1000 years of European history, via the awesomely observant Noah Millman.
Monday, April 29, 2013
1000 years of European history, via the awesomely observant Noah Millman.
Saturday, April 27, 2013
One of the greatest songs from the whole Beatles catalog, of course, and perhaps George Harrison's greatest composition (though I'm quite fond of "That's What it Takes" as well). This is a song that lends itself to some awesome jams, and this past week some friends on FB started comparing versions. There is this great performance by Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Dhani Harrison, and Steve Winwood , with Prince channeling Jimi Hendrix at the end, from 2004's induction of Harrison into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and there's this haunting and stately take, with Eric Clapton taking the lead vocals, Paul McCartney on the piano, Ringo Starr (among others) on the drums, and Dhani and a bunch of friends backing them up, from 2003's tribute film, Concert for George. But I have to say my favorite is this one, from the 1987 Prince's Trust Concert. Harrison himself, in full mullet mode, sharp and brilliant and in control; Ringo (definitely not phoning it in) on the drums, joined by Phil Collins; Mark King of Level 42 slapping out Paul's bass line; freaking Elton John the piano; and Clapton--newly cleaned up from his late 70s-early 80s addictions--playing his own original lead, trading riffs and glances with George, remembering old times (all while Lynne provides backup). Simply transcendent.
Thursday, April 25, 2013
[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]
That's a terrible title for this post, I know. But hopefully it'll make sense, if you actually make it to the end.
First of all, if any reader of this blog has missed out on my praise of Rod Dreher's new book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern, A Small Town, and the Secret of the Good Life, well, let me repeat myself: it's a great book, and I'm far from the only one to think so. It's a powerful portrait and memoir, of a person and a place and the relationships which those two things both test and lend a kind of grace to; it's a book that everyone ought to read and think about.
Now, having done my due diligence in urging you once again to read it, this post is about the thinking the book inspires. Specifically, I want to respond to, and add a couple of ideas to, Damon Linker's thoughts about Dreher's book. Damon thought the book was wonderful too; he calls Dreher's depiction of his sister Ruthie's life and death at age 42 from cancer "an emotionally gripping story," but one that includes "bracing reflections on place and community, ambition and happiness that transform the book into something far more than a tragic autobiography." It becomes "a powerful statement about how we live today--and more importantly, about how we should live."
That "should" there is the rub. Because if you're making any kind of normative argument--that is, if you're making any kind of substantive case for a particular norm or principle, presenting it as something which ought to have an effect which is persuasive, if not conclusive, in our lives--then you're going to have to make, well, just that: an argument, one which has substance to it. And Dreher's book, very pointedly, does not do that. Instead it tells a story--which of course, through the way in which we can read, identify with, and be affectively moved by them, have their own persuasive power as well. In a long and powerful post on his blog, Dreher takes American conservativism to task for relying too much on arguments and not doing enough witnessing--as he connects it to a set of reflections he's written about his return to Louisiana, his own conservative side of our national conversations has been too committed to libraries, and not enough to parades. That is, it's been too interested in figuring out and advancing the best arguments, and not with tending to the humble everyday pleasures of community life, and letting that tending be an argument in itself.
This is, I should emphasize, something I am entirely in sympathy with--that is, with the idea that the communitarian principles which Dreher recognizes that his sister Ruthie Leming took as simply the default setting for a decent life are a superior way of talking about culture and how we should live. There is stronger and more persuasive witnessing in telling stories about the communities we have and build and leave and return to and change and keep the same than anything which the best libraries of policy or philosophy can offer. When he concludes that those who are concerned about preserving the cultural and civic and moral goods of community, "need fewer think tanks and more front porches," I couldn't agree more.
But let's be clear about the consequences of that point of Dreher's, and in a sense the point of his whole book: it robs him of the ability of the ability to say, in any kind of substantive way, that some should live in some particular way. He's set aside his normative claim, in other words--all he can do is say that this is a way of living that he has found to be admirable and fulfilling, and perhaps you, the reader, ought to take it seriously. And, if you've followed Dreher's book tour, then you know that many, many people have responded seriously to his story. But their response is propelled by their own affective interactions with the story he has told, not, or at least not necessarily, because he has shown them that he has a normative point.
Now presumably, Dreher wouldn't dispute that--he'd agree that the story he tells, the story of Ruthie Leming, isn't a normative argument. And yet, smart people like Damon Linker see his book doing so nonetheless, if in a confused way. He wrote that Dreher's book left:
a pervasive confusion about what readers (or at least some readers) are supposed to do in response. If you already live in the heartland, the message is to stay. If you come from the heartland and have left, the message is to return. But what if you're one of the tens of millions of people who can't stay in or go home to the heartland because your home--your roots--are in the BosWash corridor of the Northeast or the urbanized areas of the West Coast?...If he's a consistent localist, he should tell me to put down roots and immerse myself in community where I am--or perhaps in my "hometowns" of New York City and Fairfield County, Conn. But is this even possible in a place where paying my mortgage and other bills requires that my wife and I--like my equally striving neighbors--devote ourselves to high-stress work during nearly every waking hour of our days?....Things are different in rural Louisiana. And that's why I can't help but conclude that Dreher and his fellow Porchers must be advocating an anti-urban ideology of ruralism. If you live in a coastal city or suburb, the supremely unconservative message appears to be: Pull up your shallow roots and relocate to a region of the country where you can start over with a simpler, more humane, and happier life.
Dreher's response to this observation of Damon's is telling, I think:
As I’ve tried to make clear to audiences on this book tour, I don’t think everybody should move back to the small towns from which they come....Rather, my advice would be to do your very best to root yourself in the community where you do live, and to do your best to stay there--achieving “stability” in the Benedictine sense....But what do you do if you’re like Damon and his wife, and live in a place where just keeping up requires you to work crazy-long hours, and leaves little time for community life?....Maybe the lesson is that the good life is not possible in the Philadelphia suburbs, or any place where in order to keep your head above water, your job has to own you and your wife, and it keeps you from building relationships. There are trade-offs in all things, and no perfect solution, geographical or otherwise. Thing is, life is short, and choices have to be made. It’s not that people living in these workaholic suburbs are bad, not at all; it’s that the culture they (we) live in defines the Good in such a way that choosing to “do the right thing” ends up hollowing out your life.
