As with movies, I'm doubling my total from last year, and going for a proper top ten. Again, in alphabetical order:
All That is Solid Melts Into Air. This was the best, most intellectually engaging and even inspiring work of scholarship I read all year. Something of a classic amongst those working the various underplayed connections between Marxism, modernity, and urban studies, Marshall Berman (check out this fine tribute to and discussion about him on Crooked Timber) wrote a fascinating book, which works through a wide range of philosophical, political, and cultural arguments about the modern condition by way of looking at how great cities around the world (Paris, New York City, etc.) changed over the 19th and 20th centuries, and at how great writers like Marx and Baudelaire described them. It completely changed the way I thought about my mid-sized cities research project, hopefully for the better.
Anathem. An utterly fascinating--though not, I think, truly compelling; I slowly worked through this massive tome over a year's time, and actually don't think I really missed much--science fiction work, and probably the most total work of imagination I've ever read, quite possibly surpassing such acts of world-creation given us by J.R.R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert. Those authors gave us cultures, languages, histories; but here, Neal Stephenson actually gives us new patterns of thought, new systems of philosophy. And I don't mean "oh, look, I've invented new gods my characters worship," but rather whole new ways of, say, thinking about existence or just doing math. The fact that none of those things are really new, but rather are ones we all already know, just hidden in plain sight, is icing on the intellectual cake.
Blessed Among Nations. A work of economic, political, and military history focused on America from the mid-19th century on, this really isn't within my scholarly area of expertise at all. I've owned a copy for years, though, and finally had an excuse to read it this year as part of a class I taught on America's diplomatic history. For me, a layman when it comes to these matters, the book was a brilliant revelation, introducing a way of thinking about how the United States was financially enabled to "accidentally" become an empire that I've never considered before. In giving me a new (if rather controversial) historical lens, various pathologies that plague our political system (our incoherent yet entrenched commitment to both centralization and decentralization, most particularly) were revealed to me in a new light.
The Crucible of Doubt. It has been a very, very long time since I've read a devotional book published by the Deseret Book, the quasi-official publishing arm of my own church, and found it any more than "fine." But this book by Terryl and Fiona Givens is much more than fine; it is--as I have argued at length--a wonderfully, however unintentionally, firm and pious defense of the need for Christian believers (even in a rather authoritarian church like my own) to seek and find their own sources of spiritual fulfillment, to become comfortable of one's own and tolerant of others' doubts, to become, in other words, liberal in the most fundamental sense of the word. I found it inspiring, and genuinely helpful as I think about myself as a believer, father, and lay leader in my church, and for that I am grateful.
The Five Books of Moses. This is another one that I've blogged about (twice, actually), and really I can't say enough good about it. The Old Testament has stood as a reproach to me for over a quarter-century; I've read every other bit of canonical scripture that my church holds to multiple times, but getting all the way through the OT as a singular textual production has long defeated me. But thanks to Robert Alter's translations, this year (well, assuming I actually finish this year!) I'm going to get it done. Alter's ability to bring to life--but not be methodologically imprisoned by--the documentary's hypothesis's evidence about the different narrative traditions which produced Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy made the mysteries and distant meanings of the Five Books of Moses real to me, and a great read.
Home. Marilynne Robinson continues her saga of mid-20th-century Midwestern American white Protestantism; Gilead was on my list last year, and maybe Lila will be on it next. This book is every bit as slow a read as Gilead was; in fact, even slower, because the exquisite (but not immediately revealed) unity between the prose of Gilead's narrator and the story he tells isn't available here. But the language remains beautiful, and the story told in Home is worthy of that beauty. Plot points in this sad story of prodigality and failed (or was it?) forgiveness echo stories from both the Old and New Testaments, and, along the way, the banal dynamics of piety and family life are revealed with such studied compassion that utterly ordinary (even sometimes rather pathetic) declarations and revelations are made luminous.
The Quiet American. One of those novels that you think everyone is supposed to read in high school or their freshman composition class in college, but which passed me by. My mistake. I'd seen film versions of this book, but never read it, and reading it was a great surprise nonetheless, if only on a meta-level. I was struck by how clear-eyed Graham Greene was in estimating where his readers would be in reacting to his story, thus accounting for why he felt comfortable cutting the narrative down to the absolute bone. I never felt like any of the characters were under-developed, despite the brevity in how they were sketched out, because the language of Greene had me thinking that he was counting on me (correctly!) to be able to fill in the gaps, while he got on with the actual story. And as for the actual story itself, the moral darkness and perplexity of the story of Fowler, Pyle, and Phuong resonates six decades after its writing, which is the greatest tribute you could give to any book anyway.
Till We Have Faces. A strange and terrifically powerful fantasy, far more mature and "realistic" in its consideration of the power and depth of ordinary harms and misjudgements than anything I've ever read by Lewis. I didn't care of its ending, but everything up until that final twist--particular the penultimate twist which comes before it!--is simply superb. A re-telling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, this novel brought to life--through the tremendous lead character and narrator Orual, Psyche's older sister--all sorts of provocative and sobering ideas about the burdens born by women in a sexist society, about the way in which even harmful myths can give hope, and about our own ability to re-write our histories and, thus, ourselves, for better or worse.
Seeking the Promised Land. Another scholarly book which is outside my primary area of expertise, but in this case because of its methodology--this is a heavily quantitative work, and I'm definitely not a quant guy. But it really is a finely written book, such that the authors many intriguing discoveries about the political history, preferences, and expectations of American Mormons like myself--as revealed through exhaustive and careful survey and anecdotal research--came through loud and clear. As someone who sees himself very much as a part of, but also an outlier amongst, this religious community, and who tends to engage in plenty of (too often ill-informed, I'm sure) speculation about it, this book was an excellent corrective and resource.
Way Below the Angels. This is the third Mormon-related book on my list, and I'm not sure how I feel about that; obviously, being a lay leader in my congregation and quasi-public-intellectual within the church's online intellectual world occupies a lot of my time and thought, but I thought I was more widely read than that. Still, you've got to honor great writing when it strikes you, and Harline's funny and thoughtful memoir of his experiences as a Mormon missionary nearly four decades ago struck me deep and hard. I loved reading about the young Harline's experiences in Belgium (a place I've never visited and know next to nothing about), and I loved even more the wisdom, generosity, perspective, and forgiveness that today's Harline was able, through this book, to grant to himself. I hope I can do the same for myself, someday.
Runners-up: Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter (a thoughtful, if incomplete, history of Jimmy Carter's underappreciated presidency and his unintended role in the transformation of American Protestantism) and City and Regime in the American Republic (an unevenly written but nonetheless eye-opening study of city politics in light of American history and communitarian/civic republican philosophy).
Wednesday, December 31, 2014
As with movies, I'm doubling my total from last year, and going for a proper top ten. Again, in alphabetical order:
Tuesday, December 30, 2014
I'm doubling the number from last year, and doing a proper top 10. As before, this isn't my favorite 10 films from 2014, but rather the 10 best movies, from whatever year, amongst all the films that I happened to see in 2014. So, in alphabetical order:
All is Lost. A fantastic movie, primarily because of the control which the film's makers and its star, Robert Redford, showed in its production. There were many points along the way of telling this story of an old and experienced sailor who, through a series of perfectly ordinary accidents, faces his death alone at sea, when the dialogue (of which there was almost none) or cinematography or editing could have led the viewers into easy sentimentality. But it never did. The film shows that the power of a single life story needn't depend upon some fake triumph over nature, but just a meeting of it, head on.
