytime I thought about it afterward, remained the same: You're right Hitch: Mother Teresa was concerned more with authority and God's kingdom...because she was convinced that that was where love and salvation and grace are to be found, not in anything so fallen, so liberal, as "society." Or as I wrote back then, with the help of St. Augustine:

Did criminals and murderers and wicked men contribute money to Mother Teresa's cause, hoping to gain something from their proximity to her? Very likely. Should that have troubled Mother Teresa? Not at all. After all, as Augustine reminds us, outside the City of God (and not one of us is fully in it, not now, not until the rest of God takes us), we're all criminals anyway:"What are kingdoms but great robber bands? What are robber bands but small kingdoms?" (City of God, Bk. 4, Chp. 4) This is hardly a good way to interact with others in a political sense: we must seek out standards of justice, build communities that exclude and include, form principles of law, all so that the limited goods of this life can be shared, rather than made subject to raw power and wealth. This is solid Catholic doctrine, and solid Christian doctrine as well: "If you want peace, work for justice." And it's true. But it's only true right here, right now, and the final supreme good of the believing Christian is neither here nor now: it is the eternal peace which the rest of God promises. In the meantime, justice is, well, valuable--but, in a very fundamental sense, it is limited too. "What about justice, whose function is to render to each his due, thereby establishing in man a certain just order of nature, so that the soul is subordinated to God, and the flesh to the soul, and consequently the flesh and the soul to God? Does it not demonstrate in performing this function that it is still laboring at its task instead of resting in the completion of its goal?" (City of God, Bk. 19, Chp. 4) Justice, and all mortal concerns, are by definition incomplete. Holiness, by contrast, in wholeness. If one wholly adored God, then the moral complications of discerning between what some deserve and others do not, of working out compromises when faced with hard moral choices, of deciding between just and unjust wars, indeed of all the necessary vicissitudes of ordinary life, would not trouble you one bit--and, as Hitchens proved (to me at least), that describes Mother Teresa's lack of care for the "real world," or "the big picture," or "the long term" very, very well. In short, I think Hitchens helps us understand why Mother Teresa really was a saint--and why most of us don't want to be one.

This argument--both Hitchens's against Mother Teresa, and mine with Hitchens--simply underscores his similarity to Orwell, who was notoriously divided in his feelings on Gandhi, sniffing that "saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent." Hitchens always thought saints were guilty (like Gandhi too!), because saints are not of this (social, political, "real") world, and this is the only world which Hitchens every acknowledged. Whereas I, on the other hand, think any decent politics has to have at least some saintly involvement, at least sometimes, however convoluted or compromised the presence of that otherworldly (or higher-worldly) that saintlessly may be.

Hitchens unapologetic embrace of the "real world" also forced another realization of mine about conservatism, through the way he contributed to my own twisted odyssey over the war in Iraq. My support for it, as I've written a couple of times before, was almost wholly a creation of the theoretical framework which I embraced at the time (and still somewhat, to a limited degree and in a changed manner, hold to today): a kind of liberal (inter)nationalism, an emphasis upon the proper place for nations to exercise real world power in defense of culturally grounded expression of broadly liberal principles. Hitchens, who had been, up until the moment of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and, particularly, the American-led invasions into Afghanistan and Iraq, an unpredictable but still fairly consistent man of the left and a critic of American imperialist power, all of a sudden became a vicious defender of almost all things Western against what he termed the "Islamofascist" threat. Hitchens--in retrospect simply bizarre--obsession with the righteousness of the Western liberal cause (and the power to Western liberal states to impose that cause upon whole populations that were presumably more concerned with feeding themselves than being on the right side of some political theory!) was one that, for some years, I had a strange admiration for. As I put it at a conference once:

What happened as some of us watched the World Trade Center come down on September 11th was the realization, for the first time in a very long time, that one could actually see a boundary, a limit: there really was this place called "America," and it had a culture and a way of life and a meaning, and there was something outside of it, something that wasn't a function of, or susceptible to, the abstract forces o globalization, but instead took the corporate Americanization of the world and shoved it all back into national, historically embedded terms. In other words, all of sudden we could see ourselves as a community, not just a site of media and market exchanges, and a community worth loving as well. And to the extent which the struggle with Islamic fascism and terrorism proceeded on those terms, terms which presumed (and, we fancifully imagined, even encouraged the growth of, despite Bush's refusal to ever talk about any real kind of sacrifice) a solidarity with and commitment to one's own....well, the neocons and liberal hawks ended up leading a number of us national communitarians and Christian socialists around by the nose.

What I didn't say at the time was that Hitchens was, perhaps, the most articulate and challenging (and, to be sure, the least balanced) exponent of this kind of theoretical attitude, but I didn't need to say it; almost immediately upon making my comments, one of the other discussants declared my thoughts a species of "Christopher Hitchens conservatism"--and he was absolutely correct. In a perverse way, the ideological hothouse that was the Western world in the early days of the Iraq War managed to turn leftists that like community, like me, or even just left-liberals who like the idea of punching illiberal God-worshipers in the nose, like Hitchens, into people on the right--into, in short, conservatives, even imperialists, of a fashion. I was wrong about that. Hitchens remained in denial about it, as far as I know up until the very end.

That's a sad ending for this little essay, and an even sadder ending to the brilliant (in the very literal sense of "brightness"--Hitchens obviously loved both being at the center of, and being a generator of, both light and heat) career of an enormously talented writer. I would hope that this judgment doesn't sum the whole atheistic, combative, pig-headed, awesomely informed and opinionated man up. (George Scialabba, a much more balanced but equally well-informed writer, has a wonderful summary of Hitchens's work here.) I'm afraid I can't agree with frequent the one blogosphere commenter, who wrote that, "[Hitchens] supported the war in Iraq. That, to me, disqualifies practically everything else." No, for better and/or for worse, this particular asshole contained multitudes. Part of what he was (and, to his great consternation, I will insist still is) spoke to me; part of that speaking isn't with me any longer, thank goodness, but part of it still is. Hitchens, who has nothing if not a constant partisan, would have liked that, I hope.

Anyway, requiescat in pace, Hitchens. You won't like being at rest, but God knows you probably really need some.