Now what just happened there is obvious: Dreher has made a normative argument--a "should" claim. He starts out by saying that he thinks people just need to develop stable roots wherever they are; to attend to the parades in their own particular places, as it were. But immediately following that he takes Damon's point: the living and working in some places makes the time and money and opportunity to seek out parades, much less actively tend to them pretty hard to pull off. He calls that a "trade-off," but obviously is pretty convinced--and presumably wants his readers to be convinced too--that it's a lousy one. And why wouldn't it be, seeing as it leaves your life hollowed out?
Damon calls this an "anti-urban ideology," and I'm not sure it's exactly that. An "anti-suburban ideology" might be closer, but still isn't quite right, I think. What Dreher is dancing around here is a humbler, more local, more contained, less frantic, less ambitious, simpler way of life. Can that be described ideologically? Not if you just tell stories about it, it can't, not really. Those stories can work on people affectively and imaginatively, and by doing so might persuade them to see the value in such. But of course, not everyone will be moved by the stories, and thus won't be able to see why Dreher speaks of "trade-offs." Isn't it, in the end, just another manifestation of individualistic, consumer choice? So first Dreher rejected his hometown, because he preferred something different than what his hometown offered; then later he went back to it to stay, because at that point in his life he preferred that which his hometown offered. (I owe this observation to David Watkins of the blog Lawyers, Guns & Money.) Dreher--and those of us who are in agreement with his communitarian sensibilities--will almost certainly want to challenge this formulation: after all, isn't the entire point of embracing stability and putting down roots and learning to live within limits exactly to deny that we our entirely a product of our own preference maximization? Yes, says I! But if I want to say that "yes," then I have to move beyond stories--I have to give an argument as to why the trade-offs which we face are (sometimes, anyway) bad ones, with one choice--the simpler, more local, more rural one--being obviously better. Why? Maybe because it connects us with deeper virtues, or maybe because it is more environmentally sustainable, or maybe because it better reflects our basic anthropology of being, or maybe all of the above, or maybe some other reason entirely? Whatever argument I make, it will be just that--an argument, a normative claim. And that means that I will have to be saying something that can be expressed theoretically, or ideologically.
In the case of the theory hidden within Dreher's story, the one from which his argument for just what does constitute "the good life" emerges, I'd say the agrarian label fits best. This is somewhat of an odd fit for Dreher, since he confesses in his book, and has long reminded us on his blog, that he's not the outdoor type. But, as someone who spends a lot of time reading and thinking and writing about these issues (too much time in the library, I know!), I'm relatively convinced that the only way all of this emphasis upon simplicity and locality and community can hold together is when you're operating within a set of assumptions which privilege rural environments, producer-based economies, and agricultural work. And this, of course, invites in the whole tradition of agrarian and classical republican thought--about how to respond to the lure of consumerism, or the role of technology, or the threat of economic specialization and outsourcing, or the challenge to civic virtue and building a common morality. These are, to say the least, deep and complication philosophical issues--none of which Dreher's book, or its powerful story about Ruthie Leming's life and death, spend any time dwelling upon at all. And yet, those issues are there. They are significantly undertheorized, to use academic jargon, but they are absolutely present, as they are present in Dreher's call for conservatives to care more about the routines of community life. Because, after all, you can't really care about parades and the routines of community life if your job, and your immediate living environment, and the whole socio-economic world you move through is so characterizes by the transitory nature of liberal capitalism that no real rooted culture is even there to be tended to.
I just reviewed a smart book about conservative political ideas and theory by Mark T. Mitchell, and there was much in there which I found insightful. But even that book, aimed as it was towards the development of a theoretical language of politics that would bring back into our national conversations the sort of things Dreher and I both value, though in different ways--namely, a substantive defense of community, limits, and stability--was nonetheless (on my reading anyway) haunted by an untheorized yet recurring agrarian norm. Getting back to the garden, getting into the outdoors, getting away from technology, getting back to putting food we'd grown ourselves into our bodies--all of that and more was really the unstated assumption which enabled his calls for "gratitude" and "place" to hold together. And unfortunately, in that book, as in Dreher's, as wise and as thoughtful as their insights are, I just don't think they fully come together as a "should," as much as they both obviously believe that the stories they tell and the observations they make really should add up to something. But to put such a substantive claim about local communities together, you need a theory, you need an argument (and that, not incidentally, means you'll need a library).
And if you lack that? Well, that's certainly no loss to the stories which localists like Dreher and Mitchell (and sometimes me) tell, or to the observations they (and I) make. That sort of testifying to the importance of community and simplicity (and parades) is vital. But it also won't be able to escape the suspicion that it's just a lifestyle choice--one that substantively isn't much different from anyone else's (after all, we can find community on Facebook, right? or with our grad student cohort? or with all our friends on the 16th floor?) unless it can be connected to a larger argument. Damon is right that there is an ideology at work here, one that deserves to be fleshed out. I suspect that, deep down, it's an agrarian one, but perhaps I'm wrong. The story of Ruthie Leming, which matters more than any normative argument (that's something Dreher is definitely right about!), unfortunately won't tell me one way or another. And so long as there is a need to do more than witness to and tend to our experiences, so long as there is a need to, well, really try to figure out what we should do, then library work will be necessary too.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 10:54 PM
Monday, April 22, 2013
[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]
Well, this is rather fascinating: here we have a video of the Austrian businessman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, who from 1997 until 2008 was CEO of Nestlé Group, one of the largest and most profitable corporations on the planet, talking rather frankly about the "shibboleth" that "nature is good," about his frustration with his fellow Europeans who have this strange distaste for genetically modified foods (embracing the idea that "organic food is good," which he considers entirely false), and about his conviction that everything on the planet--especially something like water--would be managed much better if it could only be privately owned and have an appropriate price attached to it. The idea that access to water ought to be a human right he labels an "extreme" view.