Annie. I honestly have no idea where all the reviewers are coming from when it comes to this very fine movie musical. Personally, I found nearly all the updated and reworked musical numbers a delight ("Little Girls" and "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" were perhaps the only ones which weren't quite equal to the source material), and the new numbers were well-performed and heartfelt. Is it a profound work of art? No, not really. But is it a charming, well-staged, often hilarious musical, with a sentiment worth treasuring? Absolutely.
At Close Range. A crime thriller from the 1980s which I'd missed, and which clarified my memory of why Sean Penn developed such an astonishing reputation so quickly, and why Christopher Walken's screen presence was recognized, into the 1990s, as both terrifying and weirdly unique. A fine, taut, and rather unconventional story of criminality and violence and its costs, set in rural Pennsylvania in the 1970s, and featuring simple but powerful turns by Mary Stuart Masterson as a good teen-age girl who wants to be dangerous, and Crispin Glover as a doomed kid struggling with his own sexuality.
Don Jon. One of those strange movies that works far better than it should have. It's not a romantic comedy, though its beats basically follow that convention; it's not a personal drama, though the characters played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Juliana Moore--both damaged people, one who is aware of it, and one who isn't--certainly fit those stereotypes. Mostly, it's a wonderfully offbeat comedy of manners, with small but sharp performances by every bit player surrounding the action, and of course a truly audacious central conceit: the ultimately debasing role of pornography (in all its forms!) in human relationships.
The Fighter. I won't lie: when this moving wound its way to its foreordained conclusion, and the final punches in the climactic title boxing batch were thrown, I was pumping my first in the air and bouncing in my seat with excitement. Which just goes to show: when you've got a solid story, a smart script, talented actors capable of working in both subtle and defiant modes, and a skilled director pulling the whole thing together, even the most hackneyed and overdone of topics (imagine everyone: it's an underdog boxing movie!) can still work brilliantly well. The telling of the story matters at least as much as the story itself.
Guardians of the Galaxy. Yes, I'm a comics geek, and was already in the tank for this adaption years before it hit the screens. And yes, I've long confessed my love for Rocket Raccoon, even though this film didn't give me the Rocket that I loved from the comic books I read decades ago. But so what? Leaving aside all of that, this film delivered the Marvel magic that we geeks have come to delight in, and it did it with a abundance of humor and--as far as I'm concerned, anyway--an absolute killer soundtrack. I loved it, and I say that even as I regret that they didn't give Cosmo the Space Dog any lines.
Lars and the Real Girl . I thought I knew everything about this movie--which is really a mash-up of one of those Oscar-bait films about mental illness and an episode of Prairie Home Companion--but I was wrong. I wasn't prepared for the honesty and fairness with which they treated everyone around Lars; its story of a town rallying to support a damaged young man in his doomed passion for an artificial sex doll never descended into "cute." By the end of this film, I was weeping with the hope that I could be as giving and decent as the people around Lars.
Ninotchka. Back at the start of the summer, inspired by the fact that 1939 is often referred to by film historians as "Hollywood's Golden Year," I decided to watch and rewatch some of the great (or supposedly great) movies released that year. Some didn't hold up, while some did. But the real discovery was this movie, an absolutely charming and dead smart--no matter how stagey by our cinematic standards--romantic comedy and political farce. I've recognized Ernst Lubitsch's genius before, but truly, my hat is off to the man's memory: he had me laughing at and caring for fictional people from 75 years ago, and that's no mean feat.
Slap Shot. I honestly have no idea how I could have missed this movie for so long. A rough-housing and vulgar comedy from the late 1970s, it's got everything anyone interested in tales from and about the end of the American Dream for the white American male could want: plant closings, feminism, gay panic, class divides, outsourcing, college kids leaving home, the changing face of American mass democracy, etc. A film with real trenchant wisdom, hidden behind ugly cars, goofball antics, and Paul Newman's always sad and knowing smirk.
12 Years a Slave. The real power of this devastating story of an early 19th-century free black man, kidnapped and sold into slavery, is not in the slaves themselves, but in the meticulous, horrifying way in which the actions of those entwined in the slave trade are presented. Religion, sexuality, education, work, marriage, and much more in the antebellum South is presented in all its warped variety through the slave traders and owners that Solomon Northup (played with a perfect balance of passion and dignity by Chiwetel Ejiofor) interacted with. The film was an education, and a terrifying and beautiful one at that.
Runners up: The Lego Movie (a delightful romp, with a twist at the end that I, at least, found genuinely surprisingly), and Maleficent (a terrific, and honestly moving, gender-inverted fairy tale).
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 10:42 AM
Monday, December 29, 2014
[Cross-posted to Political Context]
Every since President Obama announced that the U.S. would relax its travel and economic restrictions on and open up normal diplomatic relations with Cuba, the predictable people have been making the predictable denunciations, while the American people have seemed pretty clearly able to recognize--at least this once!--a pointless policy leftover from the Cold War for various partisan reasons when they see one. But the most interesting reactions I've heard have been those which have come from students and faculty I know here at Friends University, several of whom have been able, through our jazz and pre-med programs, to visit Cuba in recent years. Nearly all the comments that I've heard and read from them--everyone of which was otherwise supportive of the change in policy--included some statement along the lines of: "I'm grateful I was able to visit Cuba before it becomes commercialized." That is, opening up American markets to Cuba is going to bring to Cuban society American economic opportunities, and their many consequences--and these folks were happy to have been able to see the place before that happens.
I really don't think you can reduce that sentiment to some stereotypical liberal condescension towards the Cuban people and the "authentic" experience which visiting them and seeing their lives may offer to middle- and upper-class bourgeois Americans like myself. For one thing, the bare fact that Cuba really has, thanks to the double-whammy of the decades-long American embargo and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1989, been forced to build, over a period of 25 years, a genuinely home-grown and isolated alternative to global capitalism--and has had remarkable success in doing so--has been noted by many. Without pharmaceuticals from the United States, Cuba nonetheless achieved higher levels of life expectancy and lower levels of infant mortality than any other comparable country. Without wheat and beef from the Soviet Union, Cuba--well, let Bill McKibben explain, as he did at length in this article, and then again in his book Deep Economy:
What happened was simple, if unexpected. Cuba had learned to stop exporting sugar and instead started growing its own food again, growing it on small private farms and thousands of pocket-sized urban market gardens--and, lacking chemicals and fertilizers, much of that food became de facto organic. Somehow, the combination worked. Cubans have as much food as they did before the Soviet Union collapsed. They're still short of meat, and the milk supply remains a real problem, but their caloric intake has returned to normal--they've gotten that lost meal back.
In so doing they have created what may be the world's largest working model of a semi-sustainable agriculture, one that doesn't rely nearly as heavily as the rest of the world does on oil, on chemicals, on shipping vast quantities of food back and forth....Cuba has thousands of organoponicos--urban gardens--more than two hundred in the Havana area alone. The Vivera Organoponico Alamar is especially beautiful: a few acres of vegetables attached to a shady yard packed with potato plants for sale, birds in wicker cages, a cafeteria, and a small market where a steady stream of local people buys tomatoes, lettuce, oregano, and potatoes for their supper. (Twenty-five crops were listed on the blackboard the day I visited)....
