Saturday, April 30, 2022

Michael Austin, Vardis Fisher, and the Death of the Mormo-American

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Michael Austin, a fellow blogger and old friend, wrote an essay nearly 30 years ago that accomplished what most of us intellectual scribblers can only aspire towards: putting into a words a framework for understanding a problem or question which endures, even if the problem or question does not. This is definitely the case for Michael's "The Function of Mormon Literary Criticism at the Present Time." Most of the specific examples and engagements in that essay are probably inextricable from the intellectual debates of American Mormonism during the 1980s and 1990s, but his general observations--that "embedded in the assertion that there is such a thing as 'Mormon literature' is the claim that we, as Mormons, and particularly as American Mormons, represent a cultural entity whose traditions, heritage, and experience deserve to be considered a vital part of the American mosaic," and "we are [not just] Mormons, but...are "Mormo-Americans"--remain provocative and vital. In fact, the deepest importance of his latest book cannot, I think, be fully appreciated without them.

Michael obviously wasn't the first to look at the American citizens and others who had built a distinct social world along the Mormon Corridor of Idaho-Utah-Arizona and more from the late 19th-century into the middle of the 20th; sociologists, historians, and political scientists have long done the same, and continue to do so. But Michael was, to my knowledge anyway, the first to connect the language of ethnography to that of literary (self-)presentation. In other words, if we want to understand how we talk about and write about ourselves, whether for internal audiences or external ones, we have to keep in mind the fact that American Mormonism, by the first part of the 20th century, had essentially become an ethnicity, a people with a situated particularity, and that whatever one did with or against the cultural or religious or political implications or associations of that particularity, its positioning was paramount. (Keep in mind that "was.") As Michael put it, "since Mormonism--like Marxism, psychoanalysis, structuralism, or existentialism--contains its own philosophical assumptions and values, it does not matter what we ultimately write about but who we write as."

The aim of Michael's wonderful short book Vardis Fisher: A Mormon Novelist is to reveal that "as" in Fisher. He shows how this a talented, hard-working, arrogant, and obsessive writer--an intelligent, opinionated, selfish, sometimes cruel but also guilt-wracked man, a hard-bitten survivor of a desperately poor Mormon settlement in southeastern Idaho at the turn of the 20th-century--expressed himself through his inherited ethnic particularity, despite his own insistence of having rejected it entirely. In the book, Michael (drawing upon earlier work he's done) succinctly weaves together Fisher's biography, a literary analysis of many of Fisher's published works, a portrait of American publishing in the first half of the 20th century, and--in my opinion, most importantly--a vivid, however partial, picture of what it meant to be a marginal hanger-on in the Mormon ethnic world during arguably its most flourishing and tightest phase (say the mid-1920s to the mid-1960s), as Fisher most definitely was. It makes for informative, insightful reading, something that I'd encourage anyone at all curious about American Mormonism to check out, even if their interest in mid-century American literature is zero. I say this because, ultimately, I see this as at least as much a work of cultural and religious exploration as a work of literary critique. Michael's concluding observation--"Vardis Fisher was a religious unbeliever...but Mormonism was the religion that he didn't believe in"--may not be an entirely original formulation, but I couldn't help but feel it indirectly putting its finger on something essential.

That essential thing is the assumption about Mormonness which enabled Michael to formulate a way to cut through and re-frame arguments about Mormon literature ("faithful" vs. "faithless," etc.) decades ago. It is the assumption that one can--and that someone like Fisher did--express a Mormon identity without actually believing or advocating for any of it, meaning that it has, surrounding and accompanying and attending to its truth claims about the universe and sin and God and salvation, an embodied, communal, historically and spatially particular worldview. Again, there are many ways in which many who read this blog post would consider that an old and banal observation: in our lives, or in the lives of those we know or work with or love, the labels "cultural Mormon" or "DNA Mormon" or "raised Mormon," etc., get employed all the time. But Michael's patient work with Fisher presents the argument that, for at least Fisher and those of the social worlds he lived in and moved through, his claim about "who we write as" was (again, a "was") stronger than merely talking about the assorted quotidian practices and preferences inherited by those who were raised in a Mormon family or attended a Mormon university or whatever. Fisher's "Mormo-Americanness," his gestalt, was an active, morally shaping constant in his literary expressions. Through Vridar Hunter, the fictional protagonist of Fisher's "Antelope" novels and stories, he articulates what could be labeled a fiercely individualistic, Mormo-American way of being an Idahoan; more broadly and abstractly, through the shifting protagonists of his sprawling Testament of Man series that Fisher obsessively worked on through the final two decades of his life, he articulates a defiantly self-aggrandizing, Mormo-American vision of the whole human race, complete with secular prophets (always male), constantly searching for an ever-evolving truth.