This isn't anything new to those who spend time listening to claims of the Davos-attending masters of our corporate-dominated governments and our world capitalist system, of course. After all, these are the job creators who are fighting global poverty and fending off the takers, don't you know. And to be fair, probably any number of people will be quick to insist that he has a point, that efforts to protect natural resources through collective action or government policies have often failed, and so why not turn to the marketplace? After all, perhaps the massive explosion in the bottled water industry over the past 20 years doesn't teach us a lesson about the power of advertising and the manufacturing of tastes--instead, maybe it just shows us the plain truth that there aren't any truly public goods out there--only private ones which haven't yet been appropriately capitalized upon yet. (The air we breathe, like the water we drink, will no doubt be next; Mel Brooks told us so.)
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 9:58 PM
Perhaps the greatest, truest, unsung hero of America's original folk-rock scene has died. On October 16, 1992, more than 20 years ago, he appeared onstage at the 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration of Bob Dylan, singing Dylan's "Just Like a Woman"--and when I saw it, and heard Havens for the first time, it was a revelation. That night he shared the stage with not just Dylan himself, but Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed, Mary Chapin Carpenter, The Band, Neil Young, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Booker T. and the MGs, Chrissie Hynde, Johnny Cash, and even more....and in my uninformed opinion, he outshown every single one of them. RIP.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 9:12 PM
Last week our governor, Sam Brownback, signed into a law a bill titled "The Second Amendment Protection Act," which the bill's proponents trumpeted as "the strictest Second Amendment protection law in the nation." Others suggested that it was a pointless law, really just political chest-thumping and nothing more. You can read the whole thing here (it's not that long) and make up your own mind; for my part, I think it's kind of a fascinating document--and likely a deeply confused one as well. Let's run through the possibilities:
1) The law is designed to substantially expand the rights of gun owners in Kansas.
The problem here, though, is that the law never really talks about what any of those rights are. It does spend a great deal of time--all of sections 6, 7, and 8 of the law--claiming how, under this Kansas law, "any act, law, treaty, order, rule or regulation of the government of the United States regarding a firearm" will be "null, void and unenforceable in the state of Kansas," but all of that is simply a negative, stating that such and such people or agencies won't be allowed to enforce gun laws; it never actually explains what Kansas gun owners themselves actually have a legal right to do. The closest it comes to actually spelling out anything substantive is when it references the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and section 4 of the Bill of Rights attached to the Kansas Constitution as guaranteeing "the right to keep and bear arms"--but as it does not assert anything beyond those statements (and indeed, it goes out of its way to emphasize a kind of simplistic literalism in reading those words, stating that this right to keep and bear arms exists "as it was understood at the time" in 1861 when Kansas officially became part of the United States), it doesn't provide any way for Kansas gun owners today, in 2013, to know what their legal rights (regarding gun licensing, or or gun usage, or anything else) positively are. They just know that--according to the state of Kansas, anyway--the federal government can't do anything to their guns, pursuant to the 2nd Amendment and the Kansas Bill of Rights. As one commentator put it, all you really get out of this law when it comes to substantive gun rights is that "federal measures that violate the Second Amendment will be ignored in Kansas." Or, in other words, that unconstitutional gun laws will be considered to be unconstitutional gun laws. Not a whole lot of new substantive defenses there.
2) The law aims to deny the authority of the national government when it comes to guns, and possibly much else.
Perhaps this law isn't really about the defending the rights of gun owners at all, but rather is all about attacking the legitimacy--or at least the reach--of the national government, and maybe the U.S. Constitution itself. The sounds extreme, but still, it's hard to come away from reading the lengthy section 2 of this law, with its rather ornate and very literal references to the 9th and 10th Amendments to the Constitution (both of which, according to the law, reserve rights and powers as "a matter of contract between the state and people of Kansas and the United States...as they were understood at the time that the compact with the United States was agreed upon") and not imagine that the authors perhaps wished we were still governed by the Articles of Confederation. Or, if not the Articles, then at least a reading of the Constitution--one that grants to the states the right to nullify and ignore national laws, given that they are only part of the American "compact" by choice--which has regularly been invoked but has never had much lasting political or legal acceptance in all our post-ratification history. (The one arguable exception to that judgment, of course, was the Civil War, when nullification led to its logical conclusion of secession, and that did enjoy a fair amount of support across the American south, until four years of war and over a half-million deaths led to the idea being basically buried for close to a century.) Personally, I'm rather dubious that Brownback himself actually wants the argument over gun rights to become another Nullification Crisis, or for this law to become another Virginia Resolution, or for him to go down in recent American history as a half-baked John Randolph of Roanoke. I would actually have greater respect for him if any of those possibilities were true, but the fact is his overall policy positions don't seem much at all like those which a supposedly committed states-rights localist or classical republican would hold to. There are, I'm sure, old-school conservatives around him who really are committed to challenging over two centuries of fairly consistent constitutional law (I hear you, Caleb!), but I doubt he's one of them.
3) The law is just trying to attract gun jobs to Kansas.
Some of the proponents of this law are convinced that manufacturers of guns and gun components will want to relocate from Colorado or Maryland or wherever else to operate in a "pro-Second Amendment state." The evidence in support of this assertion is weak at best, especially given the fact that this law itself requires some extensive (and possibly expensive) documentation and labeling of any guns or gun components manufactured in Kansas in order to satisfying the requirement that the items in question be "declared by the legislature...[to] have not traveled in interstate commerce." Whether such contortions could prevent the guns in question from being subject to any hypothetical laws justified under the national government's commerce power is unlikely and at this point impossible to know. More curiously though, it's worth noting that this aim conflicts with the previous one. After all, if you're really trying to draw gun jobs from across the national marketplace to your own state, then presumably you can't really at the same time believe in challenging (or even just getting around) the national government's authority, since it is that authority which makes possible a national marketplace in the first place. A country of state-by-state nullification is also a country which would likely have diverse, state-by-state banking and currency systems, taxation and investment regulations, and quite possibly even internal tariffs. (Many of which characterized life in American under the Articles of Confederation.) I suspect that there is an unreflected-upon intellectual tension here inside the Kansas Republican party. On the one hand, there are a handful of Tea Party quasi-populists who truly embrace the idea of "small government," understanding that to mean leaving government power in local and state hands so as to protect economic sovereignty from overarching national agendas; on the other hand, there are a handful of committed libertarians who also truly desire "small government," but in their case understand that to mean a low-tax, minimal-regulation national government that will enable the marketplace to flourish free from any obstacles...including the priorities of local developers and industries. You can't really satisfy both these groups at the same time, though it may be that some of the superficial thinkers behind The Second Amendment Protection Act somehow think they can.