What is happening at the Vivero Organoponico Alamar certainly isn't unfettered capitalism, but it's not exactly collective farming either. Mostly, it's productive: sixty-four people earn a reasonable living from this small site, and the surrounding neighbors get an awful lot of their food from its carefully tended rows. You see the same kind of production all over the city; every formerly vacant lot in Havana seems to be a small farm. The city grew three hundred thousands tons of food last year--nearly its entire vegetable supply, and more than a token amount of rice and meat, said Egidio Paez Medina, who oversees the organoponicos from a small office on a highway at the edge of town. "Tens of thousands of people are employed," he noted. "And they get good money, as much as a thousand pesos a month. When I'm done with this job I'm going to start farming myself--my pay will double" (pp. 73-75).
When I last taught my Simplicity and Sustainability class 18 months ago, we read what McKibben had to say about Cuba, and did some research on the organoponicos (like the one pictured above; see more information about them here and here). Urban farming has, of course, become a mainstay of conversations in the United States about building a more environmentally sustainable and decentralized (and therefore, hopefully, more egalitarian) economy, but what the Cuban experience teaches isn't simply about the possibility of an industrialized, urbanized, specialized modern society recovering genuinely popular--indeed, despite the fact that we're talking about a state with a tyrannical government, one might even be tempted to say "democratic"--control over its food supply. It is larger than that: it is the possibility that obtaining the basic resources sufficient for the maintenance of one's health and happiness (at least if one is thinking about doing so in an egalitarian context) might not depend upon, or perhaps even involve, economic growth. Rather, social equality and environmental sustainability might revolve around--at least in certain senses--developing a contentment with, well, poverty.
Not absolute poverty, obviously, or even--comparatively speaking--much serious deprivation. But nonetheless, yes: non-commercialized Cuba, through it's own resourcefulness, was able to produce many fine cultural and social goods, but none of those goods arose from economic luxury, or even plenty. This isn't surprising: in the overwhelming majority of capitalists societies today, the ability of a person to hold onto those goods necessary for a flourishing life involves at least some degree of economic increase: one must expand and transform and stretch one's productivity and desires and services in order to hold onto one's position in the economic flow of the marketplace. This principle thereby licenses all the multifaceted means by which we invest, advertise, leverage, diversify, monetize, and otherwise multiply that which we produce and that which we buy. It's an old (and, I think, socially blinkered, however historically accurate) classical liberal capitalist principle, expressed in a dozen different ways--creative destruction, rising tides, etc.--but always making the same claim: an economy which isn't expanding is an economy that is losing ground.
Well, Cuba--which was truly and profoundly isolated for more than a generation, and which faced hard limits in its ability of those who built it to engage in any kind of growth strategy--definitely lost ground. Yet within their partially-imposed-upon-them-by-necessity stagnation, they developed sustainable, "steady-state" alternatives. Part of this, surely, was an outgrowth of the socialist principles taught as Cuba's official state ideology, but the evidence of countries like Vietnam and China over the past 30 years is that state socialism is entirely capable of adapting itself to global trade and finance capitalism when it can be used to benefit party elites and pacify those who might threaten them. So there is strong reason to suspect that the degree to which Cuba reworked its collective strategies, its public ownership of property, and its economic planning so as to achieve the egalitarian distribution of, and at the same time relatively high levels of, education, health, and nutrition was, on the whole, made possible exactly because there genuinely weren't any economic rewards available to ambitious individual Cubans. The limits which enabled Cuba to become a leader is sustainable agriculture, environmental stewardship, and health care equality arose from a situation that almost no individual, given the choice, would wish upon themselves and their families, if it could be avoided.
And the truth is that, despite the apparently broad acceptance of socialist principles amongst the Cuban population, most probably could choose to avoid it, if only because the sort of training and socialization which made possible the construction and maintenance of a no-growth, egalitarian, relatively poor economy in this case would have led, in a different situation--and quite likely will lead, once the remaining political obstacles to diplomatic and economic openness are overcome--to individual specialization and thus market rewards. As McKibben observed:
Castro, as even his fiercest opponents would admit, has almost from the day he took power spent lavishly on the country's educational system. Cuba's ratio of teachers to students is akin to Sweden's; people who want to go to college go to college. Which turns out to be important, because farming, especially organic urban farming, is no simple task. You don't just tear down the fence around a vacant lot and hand someone a hoe, quoting him some Maoist couplet about the inevitable victory of the worker. The soil's no good at first; the bugs can't wait to attack. You need information to make a go of it. Cuba's semi-organic agriculture is at least as much an invention of science and technology as the high-input tractor farming it replaced (p. 76).
The people which enabled Cuba to achieve so much in its isolated, non-commercialized way are people who could easily be--and might yet become--highly paid botanists and chemical engineers and agronomists at Monsanto or some over corporation which has built its power over the contemporary global food system on exactly those scientific insights and accomplishments (industrial fertilizers, GMOs, etc.) which enabled the Green Revolution to perform its miraculous, both liberating and devastating work. In a world where people live in cities and live their lives as individuals (which is the common rule of all modernity, whether socialist or capitalist), one cannot escape the appeal of specialization and the rewards which breaking out and pursuing growth along one's own chosen path potentially offers. There are strong environmental and moral arguments for working collectively towards genuine egalitarianism and sustainability--even for working towards holding steadily on to one's goods without relying too much on community-undermining, fossil-fuel-power empowered expansion--but there is little evidence that those arguments are entirely persuasive absent some acceptance of (or some unavoidable necessity to work in the context of) outright economic limits. Or, in other words, at least some degree of poverty.
The more I've thought how whole communities or even just individuals like myself can live in alignment with socialist, localist, environmentally sustainable, generally egalitarian principles, the more often I've run up against the simple truth that wealth is--at the sort of extremes which modern market economies regularly both make possible and, to a degree, rely upon--a problem. Locavores and foodies of many different stripes all basically agree that if you want to really be certain about the quality and fairness of one's food supply, one is almost certainly going to have to eat less--less steak, less sugar, less of all sorts of expensive and/or imported foods which are available to us primarily because of complex, specialized, and usually exploitative systems which those in a position to profit from efficiency have built on our behalf. The same really goes for ever kind of finite material good--energy use, health care, and more. Perhaps (and this is the hardest question of all) the same even goes for socially constructive political goods as well. Cuba was hardly paradise; it was, and is, a terribly poor country, not to mention a tyranny. Living under that regime of imposed and internal limits enabled the construction of something which those with eyes to see recognized as something of a non-commercialized wonder. But would any of us on the left actually want to accept the realities which enabled that accomplishment? I'm doubtful. And that, perhaps, is something very sad indeed.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 9:51 AM
Saturday, December 27, 2014
Friday, December 26, 2014
[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]
A few months ago, I began reading the Old Testament, a book of scripture which I have never before been able to read all the way through (the closest I ever came was 25 years ago while on my mission in South Korea; reading from Joseph Smith's Inspired Version of the Bible, I made it all the way through Jeremiah, at which point I simply couldn't take it any more and gave up). This reading, once I determined that I was going to do it right, involved my trusty Revised English Bible (my favorite translation out of the four or so I own) and Robert Alter's wonderful translations and commentary. Just before Christmas I finished working through his largest chunk of the Old Testament, The Five Books of Moses, and I figured I ought to be able to come with at five statements of gratitude for my reading of this, the oldest and most foundational text of the whole Western religious and philosophical tradition.