Do I find these implicit ways and visions of how to be in the world appealing? No; actually they mostly strike me as somewhat monomaniacal and stupid (though I trust Michael's judgment that the specific plots which advance them often make for good reading). So why did I finish Vardis Fisher and feel both fulfilled and kind of sad? Because I realized that that worldview, that particularity, which became arguably monomaniacal and stupid in Fisher's hands, was nonetheless one that I knew in my bones. And it's also one that, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, began to die. It has had many killers: the consequences of post-WWII missionary work, which slowly but surely loosened the Americanness of Mormonism; the rise of church correlation and centralization, which slowly but surely eliminated the spaces within our institutionalized faith for diverse cultural expressions; the technological and economic developments which gave rise to broad cultural conflicts, ones that American Mormonism, being centered in the politically conservative American west, slowly but surely positioned itself alongside evangelical Christianity regarding; and many more. But all together they bring us to point where, for all sorts of reasons--many of them eminently defensible!--the Americanness, even the literal "Mormon"-ness, of this ethnicity, this identity, that at one time structured the cultural and social world(s) of so many of our families and communities, is officially discouraged, sometimes even formally condemned.

It's not total, of course; it's just about impossible to truly, finally, kill off a cultural or ethnic identity. Perhaps as long as Steven Peck is writing novels, or Jerusha and Jared Hess are making movies, some kind of Mormo-American perspective will remain. Or maybe the ecclesiastical and socio-economic squelching of the institutional supports for Mormo-Americanness will just in turn allow for some social space for other Mormon ethnicities to express themselves in writing or music or art (keep on the look-out for Mormo-Mexican or Mormo-Maori literature, perhaps). But for all that, as a white male 1960s-born American Mormon, even one who fervently agrees with no less an authority than Orson Scott Card that Mormon church basketball was a horror that has been justly nuked from orbit (or from the Church Office Building), and even as one who recognizes that dumping Boy Scouts of America was a move the church probably should have made decades ago, I finished Michael's fine book, and felt the loss. Vardis Fisher was clearly a bit of a jerk. But that talented jerk was our jerk, and we can know it, even if he denied it. And that sense of belonging, limited or perverse or ridiculously out-of-date as it may be, nonetheless, I think, ennobled both Fisher and the Mormo-American world he was part of. Thank you, Michael, for helping me see that.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Three Reasons Why Evan McMullin Might Not be Greg Orman

[This is an expanded, more contexualized version of a piece which appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune this weekend.]

What does Evan McMullin's independent race for the U.S. Senate in Utah in 2022 have to do with Greg Orman's independent race for the U.S. Senate in Kansas in 2014? Hopefully, not much.

This past weekend, the Utah Democratic party--or rather, the delegates in attendance at their election-year convention--decided (by a vote of 57% to 43%) to not nominate Kael Weston, their own presumptive candidate for the upcoming Senate race against Mike Lee, and instead to throw the support of the party behind independent senatorial candidate and famed Never-Trumper Republican and former independent presidential candidate McMullin. Why? Because it's Utah in 2022, and unless someone who can win a large number of Republican votes runs against Mike Lee, his re-election is basically assured. Hence, in choosing to support a candidate who isn't a member of their party and who obviously rejects a significant portion of the Utah Democratic party platform, Utah's Democratic party leadership are charting a surprising path, one that Jennifer Rubin praised in The Washington Post as an attempt to build a "cross-partisan, cross-ideological alliance to defeat MAGA authoritarians who put Trump above country and their ideology above democracy," and thus provide a "model for democratic triage" going forward.