4) The law simply signals an allegiance to conservative voters, rallying them to Brownback's cause.
So this brings us back to this rather cynical, but also likely, explanation for the law. Obviously, the politics of anything which allows a Republican legislator in Kansas to label themselves as more pro-gun than their hypothetical opponent is easy to understand. Probably Brownback & Co. don't actually have any new and brilliant legal arguments to expand the protections to individual gun owners already provided by the 2nd Amendment and by the Kansas Constitution; probably Governor Brownback (perhaps unlike some true believers around him) isn't really all that enamored of the idea of a radical, Constitution-challenging, states rights/nullification crusade; and probably it's a given that, realistically, gun manufacturers are going to make their decision on the basis of economic conditions and workforce availability, not on the basis of how much the state government claims to be able to legally defend their products. If so, that leaves us with the plain truth that uninformed defenders of gun rights--and reflexive Republican opponents of anything the President Obama has spoken in favor of (including a few fairly reasonable gun control measures)--will probably love this law, no matter how lacking in substance or motivationally incoherent it may be. This law essentially comes from the same place as those posters put up at gun shows and shooting ranges thanking Obama for the great work he's done as a gun salesman. Brownback and his allies may not have any real alternative in mind to our current constitutional order, and most of them almost surely don't want one anyway, but they surely politically benefit from making as though they believe (as some no doubt genuinely do) there is a constitutional crisis at hand regarding gun rights. What more explanation do you need for this strange document than that?
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 7:52 AM
Saturday, April 20, 2013
I'd never seen any clips from this stupendous concert before I went looking one day for renditions of this wonderful love song by John Hiatt (one of the best ever written, in my opinion). I've since watched every one I can find, and they're all excellent. In this case, I originally kept waiting for Lyle Lovett or Joe Ely to join in, but in the end, I'm glad they didn't; I love watching them, their faces filled with admiration, their heads bobbing along to the tune, as Hiatt knocks every note out of the park.
Thursday, April 18, 2013
[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]
Mark Mitchell's fine and thoughtful book is filled with excellent insights and challenges, which unfortunately do not, in my judgment, quite achieve what the author lays out as his aim. That is, the end result is less than the sum of its parts. So, because those insightful parts are important--and because I'm deeply indebted to Mark for the work that he has done to push diverse localist, communitarian, and conservative ideas into wider discussion via Front Porch Republic, which I'm honored to associate myself with--let's begin with them.
In the book's Introduction, Mark thoughtfully presents the argument--most usually associated with scholars like Louis Hartz or Alasdair MacIntyre (neither of which he ever directly cites, though references to MacIntyre appear in his "Further Reading" section)--that American political discourse is overwhelmingly liberal, in the sense of prioritizing individual liberty and choice in the way we frame both public policy options and broader philosophical disputes. As he sums it up: "partisans on both the left and the right express themselves primarily in terms of individual rights and think of politics in terms of an underlying and open-ended progress....They agree about the purpose of government (to protect individual rights) and the direction of history (progress). They may disagree about which individual rights to privilege and what specifically constitutes progress, but these are really in-house debates among liberals" (p. xiv). Mark wants to rescue "conservatism" from this ideological trap, by pointing in a different, non-liberal direction, one which emphasizes the idea of "stewardship" as its primary theme: that is, we should see ourselves as stewards of certain gifts, capacities, and properties, and our primary attitude towards such should be a one a humble, limited, and specific gratitude. This is fine evocation of the best which the idea of "conservatism" has to offer, and it's one which anyone who feels any affection for their family, their community, or their tradition (religious or otherwise) should hope to be open-minded enough to be able to turn away from their philosophical liberal blinders and appreciate for what it is. I wholeheartedly embrace this kind of rescue effort.
In breaking down what we are stewards of, and how we ought to responsibly show gratitude towards it, Mark discusses our "creatureliness," with its attendant limits in scale and its particularity in location. The arguments and observations he lays out in these first four chapters of the book are the best of the whole work, I believe. Mark thoughtfully articulates the claim that we are embodied creatures, who can only see and love so much or so far, and who logically must stand in only one place at a time. In weaving together these arguments, Mark artfully takes up modern secularism and materialism, technology and "scientism," all of which we use to make ourselves seem larger and more independent and sovereign than we actually are. Modern liberalism--by which he means the whole ideology of individualism which has grown up in modern America--has made us all a decidedly non-humble bunch, obsessed with accumulating and dominating, rather than tending to those good things in our life:
In a sense, all Americans are Texans, only the Texans are simply more noisy about their claims. We love words like "awesome" and "amazing." We favor Big Macs and Whoppers, pickup trucks with "the biggest payload," and sports cars with "more horsepower than any in its class." We want the fastest Internet, the clearest television, and the highest fidelity sound. We favor mega-churches, buffets, Costco, and in the number of plastic surgeries in recent years is any indication, we favor big breasts. Truly, America is a land of superlatives. Of course, this obsession with size isn't limited to America, but Americans do lead the way, for good or ill. (p. 55)
In contrast to this obsession with bigness, Mark wants us, instead, to care a little less about size and power, to be a little more humble and grateful--and that means learning to accept and appreciate our dependencies and responsibilities, the ways in which we are stewards who have an obligation to that which has been given to us and to that which we must ultimately pass along to those who come after us. This he counters against our tendency to become--here quoting Betrand de Jouvenal--"securitarians," people who prize above all material creations, and ways of organizing our lives, which we can master and measure, thus deluding ourselves into thinking that we can create a world stable and regular and predictable enough that life can become a kind of technology, "in which all uncertainties are removed...[and] from which mystery has been banished" (pp. 52-53). Along the way of working out these preliminary ideas, Mark makes numerous provocative, challenging claims, many of which border on what most modern Americans--particularly mainstream American conservatives--would probably consider greatly lacking in patriotism or practicality. For example, he rightly rails against the planned obsolescence of so much contemporary production, and the way it makes us--and the material and productive conditions of our lives--complicit in a way of seeing existence as merely a disposable treadmill: "We work to have disposable income so we can purchase goods to consume...Consumption has become a patriotic duty" (p. 51). And he denounces the easy abuse of the notion of community, insisting that it makes no sense outside of shared space where there are actual, tangible human interactions: "The very notion of a national community is stretching the idea of community beyond recognizable limits. There is no American community. There can never be" (p. 66). All of these and more could give rise to long and thoughtful arguments, and on some of them I'd be on Mark's side, while on others I'd take the opposite view (I think there is some actual sense the idea of "national community," for example). But overall, he expresses his philosophically "conservative" (not to mention romantic) attitude here persuasively and wisely. The modern capitalist obsession with growth and accomplishment, with safety and non-interference, and with surveillance and mastery and materiality, really all are connected in our lives with a refusal to accept responsibility and recognize our dependence on something other than ourselves.