1) It's good to be able to see OT fragments for what they are. I'm not particularly well-schooled in the documentary hypothesis, nor the criticisms of it, but I know enough to know that the earliest--in terms of the internal narrative--parts of the Old Testament not only couldn't have the sole authors so often attributed to them in Sunday School, but they couldn't have been entirely written at the times stipulated by their place in that internal chronology either. Reading the King James Version of the Old Testament (even the KJV as slightly amended by Joseph Smith) makes it hard to do more than shake one's head at these obvious inconsistencies and fissures, since that version presents the whole of the OT in the same--beautiful, but to our eyes and ears today also almost impenetrable--heightened and archaic English tense. But by reading Genesis (and, to a lesser but still important degree, the other four books of the Pentateuch as well) in a translation with more careful and contemporary language, the reasons why scholars ever came up the idea of that one can discern distinct narrative and documentary traditions behind these five books--namely, the famous Yahwist (J), Elohist (E), Deuteronomist (D), and Priestly (P) sources--becomes fairly obvious. You can see that at one point God is referred to one way, then later in the story He is referred to differently, and then later yet He is referred to in the previous way again. God--Yahweh, or El Elyon, or Shaddai--takes on warrior forms, is sometimes peaceful and sometimes murderous, appears and then disappears from the overall story, is acknowledged by and then is unknown to the many rival peoples which the descendants of Abraham contested with, and so forth. I've known intellectually for years that the creation of scripture is a far more happenstance, complicated, and prolonged process than the faith-promoting stories of revelation that so many Christians like myself were raised with often imply, but in reading these first five books of the OT, and being able to really see how different perspectives and traditions overlapped, borrowed from each other, and in some case eventually died (or were edited) out, I can see the process in a way I never had before.
2) It's good to be able to appreciate the myths sprinkled throughout the OT. There are, as anyone who has read it knows, many strange stories in the OT, particularly in Genesis. Some of them might be categorized as "miraculous" in the sense of demonstrating God's providence in the later religious sense, but many others just stand out, obviously important to the ancient transcribers and redactors of these once-oral traditions, but whose significance to the overall epic of Israel is by no means obvious today. You have Lot's daughters, Jacob wresting with an angel, God attempting to kill Moses, giants in the land, and much more. Seeing these stories better connected with the rhetorical traditions out of which they came helped make them sensible to me, or at least more so. The tribal realities, violent contests, sexual tensions, physical sufferings, aspirational hopes, and desperate fears of a wandering people, thousands of years ago, who became the carriers of what eventually emerged as our understanding of a loving and omnipotent God, are at least partially captured in these strange mythological tales. It deepened my appreciation of what the OT can teach us overall by seeing, as clearly as possible, some of the rudimentary building blocks of the stories they told themselves and preserved, generation after generation.
3) It's good to get to know the OT patriarchs and prophets as human figures. The basics of the life stories and relationships of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses--along with all their supporting wives, children, siblings, allies, enemies, and more--weren't unknown to me, but there were so many details that I'd never noticed or didn't understand before (the whole story of Tamar, Onan, and Judah, or the rebellion against Moses, for example, had never made much sense to me previously). Getting a better sense of how, in these stories, these men were presented as arguing, striving, scheming, begging, or confessing deepened my appreciation of them as figures of inspiration, warning, or moral teaching, despite the enormous historical (and epistemological) gap which separates them from readers like myself today.
4) It's good to be caught up in the overall drama of the OT again. I can remember as a child first hearing so many of these stories in Primary classes on Sunday, and finding them amazing, bizarre, exciting, frightening, and--most of all--important. Abraham taking his son Isaac to Mt. Moriah to be sacrificed, Rebekah fooling the aged and blind Isaac into blessing Jacob instead of Esau, Joseph playing a trick on his brothers to test their repentance, the detailed construction of the Ark of the Covenant, Joshua's dangerous trip with the spies into Canaan, and more; the Old Testament is littered with these tales, all half-remembered and--when remembered and returned to through our approved Sunday school lessons--usually proof-texted to death. I'm sure I'm not alone in having found it harder and harder to take them seriously--whether historically or morally--as the years went by. The language of the King James Version is so deeply entwined with how we have come to understand Christianity that to be able to see these stories in all their audacity, pathos, horror, ambiguity, and majesty requires that one--or at least, required that I--find an entirely new set of lenses in order to view them. Through the REB and Alter's commentary I was able to do that. Abraham became again a canny and desperate man, dealing with an unpredictable divine power; the relationship between Joseph and his brothers became again one of real anger, genuine confusion and doubt, and sincere change; and Moses became again a towering, demanding, but also always self-doubting figure, the very archetype of one who is forever changed--greatly empowered, but also in some ways also shattered--by being in the presence of the eternal God. I finished the Pentateuch, and I truly felt that I'd read an epic, a series of tales and adventures and revelations woven together around the construction of a people that, in all its deep and captivating meaningfulness, could stand alongside the creations of Homer, Dante, or Tolkien. And that was a truly great feeling.
5) It's good to bring the OT into my faith life again. For decades, the New Testament has been my favorite collection of scripture--and honestly, I don't expect that to change. The stories of Jesus told by the canonical gospels, and the stories about His teachings told in the writings of Paul and others, are just too important to me. But reading--really reading--the OT over the past months has done something to my prayer life; made me more grateful for this enormous, often incomprehensible, regularly vicious, but never not beautiful world which I am part of, I think. Joseph Smith produced a revelation supposedly from Moses, in which he recognizes his own nothingness before God, and that scripture has played a major role in my own thinking over the years. But honestly, far beyond any declaration, the Five Books of Moses show Moses himself--as well as every other figure of significance in the Bible constantly being thrown back, reproved and altered and stunned, by a God whose omnipotence is revealed, as it were, sideways. It turns out, as the stories are repeated and rethought again and again by the whole host of Israel, that God just possibly already had plans in place for Lot even as Abraham was haggling with the Almighty for his life, or that God was maybe moving in Judah's life at the exact moment that he acquiesced to the selling of Joseph into Egypt. I don't take these stories literally as history, but I take them literally as stories, and stories about God is all we have--as if anyone us actually need (or could likely handle) anything other that! The overall epic of the OT, thus far anyway, has shown me a story of a God who was always already there, however it is that we may suddenly, unexpectedly, be able to see Him--and, perhaps paradoxically, that hasn't made more hesitant in my faith, but more confident. Really, I may have no idea what is going on, but the seemingly always unanticipated answer of these stories at the heart of the tradition is always that something is going on. And that something--so far--is good enough for me. As I continue in the new year into Joshua and Judges and beyond, I can only hope that conviction continues.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 10:12 AM
Wednesday, December 24, 2014
[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]
This year our youngest daughter turned eight, and as her older sisters are busy with other things and her mother has been working, it's been mostly me who has spent time with her, reading Christmas books (J.R.R. Tolkien's Letters From Father Christmas is the new favorite this year) and watching all the essentials. A few days ago she told me about a friend at school who told her "Santa Claus is fake," and wanted to know what I thought. I told her the truth, of course: Santa Claus is real. She wanted assurance, and wrote him a letter, asking if he was real or not. I happen to have an advance copy of what Santa wrote back, which I share with his permission with you all here:
You write that one of your friends has told you that I am fake. I appreciate you asking me yourself! Unfortunately, to answer that question, I have to ask you: which “I” are you wanting to know about? Because I am very old, and I have been--and continue to be--many things, as many different things as there are stories about me! Before I was Santa Claus or Kris Kringle or Father Christmas, I was Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. I am also the Christkindl, the Three Wise Men, La Befana, Julenisse, the Ghost of Christmas Present, Babushka, Jólnir, Grandfather Frost, and many more! I began as a normal human being, but have long since left that behind. I guess you might say I am a sort of angel now (only no wings!).