The thing is, this has happened before, as the tiny handful of political observers who care about both Kansas and Utah well know. In 2014, Kansas, which hasn't elected a non-Republican to one of its U.S. Senate seats since 1932 (compare that to Utah, which elected a Democrat to the Senate as recently as 1970!), had a choice between Pat Roberts, an utterly predictable and unexciting Republican who had lived and served in Washington DC since 1981 (he listed a house owned by a Kansas supporter as his home address, so as to qualify as a Kansas resident; he defended himself by saying he sleeps in its easy chair at least a couple of times every year), and Greg Orman, a charismatic, mostly self-made millionaire and political independent. Orman was Robert's sole opponent because Chad Taylor, a district attorney from Shawnee County who had been nominated by the Kansas Democratic party, withdrew from the race in September with the full support of the party leadership, which proceeded to fight a legal battle against the Roberts team to keep Taylor's name off the ballot (they succeeded).

Why did they go through all this? Because the polls showed that Roberts, who never exactly set his own party on fire anyway, was vulnerable...but only if there wasn't a spoiler in the race. And in this case, the spoiler was judged by many to be not, as is usually assumed to be the case, the independent interloper, but rather the candidate from a major political party. Which is essentially the same decision made by Utah Democratic leaders a few days ago. 

So the electoral apparatus of the minority party in these two strongly Republican states essentially shut down, all in the name of increasing the likelihood of defeating the incumbent. Was Orman's effort in Kansas in 2014 a harbinger for what will happen in Utah this year? Utah Democrats presumably would hope not; Orman ended up losing to Roberts by 53% to 42%, with a Libertarian candidate capturing most of the remaining 5%. Those numbers are basically identical to the loss which Democrat Barbara Bollier--after running easily the best funded and organized state-wide campaign which any Democratic senatorial candidate had run in Kansas in decades--suffered in 2020 to Republican Roger Marshall. So maybe the attempt to lure Republicans away from their regular voting patterns by putting forward an independent instead of a Democrat is pointless? Probably, for all sorts of reasons baked into the demographics and socialization which characterizes our extremely polarized political present. But only "probably." Herewith, five reasons why the move by Utah Democrats to defeat Lee by supporting McMullin this November might play out differently than did the effort by Kansas to defeat Roberts by supporting Orman eight years ago.

1) 2022 isn't 2014, Mike Lee isn't Pat Roberts, and Utah isn't Kansas  

Senate races were certainly just as nationalized in 2014 as they are today, and during that election cycle Tea Party protests and anti-Obama paranoia was very much part of the national discourse shaping how voters--politically voters inclined to vote Republican, which in Kansas out-number those inclined to vote Democrat by two-to-one--thought about control of the U.S. Senate. Still, the Trump years, and especially the attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters on January 6, 2021, have absolutely focused and ramped up extremes even further, forcing open rhetorical options that simply weren't present or politically available in the Roberts-Orman race (for example, McMullin's accusation that Lee must account for his "brazen treachery" can't be entirely dismissed as ideological grandstanding). And Mike Lee's transformation from Trump critic to willing supporter of his efforts to stay in office beyond his loss in the 2020 election paints a target on his chest which Roberts, a perfectly hackish (or, more nicely, dutiful) piece of Republican furniture, never carried. Finally, Utah Republican voters aren't identical to Kansas Republican voters; while the end results are pretty similar, Utah's Republicans are more somewhat more likely--due to differences in education levels, religious culture, and party history--to be motivated by ideology than by historical party identification itself...which means that if McMullin can come up with a good intellectual argument to support the moderately conservative no-long-officially-a-Republican rather than the strongly conservative Republican in the race, it may work--at least for a few Utah voters, and that may be all that matters.

2) Evan McMullin isn't Greg Orman

Speaking of McMullin and Orman themselves, the odds might seem even worse for the earnest independent from Utah. He lacks Orman's charisma, Orman's money, or Orman's social connections. However, those personal qualities fade in importance when one looks at the larger political pictures of these two states and two moments in time. Orman was, essentially, a business-friendly, socially moderate Democrat trying to avoid being tagged as a Democrat (thanks to then-Vice President Joe Biden, he failed) in a state where Democrats are in a perpetual minority. That's not an implausible strategy; Kansas has historically elected Democrats to state-wide offices (like our current governor, Laura Kelly), when the Republicans can be painted as too extreme, too culturally obsessed, and not fiscally responsible enough. But when it comes to campaigns for federal office, that locally effective strategy ran straight into national polarization. McMullin won't have that problem; he is a fiscal and cultural conservative (though not as conservative as Lee), and until 2016, had the party label to prove it. That's not to say Lee won't be able to turn our national ideological and partisan divides against him; he absolutely will, going after McMullin on LGBTQ issues, abortion issues, and more, all so as to force him to antagonize Utah's few, long-suffering liberals, or reveal himself as someone who may sometimes be sympathetic to the Democratic position in Congress, thus antagonizing Utah Republicans who may dislike Lee's defense of Trump but maybe not enough to be ready to actually vote across party lines, or both. Still, that's a tightrope which traverses Utah's actually existing Republican landscape, unlike Orman's tightrope, which imagined the existence in Kansas of large numbers of moderate Republicans or independents which, when it comes to national elections, mostly aren't there.