In terms of putting some fleshing out the implications of his preferences for a culture characterized by greater humbleness and gratitude, Mark addresses politics, economics, the environment, the family, and education. Here, while the strong and passionate insights continue, I think his attempt to knit them together into a new political alternative to contemporary American liberalism and conservatism falters somewhat. This is no fault of Mark's arguments, which remain compelling even when I disagreed with them (and as someone whose localism and communitarianism is more left-leaning than his, the number of my disagreements mounted as I went along). It is, rather, a matter of the missing, common thread through his arguments, one which cannot possibly be supplied by mere political and philosophical argument.
Consider how his argument in the chapter on politics develops. Here his guiding light is Tocqueville, and his prescient observations about how self-government and democracy give rise to demands for equality, and how that demand will likely result in greater centralization, as people look for systems of government and economy capable of ensuring equal treatment across borders. Mark correctly observes that the real problem which Tocqueville's observations lead us to confront is the fact that perfect equality is impossible, at least so long as technology fails to completely overcome nature (which is the heart, as he sees it, of the technological scientistic project), and hence that when the desire for equality runs up against such natural differences, "vast energy will be expended to alleviate the incongruity," which obviously points towards the creation of a vast regulatory state (p. 85). I respect Mark for reluctantly acknowledging that America's federal arrangement was probably fated, "right from the beginning," to move power away from the states and towards the national government (p. 94), and his subsequent recommendation that the 17th Amendment--which provided for the direct election of senators--be reconsidered has merit. But in the end, as part of his consideration of subsidiarity, he confess that "a metaphysical account of human nature and human society is necessary for sustaining the independence of various spheres of authority" and that "the revitalization of religious belief may be a necessary long-term solution to the problem of centralization" (pp. 97-98). And while Mark's book never turns to outright proselytism, this becomes a recurring theme throughout the rest of the book: a politics of gratitude will likely be impossible until the American people return to taking as a baseline the fact that they are divinely created beings with a need to be grateful for their lives and livelihoods.
Now there is nothing wrong with this connection of religion and political reflection; Tocqueville, among others, does this expertly. But if it is to be done persuasively in our pluralistic, democratic, and individualistic society, it should not, I think, be so entwined with a specific worldview, as it is in this book, whether Mark intended to communicate that worldview or not. But communicate it he did: religious humility and gratitude, for Mark, is the obvious concomitant of an agrarian, land-center economy, and outside of that kind of economic environment, the rational appeal of religious faith and the persuasiveness of our need for such a revival is simply not much there. Though Mark insists that "many of the virtues" he praises can be "encouraged by owning a small business," he gives no convincing examples of how that might be so (p. 120). His discussion of neighborliness makes reference to barn raising (p. 122); his discussion of the natural world becomes most impassioned when talking about growing a garden (pp. 147-148); his discussion of the family revolves around personal examples of families escaping technological tools and engaging themselves with the land (pp. 164-166). Again and again, the grateful sensibility he urges upon his readers is connected to turning towards a more rural, more agricultural, less specialized and complex, more earthy and religious way of life. I do not point this out by way of criticism; as one who grew up around the business of agriculture (milking cows by hand) and who emphasizes as much involvement with the earth as my location permits (planting a large garden every spring), I completely agree with Mark here. I like this worldview. And indeed, his conviction that God in involved in the natural work concomitant with this kind of life-world gives his argument for humility and gratitude real depth. When he talks disparagingly of the limited freedom of "citizens without property, that is, citizens who work for a wage" (p. 124); when he talks sadly about how the artificial lights of the urban settings robs us of the inspiring and humbling power of the night sky and replaces it with "hurbis" (pp. 140-141); when he suggests that we have gotten too far away from sustaining handcrafts have become "too dependent on purchased goods" (p. 161)--all of it reflects a holistic vision of and context for his alternative politics, one that is summed up well in the following passages:
When we step back from all this, it seems clear that the life of the industrial family is a life tending toward self-absorbed consumption, and as such, is a life characterized by ingratitude. It is a life of unbounded appetites in which the propriety of scale has been lost....The first and most obvious step is to recover an orientation toward something above and beyond the self. An awareness and acknowledgment of God's providence reminds us simultaneously of our creatureliness along with the debts of gratitude we owe for our very lives and the good things we encounter each day, from the food we eat to the love we share and the beauty of the first tulips of the spring....
I have already spoken of gardens, and at the risk of belaboring an obvious point, I will return again to the backyard. Not so long ago, many Americans kept large gardens and dependent on them for a significant proportion of their food. They ate what they could and preserved the rest. They kept fruit trees and livestock even if they didn't live on a farm....Today, less than 1 percent of Americans live on farms, and suburbs are more notable for their wide swaths of yard than fruit trees, vegetable gardens, and chickens. But is not simply the absence of these that is a problem, for even if the homeowners associations stepped out of the picture, many Americans lack both the desire and the skills necessary to construct a viable garden....