Do I deliver every present given to every child every Christmas morning, or perform every good deed done every day of the whole Christmas season? No, I don’t (that’s too much even for me!). But, through the many people I have been and continue to be, I help miracles to happen. I think this is why God keeps me going--not just because I can sometimes give presents to good girls like you, but because the mystery and legends and surprises about me inspire others to give presents to and serve those they love as well. And that includes you, and the gifts you give to your friends! So you are one of my helpers this Christmas, and thus have become part of the whole Christmas story. So the next time one of your friends tells you Santa Claus is fake, you should ask them: “Do you think I’m fake too?” Because anyone who thinks I am “just a story,” doesn’t see that God wants us all to be part of the whole, huge story of Christmas, and that story is real. And as long as that story is, so am I.
Much love, Santa
(Dictated to Ilbereth)
In looking over this letter which I was fortunate enough to receive in time to deliver tomorrow morning, I remembered a post I wrote exactly ten years ago today: "Seeing Him." I've shared it with a few people a few times over the years, as I think it is one of the better, truer things I've ever written. I probably wouldn't write it the same way today (I think I would be nicer about the "Yes, Virginia" letter if I did it again), but that's no reason to change the past, I think, especially since I still basically believe in all. So here it is, for whatever it's worth:
Most of the people reading this blog, I assume, don't believe in Santa Claus. I can understand: the evidence for his existence is scanty, as far as these things go; the (perhaps traumatic) revelations and/or realizations of one's youth--whether via friends, parents, annoying relatives or one's own snooping--have in all likelihood not been countered by any authoritative source; and your own experience probably confirms his continued non-existence. So really, I understand where you're coming from.
I happen to be a believer in Santa Claus--or rather, a believer in the existence a Santa Claus-type agent, perhaps multiple ones. My dad actually called us older kids aside one day when I was about eight, and solemnly informed us there was no Santa. I said I didn't think he was right, and I still don't. No, I'm not saying this ironically, and no, I'm not going to haul out "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus" and take the Santa-dwells-within-us-all line. I actually believe that some sort of supernatural, possibly divine, Santa Claus-Father Christmas-Weihnachtsmann-St. Nicholas-Grandfather Frost-Ghost of Christmas Present figure is present and doing his work over the holidays. No, I've never seen him, and I'm not sure what his work is--plainly, he doesn't in fact deliver toys to every single child (or even just every good child, or every good child who happens to celebrate Christmas) every year, at least not if our family is any indication. But yet I find it hard to believe that something isn't out and about this time of year, the same way I find it hard to accept reductive (whether economic or psychological) explanations of the religious impulse generally. Of course, I believe in such irrational things as a God who sends His gifts and agents out amongst us regularly too, though I've never seen any of them either, and have no idea what they do or why they don't do what I wish they would. There's plenty of cause for existential despair, that's for certain. Still, if so many people feel something so strongly, and so much of that which hinges upon those feelings cannot be obviously accounted for--an anonymous gift, a helpful stranger, a happy coincidence, a fortunate find--it just doesn't strike me as implausible to adopt naive belief, in the sense of Paul Ricoeur's "second naiveté," rather than "mature critique" as a response.
I don't consider myself a man of strong faith, but as I once wrote elsewhere:
"I've tried the existential, atheistic route, and it was a failure: I simply couldn't pretend to myself that I didn't believe, that I didn't suffer from a sehnsucht or longing for that which I felt was plainly there, despite my inability to actually apprehend any of it....Certainty eludes me, but credibility comes easily. I would be lying if I said I knew where the power of God resides in this world, but I do not think I have ever doubted that it is residing somewhere....What I'm describing here probably sounds somewhat indiscriminate, and of course it is to a degree....[Yet] I think that a willingness to Socratically struggle (with oneself and with others) over what reality and wisdom really are, even if (perhaps especially if) you never feel as though you have arrived at a conclusion as to what that reality is, is a sine qua non of belief. Socrates was no sophist: he was a realist, in the sense that he never appeared to feel that there wasn't something real to all this talk about justice and virtue and wisdom, even if he could never articulate it with certainty (indeed, even if, as was recorded, the most he was ever sure of was that he 'knew nothing'). Socrates spoke of his daimon; we might speak of a sort of holistic intuition, or Verstehen...[or of] King Solomon's wisdom, which the Old Testament record curiously [describes] not only as knowledge, but as 'largeness of heart'--which I take to mean not simply his sympathy for others' claims, but his capacity to believe what it was they said as well."
So, I believe in Santa, and Melissa goes along (though she thinks my philosophical reflections on that belief are taking a good thing too far). What do we do in our home? We buy presents and give them to our girls of course, setting some aside as from Santa. Does that display hypocrisy on my part? No, because we try not to nail down in their imaginations the specificity of transactions on Christmas Eve. We don't particularly encourage their belief in the dominant, rather materialistic Santa Claus account (factory at the North Pole, the latest toys being pumped out by elves night and day, etc.), and we definitely try not to get sucked into all the (too easily corporatized) tropes of that account--Santa at the mall, e-mail accounts, and all the rest. If and when one of the girls--the oldest of whom is now eight--ask me, "Did Santa bring this particular present?" I'll tell them what happened. But I'm not going to tell them there's no Santa. The fact that he may not have, and may not ever, come down our chimney doesn't mean I know that nothing ever comes down any child's chimney anywhere on Christmas Eve. That would run against too strong a feeling to the contrary--a feeling that is both very old and very widespread.
Of course, for some others, who might like to be naive (if only at Christmastime), the fact that there are and have been so many different gift-givers, doing so many different things at different times and in different ways across Christendom--the Three Kings, the Christkindl, Sinterklaas, La Befana, and more--may seem an impediment to believing. But again, I don't really get this. As I implied above, I consider myself basically a philosophical realist; I don't think perspectivalism goes all the way down. But hermeneutics is, fundamentally, a realistic endeavor; it denies nothing about the text to think carefully about the, shall we say, "spirit" in which a text is seen and received. And that's the point, really: seeing what's there is so much a function of our receptivity to that which may be seen. Is that the same as saying "believing is seeing"? No, because it's not that straightforward: Linus's belief in the Great Pumpkin didn't create a Great Pumpkin. But if the stories and folkways and prayers of millions of people over centuries of time have included seeing something in common at Christmastime, even if there is disagreement over what exactly it was that they saw . . . well, that strikes me as a pretty good case for not allowing cultural criticism and rational maturity to reductively strip reality entirely away. Seeing is feeling too, after all.