3) Greg Orman didn't have Ben McAdams

Orman was--and I would presume still is--one of those very rare (though they almost invariably believe themselves to be part of a huge hidden mass, just waiting to be revealed) genuine independents in matters of politics. Usually financially secure, well-educated, fairly secular, and deeply pragmatic, they tend to feel that, gosh darn it, if people could just get past the partisanship and quit listening to the rhetoric and just focus instead on what works, they'd discover that actually there are common-sense solutions to all our problems out there. The sort of people who are infuriated by the admittedly often mind-numbingly stupid political positioning and split-the-difference compromising which small-d democratic politics--particularly ever since the rise of mass democracy in the 19th century--requires. Such independents are almost invariably anti-party; they want to communicate with their fellow frustrated independents directly. Orman is a true believer in this gospel; he wrote a whole book about it (it's naive, in my opinion, but not bad!).

None of this describes McMullin, and the evidence for that is the support which his play for the Utah Democratic party's endorsement received from Ben McAdams, former mayor of Salt Lake County, former one-term Representative, and a leading figure in the Utah Democratic party. McAdams, like any successful Democrat in Utah (like any successful Democrat in Kansas), is socially moderate and when it comes to taxes and government programs, often sounds like a Republican. But his commitment to his party is strong--which is exactly which made his personal endorsement of McMullin's independent run against Lee (risking his own standing among longtime supporters and donors), and his push to get his party to decline to put anyone on the ballot and unite behind McMullin against Lee instead, so valuable. This isn't an independent running against the party system; rather, this is an independent candidate twisting the existing party system, with help from people like McAdams on the inside, to make it possible for Utah voters to have a choice regarding something--Lee's commitment to Trump's lies--which, unlike so many other divisive policies, a large number of Utah Republicans and Democrats both appear to care about.

For some political observers, this kind of cross-party fusion--which also means, in effect, a splitting up of the national Democratic party, which some state parties going in significantly different directions--is one of the few ways forward for Democrats in the face of massive political polarization and structural obstacles. Democrats as "Democrats" don't have a chance in state-wide elections in Utah, the reasoning goes: so, given the stakes many see in Mike Lee's continued presence in the U.S. Senate, why shouldn't Utah Democrats try running a Republican instead? It might work, if only because this wouldn't involve working against long-established voting patterns; rather, it would be attempting to work alongside them (though in a perverse way). Noah Millman praised this kind of thinking in The Week--though he later followed it up with a warning: "For his campaign to be viable, though, McMullin needs to be clear that he is not promising to caucus with the Democrats, that he would, in fact, prefer to caucus with the Republicans, but that he has conditions for caucusing that, in theory, either party could meet. If he doesn’t do that, and if Lee can effectively accuse him of being a Democrat in all but name, then I doubt he stands much of a chance."

Whether he has a chance against Lee's organization, Lee's money, Lee's support from former President (or, according to some Republicans, President-in-Exile) Donald Trump, and the powerful infrastructure of the Utah Republican party remains to be seen. But Utah's 2022 senate race will be, at the very least, quite different from Kansas's 2014 race. In the latter case, the Kansas Democrats made way for a very Democratic-sounding Independent, who wanted to be free of party labels, to run against the Republican incumbent; in the former, the Utah Democrats made way for a Republican, who will accept any party support he can get, to run unimpeded against another Republican. A pretty original move, that.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Hoping to Take Home Rule Seriously

Many Kansas Republicans likely guffawed in disbelief when Governor Laura Kelly recently insisted "I am a major local-control advocate" and that she was opposed to "usurping" the power of local governments. The stereotype of Democrats as always favoring centralized government programs, with Republicans always fighting to keep government small and local, is deeply entrenched in our national political discourse, and it's an image which the Kansas Republican party fully intends to make use of this election year. The language of the state GOP, which dominated much of the spring legislative special session, presents Kelly’s emergency orders during the pandemic as examples of one-size-fits-all overreach, thus building on this stereotype expertly.