The skill needed to produce the food is matched by the skill necessary to prepare it well. eating fast food on the run in the solitude of an automobile or before the glaring eye of the television teaches us to feed like animals rather than to dine like human beings. When we eat at a table together, when the food has been prepared with care and skill, when attention is paid to the setting and to the presentation of the food, the occasion is dignified in a way that the solitary or rushed consumption of calories never can be....If the family meal represents the culmination of many themes we have discussed, perhaps the saying of grace prior to the meal encapsulates, in the fullest way, the thrust of all I have been trying to express. When we say a prayers of thanksgiving to God as we sit around the table laden with food, as a family joins hands, bows together, and takes a moment to return thanks, they are acknowledging their creatureliness....As a family says grace around the table, there is an exclusive element, for the whole world cannot fit around that table....A family meal is necessarily located some place, and when that place is known and loved by those joined in prayer, gratitude, and feasting, it is enriched and becomes a home. (pp. 166-167, 169, 171-172)
That is a beautiful and powerful picture, one worthy of one of Mark's heroes, the agrarian writer Wendell Berry. But what it does not do is sketch out an alternative "conservative" political language which could move our modernized, pluralistic society away from an over-reliance upon individualism and towards a different kind of politics. Rather, it is a call for an alternative way of living, a return to a context where politics occupied an entirely different space in our lives--a less important, more participatory, more republican one. With his obvious sympathy for the ideas of Jefferson and Tocqueville, Mark is clearly moved by republicanism, especially in its classic form as a recipe for polities which were small, land-based, agrarian, and religiously (or at least morally) homogenous. But if that was his aim in this book of political theory, one which was obviously addressed to the America which presently exists, then the development of a better language of politics needs to wrestle with the applicability of republicanism and conservatism to our current moment, and there is not much evidence in this book that Mark is actually interested in addressing the arguments of Benjamin Barber, Richard Dagger, Philip Pettit, Michael Walzer, or really any other contemporary republican theorist (though he does briefly touch on the ideas of both Rousseau and Hannah Arendt). In short, this book, lacking an applicable comprehensive political theory, but containing instead a host of powerful and evocative arguments on behalf of a constellation of alternative "conservative" positions--mostly united through an emphasis on a return of farming and God--is really more about exploring and advocating on behalf an alternative attitude and lifestyle, rather than providing real, plausible answers to our contemporary ideological stalemates. The language of gratitude alone cannot create or sustain the agricultural or pious conditions by which its rightness will be understood; on the contrary, it is by being pulled by the power of Mark's language into a greater involvement with God or gardening that the rightness of Mark's points about gratitude become likely to be acknowledged.
Let me reiterate that, while Mark's many specific suggests and excellent arguments may not quite add up to the theoretical critique of modern individualism which contemporary America needs, that hardly makes the book a failure. On the contrary, it is a wonderful book, one that I'd love the opportunity to argue with Mark about at greater length (around a pleasant dinner table, especially!). To go back to Wendell Berry, note that this powerful writer has never imagined any of his many essays to amount to a "politics" of anything; he is a critic, and that is what this book should be taken as: a fine work of counter-culture "conservative" criticism, attacking the way we think about food and family and sexuality and technology and most of all the God and the land on which he thinks (and I mostly agree) we depend. Rod Dreher, the author of the counter-culture conservative manifesto which lays in the immediate background of all that Mark has accomplished through Front Porch Republic, called this book "plainspoken," and I agree. Mark here demonstrates his facility with political ideas--but ultimately his aim is to witness on behalf of an alternative way of life, not persuasively argue the American reading public away from our liberal theory of politics and towards another, more republican and local one. Take seriously the kind of life Mark advocates, and perhaps the theoretical problems will take care of themselves.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 6:43 AM
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
Saturday, April 13, 2013
We got the lettuce and spinach in this week, just dodging a mid-April storm that dumped freezing rain all over Wichita. Mostly though, things outside are looking fine, and ready to grow. Kristen and I are reading The Secret Garden together, and yesterday we all went on a family walk to a local nature park. Time for one of my old favorites--this time, from Dave Mallett, the original composer himself:
Thursday, April 11, 2013
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
Via LGM. I hope it doesn't say anything creepy about me to admit that this exchange about paganism and penises only makes me admire Cynthia Ozick and Norman Mailer even more.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 9:24 AM
Monday, April 08, 2013
[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]
Rod Dreher's 2006 manifesto, Crunchy Cons, was an inspiration (and provocation) to many, on both the left and the right. It wasn't that the book was a tremendous intellectual break-through or an entirely new set of philosophical arguments about public life; on the contrary, it was, in the best conservative sense, an act of recovery, of putting contemporary names to and highlighting contemporary examples of sensibilities and examples--ones that favored local production, natural lifestyles, personal craftsmanship, agrarian communities, and political humility--which had a long history and which had long been pushed to the sidelines by the dominant "conservative" discourse in this country. As rarely as I agreed with Dreher on specific political matters, the topics he focused on were ones that I felt great sympathy for; hence, I found myself drawn into his intellectual orbit, and I've been following his writings ever since.
Now, Dreher has a new book out, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. It's a wonderful bit of writing--part biography (of his younger sister Ruthie, who died cancer in 2011), part memoir (of his own relationship with Ruthie and with their parents and with the tiny town they both grew up in--Starhill, near St. Francisville, in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana--from which he left and she remained), and part reflective essay on the mysteries of the ties we feel--and sometimes embrace, and sometimes reject, for reasons both good and bad--between our family, our friends, and the places where we all live. I read it a rush, beginning it last Friday, finishing it on Sunday. I was drawn into this wonderfully readable work in part by the author's voice, of course; Dreher is a fine writer (if neither the most literary nor the most scholarly; the man is a journalist first and foremost), and the observations he makes of our mores and motivations are usually interesting, and often wise. But more, I was drawn into the sad and ultimately quite spiritual story he told. Dreher was blessed by his history with, and his love for, his sister Ruthie, and in this book he shares that blessing with all of us.
As with any book at least that is at least partly essay--that being the most subjective of genres--the message or feeling which will be carried away from the book after a reader turns its final page will vary greatly. For myself, I was struck, first of all, by how very Christian the story is, and how very Christian many of its characters and their motivations are. Of course, anyone who is familiar with Dreher's writings are aware how important his own religious struggles to his life story have been, but I was fascinated to see how much of this is truly essential to his character. As the story he tells relays it, he is a man who receives impressions, and who discerns meaning in iconic images and dreams. And it's not just him; other people he describes are sensitive to portents, or burst forth with great sermons, or display amazing spiritual gifts. I don't mean to suggest that Dreher's portrayal of himself or any number of the other wonderful characters he describes in the book is simply mystical; on the contrary, there is a lot of doubt and despair in this book as well. Still, a Christian spirituality--of suffering and sacrifice, of charity and forgiveness--suffuses the whole work. If anything, I suspect Dreher would probably point to the influence of his sister's example on his faith life, and how her simple faith, and the way her struggle with cancer threw that simple faith into a sharp relief for all to see (a constant refrain in the book is how serene and hopeful Ruthie is in the face of her devastating illness), thereby casting the thoughts of everyone who knew her--not just Dreher, but really, their whole extended family and large portions of the communities of Starhill and St. Francisville--back onto the spiritual longings which many would insist are inextricably connected (whether they are consciously recognized or not) with being human. If that seems like a profound, weighty insight to derive from the happy life and tragic death of a 42-year-old public school teacher, well, you'd have to know Ruthie.