I've heard some believers criticize the wonderful carol, "Some Children See Him" because it makes the birth of the world's Savior "relative." He doesn't look different depending on who sees Him!, is their refrain. What silliness. Such a believers are simple, Cartesian empiricists; they have accepted the idea that every belief must turn on an objective sight. But what we are prepared to see, what we are receptive to seeing, and what we feel when we see it, ultimately matters much, much more, I think, which is why the lyrics of this quaint Christmas hymn, as cloyingly liberal as they may be, are utterly appropriate to the holiday:
Some children see Him lily white
The infant Jesus born this night
Some children see Him lily white
With tresses soft and fair
Some children see Him bronzed and brown
The Lord of heav'n to earth come down
Some children see Him bronzed and brown
With dark and heavy hair
Some children see Him almond-eyed
This Savior whom we kneel beside
Some children see Him almond-eyed
With skin of yellow hue
Some children see Him dark as they
Sweet Mary's Son to whom we pray
Some children see Him dark as they
And, ah, they love Him so
The children in each different place
Will see the Baby Jesus' face
Like theirs but bright with heav'nly grace
And filled with holy light
O lay aside each earthly thing
And with thy heart as offering
Come worship now the infant King
'Tis love that's born tonight
Merry Christmas, everyone. Best wishes for a happy holiday. Close your eyes, listen to the skies, and all those good things.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 10:47 AM
Saturday, December 20, 2014
This U2 cover, from Irish television 30 years ago, starts slow, but give it some time; once Bono's voice really kicks in, this rendition is wonderful:
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 8:00 PM
[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]
Despite recent (and ongoing) changes to the Mormon missionary program, the majority of those charged with traveling the world and evangelizing on behalf of the LDS Church are (and will likely remain for a good while yet) young white men from supportive Mormon families in the western United States. Being young, usually not very worldly-wise, usually not very experienced in dealing with foreign cultures or differing sensibilities, and usually carrying around with them expectations shaped by growing up in a family- and tradition-centered church, the Christmas holidays can be a rough time. Twenty-five years ago I was one of them, going through my second Christmas as a Mormon missionary in South Korea. My second Christmas in the country was better than my first. Why? Well, let me explain.
South Korea has more Christians than any other East Asian nation, but that still doesn't make Christmas a major event there, or at least it didn't back in 1988 and 1989. Some stores would put up decorations, and some families would have trees, but overwhelmingly the feeling was that of a borrowed holiday, something that was being embraced (when it was) for reasons that, however deeply felt, weren't at all organic. (Though Christmas is actually a national holiday in South Korea, unlike any other Asian country.) Mormon wards and branches would, like other Christian churches, make mention of the day in talks and songs, but there was little, if any, real cultural spirit behind the celebrations, at least none that I--a 19 and 20-year-old pretentious-and-never-particularly-comfortable white kid from an overdose-on-Christmas upper-middle class family in the western United States (let me tell you about the time Dad brought home an 18ft. pine for our Christmas tree...)--could discern. And I wasn't alone in feeling that way, which at least partially explains the way we American missionaries would go out of our way to create some kind of connection to the holiday (and here I'm speaking overwhelmingly of the elders; the sister missionaries, far more than us males, seemed to be able to integrate into the rhythms of Korean life, perhaps simply because they were such a minority, whereas amongst the male missionaries, Americans dominated). Unfortunately, at least on the basis of my first Christian in the country, those attempts at connection can seem a bit desperate, and sometimes (especially in retrospect) downright humiliating.
In December 1988, my first Christmas in the country, that connection was seemingly furnished for us from above. The mission--like the country--was feeling pretty good, I suppose. The Seoul Olympics had been a great success (or at least the Koreans thought so). The country was a year into the presidency of Roh Tae Woo (노태우), and while there were protests aplenty (and would continue to be throughout my time there), the scandals of his presidency hadn't happened yet. (For that matter, neither had the Tiananmen Massacre next door.) Back in those days--at least in our mission--we missionaries had to buy Books of Mormon to sell or give away in our proselyting, and the costs of a Korean mission being pretty high anyway, there was always a grumbling about money, and a great deal of rejoicing when news of some new generous subsidy being bestowed from the mission office, which happened, it must be said, not infrequently. It was in the midst of this that the news came forth: the Korea Seoul West Mission was going to throw a huge mission-wide American-style Christmas party, at none other location than the 63 Building (육삼 빌딩), which was then the tallest building outside of North America. (As you can see, it kind of dominated Seoul's skyline back then.)
It was a strange couple of days, rest assured. Missionaries gathered from all over; we crashed at each others' apartments, and those elders and sisters who had been around for a while made plans for a mostly unsupervised day in Seoul, while we newbies (I'd only been in the country for a few months by then) listened in, intimidated and scandalized and envious. The party took place in the banquet room, where we were fed not just fine Korean fare, but oysters, fresh roast beef, salmon, and lobster. Missionaries wandered throughout the building, up to the observatory deck, trading war stories and jokes and (no doubt) outright lies. There was a talent show which got completely out of hand, with different groups of elders and sisters competing with each other to win prizes (a competition which got fierce enough that when one group of sisters, decked out in black ninja outfits, took to the stage to perform a rather impressive choreographed dance to some K-Pop hit of the day, another group of American elders rushed on to the stage and promptly broke out in all sorts of--in retrospect, rather pathetic--break dance moves, thus disrupting their act), all of which came to a rousing end with U2's "Desire" blasting over the loudspeakers. (That was the choice of the American zone leader who'd somehow ended up in charge.) Truly, it was a bit crazy. I mean, there was an ice sculpture of the Korean Temple, for heaven's sake. I have no idea how much the whole thing cost (the long-time financial secretary to the mission was released soon afterward and, though I was later companions with him, I never learned much about how the whole thing was pulled off), but it was a small touch of Reagan's bull-market America, right there in Korea. I've often shared stories of this party with other missionaries, and when I think about how outrageous it all was, even I have a hard time believing it happened. Thank goodness I had my camera and, thus, hard evidence.
A week after than party I was transferred to Ansan (안산)--or "Banwol" as some of the older locals who had been shaped by the Japanese occupation more than four decades earlier still referred to it. Today Ansan is part of the greater Seoul megapolis, but a quarter-century ago it was coastal town whose connection to the big city was a single (admittedly busy) train route. There was a small Mormon branch there, which met in an upstairs office space, where we'd huddle around a single coal stove for protection from the cold winds coming off the sea that would pass through the thin walls and windows with ease. It was, for me, a lonely and dispiriting place to spend the holiday, made worse, I suppose, by my constant berating of myself for feeling that way. There was a genuine attempt to bring some Christmas spirit into our shared drab space that holiday, with a Christmas Eve social during which a group of Primary-aged children sang some songs and a short nativity was acted out. (Unfortunately, we American elders decided to contribute a skit to the evening's entertainment which, while well-received, was characterized by some especially immature and, in retrospect, highly insensitive antics on our part. At least we didn’t get arrested, though.) But all those attempts, both by myself and by others, didn't change my put-upon mood. All through the holiday, I found myself defiantly listening to my homemade cassette tape recording of the Osmond Christmas album (the original double album, the one with the solo number by Merrill which never made it on to either of the album's cd releases) over and over again. The song I most associate with that Christmas, though, was a ridiculously maudlin cover of Wham's "Last Christmas" by Lee Sun Hee (이선희), which I seemed to hear everywhere and which brought me to the brink of tears almost every time. (In the decades since, it has apparently become a bit of a seasonal K-Pop staple, though usually lacking of the aching earnestness of the 80s version.)
Christmas in 1989 was different, perhaps because I'd matured, and got some of the self-pity and self-aggrandizement (yes, those two emotions can go together) out of my system, or perhaps because the odd go-for-broke sentiment that characterized so much of my first year or so in the mission seemed to have dissipated. I still wasn't at peace with missionary work (that actually wouldn't come until many years after I came home), but I'd been assigned to a large ward in Suwon (수원), where I ended up spending the final year of my mission, something I am profoundly grateful for. There was a feeling of genuine community in that ward, or at least I could feel that the community was there, and draw some strength from that, outsider though I was.