The truth, of course, as always, is more complex. And here in Kansas, that complexity--the product of trends in platform development and political socialization rooted in constitutional disputes over federal versus state power going back to the civil rights movement and before--is inextricable from the fact that the localities which the "small government" rhetoric of Kansas Republicans seems most often focused upon are the spacious, rural, and increasingly empty ones which cover most of the state's territory. Whereas to allow the local governments of Kansas’s few growing cities and urban areas to take care of themselves, by contrast, is often seen as a threat. When Kansas Senator John Doll (R-Garden City) recently commented “I think we [in the legislature] just do so many things to curb the power of the municipal,” his frustration was justified.

This session included two major examples of this dynamic. First, a bill to prevent Kansas cities and counties from banning, limiting, or even taxing plastic bags. This bill, which doesn't quite have enough support in the legislature to overturn a veto by Governor Kelly, emerged mostly in reaction to, not any actual local regulations, but rather just the successful environmental activism here in Wichita which led to the creation of a task force to explore and make recommendations regarding such regulations. Second, a bill to prevent Kansas cities and counties from issuing municipal IDs to undocumented residents so as to provide them with some protection from federal immigration enforcement. This bill, which does appear to have enough support to overcome an executive veto, and which rushed through the Kansas Senate with barely any debate at the urging of Attorney General (and all-but-officially the Republican candidate for governor this November) Derek Schmidt, emerged mostly in response to the passage of a local ordinance in Wyandotte County, which itself was the result of five years of conversations and negotiations driven by concerns over the public health and safety needs of many of the county's diverse, long-time, yet often unregistered residents. With both bills sitting on Governor Kelly's desk she thus finds herself in the position of potentially being able to use her veto pen to defend of local democracy, at least a little bit.

(Also, it's worth noting that these two examples are not alone, though they are the most prominent. There was also a bill, which the governor allowed to become law without her signature, that restricts the ability of cities or counties to impose limits upon individual citizens' use of natural gas, a bill which emerged in part when the city of Lawrence committed to switching entirely to green energy by 2035, and there remains a bill in committee that would prevent local government entities, including school districts and college and university boards, from responding to pandemic concerns by imposing mask mandates; that bill has strong support in the Republican caucus, and might yet come up for a vote at any time.)

Now anyone who has spent time watching the patterns of Kansas politics through the frame of the rural/urban divide, and how that plays out in shaping the electoral interests of legislators, can’t find this surprising. Over the past decade and a half, there have been many similar conflicts, with most Republican legislators consistently rebuffing the concerns democratically voiced in Kansas’s (very slowly, but nonetheless surely) liberalizing urban areas. There have been state laws which overturned city efforts to keep their insurance costs low by preserving gun-free zones in municipal buildings, and state decisions which have blocked city efforts to lower or eliminate the criminal penalties attached to medical or recreational marijuana use.

Federalism has always been, and always will be, a messy area of American politics, and extending the subsidiarity idea supposedly implicit to the federal principle further down the ladder, to the municipal level, obliges us to think hard about a host of theoretical, demographic, legal, and socio-economic matters relevant to what we really mean when we talk of "democratic sovereignty." After all, calls for “small government” or “local control” are often more self-interestedly instrumental rather than morally principled, and state legislatures dominated by Democrats don’t necessarily have a better record when it comes to respecting municipal democracy (as Eric Levits notes, "progressives are wont to frame popular democracy as morally sacrosanct even as we carefully guard our preferred exemptions from it"--though he argues, reasonably enough, that such inconsistencies don't reflect a foundational problem with democracy so much as a recognition that, practically speaking the "myriad obstacles" to true popular democracy in the United States require constant work-arounds). Still overall, the "populist" (or, specifically, anti-intellectual elite) character of much contemporary Republican rhetoric, while it does potentially have a localized, small-d democratic aspect to it, so consistently overlaps with a general anti-liberal, anti-urban, and anti-majoritarian position that it's easy to conclude that American conservatism today has, in Alex Pareene's words, "no philosophical commitment to localism," but rather "an instrumental attachment to federalism, and to the state form of subgovernment," because it is "the form best suited to maintain, at the local level, the dominance of the suburban and rural over the urban, and, at the national level, the dominance of geography over people."