And that is my second primary observation about the book: Dreher does a fantastic job bringing to life a person who he explicitly calls a kind of saint (though, as he also clarifies, "not a goody-goody"). Ruthie Leming was one of those essentially decent people, someone with great reservoirs of generosity and enthusiasm and kindness. As a resident of Starhill, she was reliable source of compassion and fun; as a school teacher, she was devoted and patient instructor and counselor and an inspiration to her students. Most of all, to her family and friends, she was a light--always someone willing to take the time to talk, to laugh, to dance, to gently poke fun, to pitch in and volunteer and serve. The incidents that Dreher meticulously records in this book add up; even if there is--as there likely has to be--some element of exaggeration and selectivity at work, one can't come away from this book without deeply wishing that we, too, could have know his Ruthie, and enjoyed her meals and joined in her outings and sent our children to her classroom to be taught by her. (The way old students and colleagues of hers reached out from great distances--California, Minnesota, Texas, and more--to be part of effort to support her struggle, and to mourn her after her death, is a tremendous testimony to the grace and infectious joy of her life.) And this goes for the communities of Starhill and St. Francisville as well. This book isn't a demographic study of West Feliciana Parish, and so while Dreher does refer occasionally to the poverty, drug abuse, and marital dysfunction and discord to be found throughout their communities, he obviously emphasizes the positive elements of this--by all accounts--gorgeous and culturally rich backwater corner of the American south: the Cajun food, the music, the relative lack of crime, the social trust in times of emergency, the beautiful flora, the crazy personalities, the long and happy memories. Whatever he may have elided in painting this picture, what's important is that Dreher convincing shows himself as recognizing--and convinces his readers (or convinced this reader, at least) to similarly recognize--that it was, to a great extent, through the faith and grace and good works of his loving sister, and so many other uncomplicated souls like her, that all these positive attributes were there to be enjoyed. The unity between Ruthie and her neighbors and little beloved place in the South becomes, through Dreher's words, total--and totally believable.
Of course, no life is without conflict, and no decent memoir is either. So Dreher casts himself from the beginning of the book as Ruthie's polar opposite: indoorsy and intellectual and inquisitive and impatient, contrasted to her nature-loving simplicity and acceptance and long-suffering--the "city mouse" to her "country mouse." To a great extent, Ruthie becomes, through Dreher's prose, a kind of avatar for all the good things in Starhill which the unhappy, bookish, open-minded author fled as a teen-ager as soon as he was able, failed in trying to reconcile himself to as a young man, and then, once again, in the wake of his sister's death, was finally able to embrace in all their complexity. And they are complex--Dreher doesn't sugar-coat the fact that his loving sister could be capable of a great narrow-mindedness and rudeness against those who she judged to have embraced an ostentatious way of life (the story of Dreher and his wife Julie visiting from New York City, their first time there as a married couple, and cooking a bouillabaisse for a big holiday dinner, only to have Ruthie and his whole extended family completely reject it, is an outrageous example, but not the only one). Her lack of curiosity--which simultaneously prevented her from ever over-thinking a situation (which Dreher admits several times is his greatest fault) and enabled her to response quickly and positively and without prejudice to any person's difficult situation--could take the form of a terrible lack of creativity and stubbornness (she refused to see a new doctor about the painful cough she'd had for months, and which her old doctor continued to routinely describe as asthma--though, in fairness, when she was finally diagnosed multiple doctors testified that catching the disease earlier probably wouldn't have made any difference). The greatest complexity comes after Ruthie's death, when Dreher discovers, through conversations with his father and nieces, just how much various regrets and resentments had played out, beneath the surface, through multiple generations of the Dreher (and now Leming) families. In the face of all that, Dreher and Julie, taking their inspiration from St. Benedict, resolve that the time had come for them to practice a hard virtue: stability, and accept the complications, and accept that their emotional experiences through Ruthie's struggle and death were calling them to make a home where she had. In this long passage, Dreher reflects on what is, to my mind, the key to his insight:
I once asked Paw why, given that he was feeling sick that day, he was planning to go to the funeral of an old woman he didn't know well.
"Respect," he said to me, slightly annoyed that he had to explain the obvious. "That family has lived around here for a long time."
It's hard to know these things, much less find the wherewithal to behave this way, if you haven't lived in a place for years and come to make its stories part of yourself. Absence has consequences....
Those of who have moved away are not necessarily callow and ungrateful people. We live in a time and place in which are conditioned to leave our hometowns. Our schools tell our young people to follow their professional bliss, where it takes them. Our economy rewards companies and people who have no loyalty to place. The stories that shape the moral imagination of our young, chiefly by film and television, are told by outsiders who were dissatisfied and lit out for elsewhere to find happiness and good fortune.
During the decade leading up to Ruthie's death, I had spent my professional life writing newspaper columns, blog posts, and even a book, lamenting the loss of community and traditions in American life. I had a reputation as a pop theoretician of cultural decline, but in truth I was long on words, short on deeds. I did not like the fact I saw my Louisiana family only three times a year, for a week at a time, if we were lucky. But that was the way of the world, right? Almost everyone I knew was in the same position. My friends and I talked a lot about the fragmentation of the modern family, about the deracinating effects of late capitalism, about mass media and the erosion of localist consciousness, about the consumerization of religion and leviathan state and every other thin under the sun that undermines our sense of home and permanence.
The one thing none of us did was what Ruthie did: stay....
I knew St. Francisville's shortcomings...But Ruthie transfigured this town in my eyes. Her suffering and death made me see the good that I couldn't see before. The same communal bonds that appeared to me as chains all those years ago had become my Louisiana family's lifelines. What I once say through the melodramatic eyes of a teenager as prison bars were in fact the pillars that held my family up when it had no strength left to stand.