The mission had another Christmas party, though this one was far less extravagant. Talent shows and silliness abounded, as always, but I think this time around there was less pretension, less of a "what can we get away with this time" sensibility, and more honest fun. A bunch of us got together, ostensibly to do a scene from The Pirates of Penzance, but actually singing Ray Stevens's "The Pirate Song," and it was a blast (given my general shamelessness I was chosen to play lead, and, unfortunately, I was still a rather immature and insensitive performer: I went out on that stage, and I was flaming.) Christmas Eve itself was spent at the home of generous, older American Mormon, a man who was a veritable Santa Claus/Father Confessor to lonely and struggling missionaries far from home, on Osan Air Base, Songtan Station, which was near Suwon. I spent much of the evening attempting to explain, in whatever level of ridiculous detail my broken Korean allowed, the plot and significance of "Miracle on 34th Street" (the original, being shown that night on the Armed Forces Korean Network!) to the lone Korean member of our party. The snow fell heavily that night as we took a late bus back to our apartment, and a reflective, simple song "또다시 크리스마스" ("Again Christmas"), from the second (and last, and not as good) album by the 80s K-Pop masters Deul Guk Hwa (들국화) was playing from an intercom outside a store near the bus stop. The brassy, yet humble tune and lyrics ("어디에나 소리 없이 사랑은 내리네"--"Love is falling everywhere without a sound") fit my mood perfectly.
My favorite memory from that holiday season, 1989, was traveling with a large number of young people from our ward far outside out proselyting area--outside our mission boundaries, in fact, though I suspect no one remembered to inform the mission leadership, thank goodness--to climb Mt. Soyo (소요산), north of the city of Seoul. It was a huge event, planned for weeks and involving close to 30 people. It was bitterly cold day, enough to make one want to bail on the 4am start time, but in the end it was a trip filled with camaraderie and good humor. We packed in our meals and had a glorious cookout in near-freezing temperatures. We explored Buddhist shrines and talked about religion and nature and fate. We challenged each other--missionaries and Korean members alike--to rock climbing contests and snow ball fights. We missionaries swapped stories, sure, but I thought there was a little more openness, a little more receptivity, in what I heard--at least, I hope there was more of than in what came out of my mouth. We made it all the way to peak, and--as was (and I hope still is) typical of the Korean people--we sang songs and gave each one of ourselves a little bit of alone time. I had my Walkman with me, and a tape that I'd picked up at a music shop somewhere in Suwon, a tape which I still have today: a Korean production (hopefully legally obtained, but quite possibly not) of George Winston's December. I can remember sitting near the top of the mountain, listening to his rendition of "Jesus, Jesus Rest Your Head" three or four times over. (Obviously, much of my pretension remained, but still: it was a wonderful moment, one which impressed upon me a sense of quiet majesty and grace and simplicity which I found beautiful. However much growing and maturing my mind and soul still needed and still had awaiting them in the months to come, that Christmas moment was one worth treasuring.)
I've not saved my missionary journal, not any of the letters I sent or received from my 22 months in South Korea. That's a loss, I recognize, especially when it comes to writing down memories like these: there's so much that I need to reconstruct, so many disconnected pieces of evidence--a photograph here, an odd note there--that's it hard to avoid accepting that I might have all sorts of essentials wrong, or might be including the accidental inventions of two decades' worth of oral story-telling in my account. But then honestly, just how distant is anyone's memory from myth? I'd love to return to South Korea someday, and travel back to Ansan, and Suwon, and Mr. Soyo, and Osan Air Base, and see if there was anything I remembered, anything I could connect with. Maybe there would be; I'd love to believe that all the good things--the language, the friendships, the positive lessons--would come flooding back. But maybe they wouldn't. And in which case...well, isn't that what invented memorializations like holidays (like everything we manufacture and make our own, again and again, out of our own subjective acts of cultural retrieval and interpretation) are for? So that we can reconnect with ourselves, set apart and see those moments of foolishness and joy and despair and grace for what they are. I had many such moments in Korea. Some, clearly, were better than others. But still, this Christmas, I'm grateful for them all.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 7:45 AM
Thursday, December 18, 2014
[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]
With former Florida Governor Jeb Bush's announcement on Tuesday that he's "actively explore the possibility of running for President of the United States"--a move which, it should be noted, has been predicted by many for a long while now--we've now officially entered The Great Dynasty Debate. If a Jeb Bush v. Hillary Clinton contest comes to pass in 2016, then one way or another, two families will have controlled the White House for at least 24 of the previous 32 years. Of course, there's no guarantee that Bush will win the Republican party's presidential nomination, or even that Clinton will win on the Democratic side...but establishment politics, the worried second-guessing of party elites, and most of all the huge advantage that prior fund-raising networks provide all being what they are, you now right now that the odds favor just such a match-up. And as a result, as Noah Millman succinctly puts it, the next "general election will be the most depressing of our lifetimes."
There are many reasons why I agree with Noah, and I say that as someone who--while I'm deeply dissatisfied with the state-and-Wall-Street-centered, corporate-wealth-and-national-security liberalism which both these individuals will likely always ultimately side with--doesn't necessarily have much reason to dislike either of them. (Bush used to be a fairly sane moderate on immigration issues, after all, and I'm even willing to give Clinton's It Takes a Village a second chance.) My primary beef with this potential presidential election is the obvious one: dynasties are, nominally at least, supposed to be incompatible with republican self-government. The perpetuation of offices within particular families invites corruption and collusion, and fosters a distrust in the political process, a suspicion towards ones fellow citizens (because who is to say who might be able to find for themselves an inside track to power?), and thus ultimately generates anti-democratic and irresponsible resentment towards any kind of civic obligation. And all of that is not to mention that dynasties, historically, have a pretty terrible track record in terms of being able to weed out those--a foolish cousin, a vindictive daughter, a crazy uncle--who should not be trusted with powerful offices.
It is to the credit of these two likely presidential candidates that they are reportedly aware of this perception, and to small degree at least seem to be bothered by it. But only a small degree. And at least part of the reason for that smallness--besides such obvious factors as ideological ambition, family pride, and personal vanity, of course--is that there are people willing to make apologies for dynastic politics in a presidential system. Ross Douthat, though he admits that this potential presidential contest reflects "stratification and elite consolidation and other non-ideal patterns in American life generally," basically gives away the game up front by admitting that "[i]n principle, I am not against [dynasties]...[a]ny political system, however formally democratic, is going to feature powerful families that pass influence and connections (and hopefully talent!) to their heirs." And Will Wilkinson goes even further, pointing out that "the president is nominally in charge of the entire, vast bureaucracy of the American state, including the military and the various spy shops," and as a result there is a positive good to be had in electing a president who "will [have] strong preexisting networks within the bureaucracies willing to circumvent the de facto power structure and independently transmit reliable information straight to the White House." In other words, however offensive the idea of tacitly allowing the advantages of position to accumulate in a few, well-connected and insular hands may appear to the more populist or democratic among us, it will 1) always happen anyway, and 2) result in the empowering of individuals already prepared to manipulate the vast apparatus of the state, instead of those who would find themselves overwhelmed by it.
This is hardly a new insight, both in the great sweep of political life (weak monarchs or chieftains or generals being dominated by their own ministers or by the bureaucracy has been staple of all story-telling about leaders for as long as governments have existed) and in our own recent history (consider how often Presidents Carter or Reagan or Bush II or Obama were criticized at different times by different clans of Washington DC insiders for failing to "connect with the culture of the capital" or "work with the establishment" or some such thing). If we're going to have chief executives in our constitutional system, don't we want them to be good at their jobs? And if being good at such reflects a lifetime of elite preparation, why look askance that those families wealthy and well-positioned enough to be able to make it happen amongst themselves?