Given all of that, why expect the Republican-dominated Kansas legislature, or the mostly Republican Kansas electorate in general to take more seriously sincere efforts by the citizens in Kansas's cities to govern themselves? Partly, perhaps, because Kansas has a literal “Home Rule” provision written into its state constitution, thereby is formally--if not necessarily effectively or coherently, as debates here in Wichita over popular protection of historical buildings demonstrates--committed to recognizing the self-governance of Kansas's towns and cities. Also, perhaps one could hope for some recognition of the value of allowing localities the liberty to govern themselves as many Kansas Republicans have felt driven toward (or have chosen to present themselves as pursuing for partisan reasons) an arguably more pluralistic, libertarian, "pro-choice" line--not regarding abortion, of course, but definitely when it comes to matters of public health and therefore, at least potentially, other policy concerns as well. The link between libertarianism and localism isn't a necessary one, of course, even assuming that either ideological position is rooted in actual beliefs. (The fact that Lawrence passed an ordinance motivated by concerns pretty much identical to Wyandotte’s with no reaction from the legislature--at least not initially--suggests that the Kansas Republican opposition to local urban governance is more a matter of political timing than legal interpretation.) Still, it's something that we left-leaning urban localists (there are some of us!) in this majority Republican state can hope for, at least.

Truthfully, there's probably no chance of Kansas losing its historically rural reputation and character, and the deep attachment to voting Republican which has come along with it, any time in my lifetime. But the fact remains that the state’s continued economic development, given that a revolution in the direction of autarkic agrarianism and anarcho-socialism is highly unlikely, is and will overwhelmingly in the hands of those urban parts of the state where the population is growing and connections to the actually existing nationalized and globalized economies of late capitalism are being maintained. There is just no getting around that plain fact. Hence, the local governments in those places, in particular, need a free (or at least a freerer) hand to respond to the interests and beliefs of their citizens, thereby enabling-- and, in fact, inducing--them to be that much more committed to our shared home. To treat urban Kansans’ efforts on behalf of public health, environmental stewardship, and civic life in the places they live with dismissive inconsistency, whether for sincerely state-centric ideological reasons or (more probably) for self-interested partisan ones, is no way to keep Kansas’s sunflower blooming.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Localism, Intentionality, and Utopia (Socialist or Otherwise)

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

There is an accusation which has been flung over the decades (if not centuries) at practically every sort of intentional community-building effort, thus oddly discovering something which apparently entirely disparate elements of the right and left have in common. Sometimes that accusation takes the form of condemnations of a supposedly unrealistic idealism, sometimes in terms of contempt for what is labeled a nostalgic myopia. But either way, the heart of all these attacks is the same: attempting to build communities of cooperation, equality, and justice, in contrast to the socio-economic self-interestedness which has been the rule for 300 years or more, is "utopian," and thus nonsensical and wrong. The ease of that accusation, and the fact that it has been and still is unthinkingly lobbed at intentional communities of every sort, makes it worthy of push-back, I think.

The caveat which those who fling the accusation will insist upon, of course, is that it is not all community-building activities which they think deserves their condemnation and contempt; only "comprehensive" community-building. And for most critics, that's probably correct--it would require an insanely individualist outlook to describe every effort to strengthen neighborhood ties (organizing a block party!), to secure social justice (expanding handicap accessibility!), or to serve the public through the provision of common goods (health insurance, public schools, environmental protection, the Veterans Administration, and more!) as instances of "utopianism." (That some people do in fact affirm such a nihilistic libertarianism is worth noting but not much more. There are also people who make life-size nude sculptures of Richard Nixon out of butter, and more power to them.) The great majority of those who look askance upon community-building would insist that they do not mean to reject every communitarian project; rather, what they reject is community-building visions and efforts that aspire to comprehensiveness--or, on my reading, the ones that aspire to topography.