We're leaning, but we're leaning on each other. (pp. 208-210)
The cynic will respond, of course, that not everyone torn over the conflict between professional advancement and family togetherness, or between personal growth and community connection, will be graced with the kind of spiritual conviction--in this case, one that came by way of participating in a kind of religious passion, as the suffering and death of a beloved family member and friend made manifest the better part of belonging--which the Drehers experienced over which way they should go. But such a cynic would be trying too hard. Drerher--at least to those readers who know him well--recognizes that he's not instinctively a content communitarian (he loves his travel and his technology much too much for that), and can't honestly wish to turn everyone into such; indeed, he makes it explicit in this book that he thinks there are seasons to every person's life, and that coming and staying both have their place. All he intends to do here is witness (with all the important that word conveys) that he, through Ruthie--a sister he loved and tried mightily to understand and loved anyway, even in his failure to fully do so--was able to see the season before him, the season to take his family home to a community and web of family and traditions that gave his life an authenticity and meaning that they needed. That witness, in my view, comes through strongly and well.
Is it a perfect book? Probably not. All questions about narrative choices aside, I would have liked to have heard more from Dreher's wife Julie, and how she experienced this profound realization in their lives. He does quote her occasionally, but I wanted more; Julie is, as it comes out in the book, a child of perfectly conventional middle-class Dallas suburbs, and her perspective on the environment, the traditions, and the protective, somewhat insular communities of West Feliciana Parish, might have made a nice touch. And, given my own interests, I'm also sorry there isn't more politics in the book. There are, to be sure, a couple of references to political and economic arguments, but they obviously weren't relevant to this very intimate, family story (though I suspect, on the basis of the occasional aside in the book, that at least one element of the long-standing--but never directly expressed--tension between Dreher and his sister was the way his highly intellectual, somewhat elite, and very contrarian conservatism--opposed to the Iraq war, wary of public institutions, intensely focused on the moral health of America--may have clashed with her and his extended family's no doubt much more conventional, populist, and evangelical views). Finally, Mike Leming, Ruthie's husband, despite the Dreher's best efforts, remains a bit of an enigma; I feel like, as a reader, I see their daughters and their feelings--particularly that of their oldest, Hannah, with whom Dreher has developed a tight bond--more clearly than we see his. But Mike Leming is presented from the beginning as a very quiet, introspective, private man, so perhaps this simply couldn't be helped, and we should be grateful that he opened up to Dreher as much as he did.
My final word on this fine book is simply this: it is the best story about home, family, and community I have read in a long, long time. When I next teach my "Simplicity and Sustainability" class (next fall), I'm going to present it alongside other memoirs like The Dirty Life or Better Off, not mention classics like Walden, as a way to help my students understand that these "little ways"--ways of tradition and connection--really are available and out there, and aren't just romantic dreams. I can't (and wouldn't want to!) create in my students' hearts the kind of spiritual anguish which powers Dreher's book, but I can, I hope, suggest to them that his realization, whatever one may think of it, is not an exclusive one. On the contrary, little towns with their own Ruthies are out there, and perhaps are, in fact, right in front of our eyes. Most of all, I appreciate very much Rod Dreher sharing with all of us, how he came, at this particular moment in time, to see what was there to see. May we all, in our own places, do a little bit of the same.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 10:11 PM
[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]
From what I can tell, most businesses, once they get to a certain size, cannot avoid be lured into the American conviction that you must expand or die. And, of course, the primary ways to expand is to manipulate consumers through misleading advertising, all to increase one's market share; or to outsources one's operations to other, cheaper parts of the globe, where wages (and safety conditions and labor protections) are so much more minimal; or to get oneself bought out by some larger--preferably multinational--conglomerate, so as to benefit from increased economies of scale. All of that is pretty much standard...so much so that it's rather amazing to discover a big, $100 million a year company, which takes the opposite route. This article spells out seven examples of Jiffy's civic-mindedness; #5 is my favorite:
When I commented on [Jiffy CEO Howdy] Holmes' decision not to sell off even part of his multi-million dollar company, he said "What would I do if I sold-out? Spend my life vacationing somewhere?!" The CEO of Jiffy has the right attitude. Our occupations, in balance with our relationships, give our lives meaning. To work a job just for money or to escape from community and family responsibilities is shallow at best. A visiting reporter from Fortune magazine described Jiffy mix as "a decidedly chipper workplace, with friendly employees who seem to be genuinely enjoying their jobs. They greet Holmes warmly, he appears to know virtually all of them by name, and none of it feels phony."
One of the saddest trends in American culture today is the growing disconnect between making money and producing value. Many of our best and brightest minds shuffle paper and money for financial institutions to earn big salaries, while the real creators of wealth — bakers, builders, farmers, inventors, teachers, designers, and doctors are loaded down by debt. Jiffy mix is a welcome trend-breaker. According to CEO Holmes, "Our staff puts more emphasis on internal and external relationships than we do on completing tasks. This is very different from most companies ... Our dedication to strong family business values, combined with real world professionalism has us uniquely situated for the 21st Century."
Confession: I don't believe Melissa and I have ever bought a Jiffy product. When we make biscuits or muffins or what have you, we mostly make them from scratch. It will be claimed, with much justice, that Jiffy is able to be what it is because it fully embraces, and benefits from, a mass-market ideology and style of dumbed-down cooking and eating as old as the postwar flight to the suburbs. To which I can only respond 1) yes, that's right, and 2) if I had to choose between a thoroughly late-1940s-style corporation, one that contented itself with a stable workplace and a supportive community while producing an honest product, and one which, on the other hand, completely embraced the high finance and out-sourcing stratagems of 21st-century capitalism, and while so doing was able to provide me with slightly better quality blueberries in my muffin mix....I'd still choose the former. Anyway, as the kids used to say back when the internet was young, read the whole thing.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 9:43 PM
For those of us of a certain age, and a certain political sensibility, this is the way we'll remember the Iron Lady.
Requiescat in pace, Margaret Thatcher, one of the towering political figures of my youth. The Cold War wouldn't have been the same--indeed, perhaps wouldn't have ended the same--without you.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 7:08 AM