John Adams, in the midst a revolution (and, soon, a revolutionary culture) which quickly became much more democratic than he'd either anticipated or wanted, insisted that there was a place for dynasties in a free society. Not that he defended what he elsewhere labeled "artificial aristocracies," but in a letter to his cousin Samuel Adams, he didn't look away from the possibility that it is often families who--through their control of education, property, and opportunity--generate governing elites, and that a good system of government should make a place for them:
[T]he nobles have been essential parties in the preservation of liberty, whenever and wherever it has existed. In Europe, they alone have preserved it against kings and people, wherever it has been preserved; or, at least, with very little assistance from the people. One hideous despotism, as horrid as that of Turkey, would have been the lot of every nation of Europe, if the nobles had not made stands. By nobles, I mean not peculiarly an hereditary nobility, or any particular modification, but the natural and actual aristocracy among mankind. The existence of this you will not deny. You and I have seen four noble families rise up in Boston,--the Crafts, Gores, Dawes, and Austins. These are as really a nobility in our town, as the Howards, Somersets, Berties, &c., in England. Blind, undistinguishing reproaches against the aristocratical part of mankind, a division which nature has made, and we cannot abolish, are neither pious nor benevolent. They are as pernicious as they are false. They serve only to foment prejudice, jealousy, envy, animosity, and malevolence. They serve no ends but those of sophistry, fraud, and the spirit of party. It would not be true, but it would not be more egregiously false, to say that the people have waged everlasting war against the rights of men.
Adams's argument is, I think, a not unreasonable one. Should we then set aside our reservations and recognize that, as discomforting as it may seem, somewhere in the rise of Jeb Bush (as in his older brother George W., and his father George H.W.), as well as in the enduring influence of Hillary Clinton, there is a legitimate aristocratic principle at work?
I say no, and I think my reasons for doing so are on solid theoretical ground, completely aside from either the many outlandish fulminations one could launch against the Bush family (oil money! Skull and Bones! the CIA! Enron!) or the Clintons (Rose Law firm! Whitewater! drug smuggling! Benghazi!), or my aforementioned distaste for the sort of American exceptionalism they'll both build their campaigns upon. Nor is my strong qualification of Adams's argument--and my disputing of its applicability to mapping out the putative skill at managing the executive powers of our government which the wife of a president or the son and brother of two presidents may have--related to the plain truth that the republican presumptions which gave shape to many elements of our original constitutional order have long since been wiped away. No, the real problem is that any defensible argument for the compatibility (or at least acceptability) of dynastic elites amongst a self-governing people depends upon those dynasties having a locality. That is, whatever benefits or harms which the perhaps inevitable concentration of influence and training and access in a family line may present to a free society, the dynasty in question needs to be understood as one that is local enough, implicated and involved in community life enough, to be trusted by the people in its employ (however driven by ambition) of that very influence, training, and access.
This is reflected plainly in Adams's own argument to his cousin: the elite families he calls out are Boston families--families who parents and children and relatives and careers and background and travails and stories were known to and interwoven into the lives of the people of Boston. He didn't need to do any explaining: Samuel knew exactly who "the Daweses" were, because they lived right there; he'd seen them, knew them, and consequently could trust in them. Thinkers from Wendell Berry to Friedrich Hayek, from Michel Foucault to James Scott have all insisted, despite their many methodological differences, that to have routine, ordinary, daily, experiential familiarity with a particular set facts (or with a particular set of relationships with a particular set of people) is to be in possession of an awareness upon which one can build dependency, intimacy and, hence, civic trust. The republicanism which developed in the southern American colonies through the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries took very seriously the rudimentary populist presumption that power was vested in the sovereign people of Virginia, but it made place for the noblesse oblige of the Tidewater plantation aristocracy--George Washington, Richard Henry Less, John Dickenson, and others, who were expected to serve by governing over the needs of the community as a whole with classic, republican disinterestedness. Those families represented dynastic power, to be sure, but it was locally circumscribed, and thus relatable power; the people good identify with those leaders, because they knew them.
That more homogeneous and more civic-minded (though also far more unequal) world is now gone. The elitism which remains, such as may be realized through the sort of family connections which Adams laid out, really can only be defended for what it is if we can know these dynasties, locally. If we can't know them, they are simply figures of power, advertising their advantaged births and relations, as if that provides them with some virtuous route to better government. Allowing ourselves to be carried away by their supposed skill and nominal connections and seeming inborn privilege only shows the degree to which we don't take democratic governance seriously ourselves. The Bushes have their family estates in Maine and Texas, and the Clintons have their Ivy League degrees, and the media is quick to use the immense privilege and respect associated with climbing economic and academic ladders as demonstrating meritocratic achievement such that we can all relate to. But of course, the truth is that 1) the American meritocracy is anything but truly meritocratic, and 2) the talents and insights which measurable "merit" supposedly captures usually reflects, more than anything else, an ideological, almost slavish loyalty to the systems and processes and institutions which have supposedly enabled the "best and the brightest" to rise to the top. No matter how many times the Clintons or the Bushes have appeared on the covers or news magazines or pop up in our RSS feeds, the overwhelming majority of Americans do not and cannot know them--they aren't local. If we are to have a federal system of subsidiarian states, then obviously some government will stand at the top of that arrangement, and it is equally obvious that those who dominate that government will likely be strangers to the bulk of the people. To pretend, through the orchestration of family connections and mediated familiarity, that the distance isn't there or ought to be elided for the sake of a well-known name, is simply anti-democratic foolishness.
I'm not ignorant of the unfortunate reality that the present American state is huge, powerful entity, with innumerable sub-interests and factions contained within its bowels, and that such a situation may well demand that those we elect to manage it bring with them resources and preparation which which likely will often track with family connections. Nor am I unaware that, given our hideous, post-Buckey v. Valeo, post-Citizens United campaign finance swamp, one might well argue that worrying about dynasties in office is a ridiculous distraction, since it is highly likely that real influence in our country is already wielded by a spectacularly tiny and elite group of super-wealthy individuals, many of whom are already related to one another. All worthy points. But given that we will be able to govern ourselves through this ramshackle government only so well as we set the best rules we can conceive for ourselves, this is a rule--or a norm, at least--which is not at all pointless. It is, rather, a line in the sand which needs to be drawn, and redrawn again and again.
If our electoral and party arrangements are such that fully capable women and men are not entering politics, or can't get nominated or elected when they do, then that says something about our electoral health which giving the reification of dynastic practices a pass wouldn't influence for the better anyway. In the meantime, we do what we can to keep whatever spirit of a genuinely civic and popular civil society alive. There are, after all, party tools to bring a knowledge of, and a trust in, distant office-holders into voter calculations, and ruefully applauding (with some kind of latent Machiavellianism, I suppose) the ability of the well-connected to dominate those tools so early on is to be resisted. I've got no problem with supporting the daughter or brother of some locally powerful individual for office, assuming I am able to judge for myself how much of their family's or relative's talent or commitment or good sense they have within them, thus showing their capacity to respond to my trust. But to give a Hillary a fair shake, simply because her husband claimed to have felt my pain? To allow that Jeb ought to be taken seriously, because, well, after all, it's his turn? No, I'm sorry, but when it comes to allowing dynastic offices to form around our distant capital, count me (and my vote, for whatever it's worth) out.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 9:48 AM