My point in invoking topography is to bring up that element which everyone with the slightest interest in or affection for localism must take seriously: the topos, the place or location or referent upon on which one stands or acts. Such language is, of course, what gave birth to the accusation in the first place: Thomas More's 16th-century Utopia, the rationally organized "no-place" of agrarian communism, communal eating, universal health care, and chamber pots made of gold (so as to subliminally communicate a contempt for wealth). More's neologism, it should be noted, was perhaps not his intended one; Utopia concludes with an addendum in which More remarks upon the pun in his book's title, suggesting that the city is should be understood less as a dreamy "no-place" and more as a "good-place" that inspires: "not Utopia, but rather rightly my name is 'Eutopia,' a place of felicity." Whatever his intent, though, the history of the term is grasped easily enough: throughout history, there have been 1) those captivated by comprehensive visions of how to cooperate rather than compete, to encourage virtue and inclusion, to establish peace and justice, and to witness to the truth as they understand it, with the material articulations central to those visions involving the establishment of a distinct community, and 2) those who find any and all such visions dangerous and simply flawed. (And, of course, one can find plenty of capitalists in group 2) who will insist the "placeness" inherent to most populist challenges, distributist arguments, and mutualist alternatives means they're all in the same camp as the socialists and radicals in group 1), but let's stick with the clear communalist examples for now.)

The danger which can--and, tragically, often does--accompany any effort to establish a complete community in accordance with specific intentions, whether religious or ideological or both, is well established, both historically and theoretically. The genocidal historical record of many comprehensive society-shaping visions is incontestable (though whether the kill-count of all such revolutionary movements is greater or fewer than the kill-count of non-comprehensive, profit-motivated world historical slaughters like the African slave trade or the European colonization of the Americas is something I leave to the terminally morbid to calculate). Theoretically as well, the problems with this conceptualization of humanity's fundamentally social and political nature are large, though not insurmountable. Humankind's embodiment as distinct individuals means an organic, evolving pluralism will always be present in all our social and political orders, and the rationalist temptation which is entailed by many communitarian visions directly contradicts that, with frequently destructive results. 

But the emphasis there must be placed on "frequently," as opposed to "always." Human beings, despite (or perhaps as part of) our pluralism, regularly tend towards the dialogical and aspirational and spiritual, which means that what we truly are always reasoning about and reaching for--thanks to God or nature or both--is how to make our lives fit with that we consider to just and right and good: to achieve eudaimonia in our places, our topoi, and then make those places available to others. So while dangers and flaws of comprehensiveness must always be attended to, the topographical aspect of our spiritual and ideological longings is too central to the human character to dismiss it entirely. Indeed, if Wendell Berry is any guide, much of contemporary thinking reflects an overlearning (or an encouragement towards overlearning by those who benefit from our individualistic status quo) of the lessons of comprehensiveness. To automatically reject communitarian efforts and imaginings which involve the making of actual cooperative places as obviously pointless from the start is to succumb to a false sense of "inevitability...an economic and technological determinism, as heartless as it is ignorant" (Berry, The Art of Loading Brush, p. 51; more here).

So perhaps we can allow that the accusation of "utopianism" is not necessarily, or at least should not be accepted as necessarily, fatal to the communitarian imagination. But does that allowance have anything to do with localist projects, which, while obviously centrally concerned with places, rarely approach those topoi with any comprehensive vision in mind? While it is true that the watch-word for most genuinely localist politics today is "incremental," eschewing comprehensive reforms for the humble and the partial, there is, I think, a utopian element usually present nonetheless, hidden in the idea of "intentionality."

Every localist concern involves looking at a neighborhood, an association, or a community, and tending to it. That tending, however, unless wholly and unthinkingly reactionary (and if it were, then no communitarian tending would take place over the long haul at all, because to think outside of one's own immediate interest and one's own temporal moment is invariably aspirational), cannot help but involve an ideal, a vision--something that is intended. That intentionality, like comprehensiveness, can be dangerous is a simple sociological fact, but it is also that which grants community the transformative promise--whether personal or collective or both--which it has always held, separating us, as Aristotle observed, from otherwise equally "gregarious animals" like bees.

The difficult-to-dispute point that we form communities for the sake of collective ideals and not just individual interests--something every Bible-reader, at the very least, should have realized as soon as they came to the second chapter of Acts--has, perhaps, been made harder to swallow for many by the legacy of 19th and 20th-century socialisms, particularly the statist, scientific socialisms of the Marxist variety. But even there, a fuller appreciation of the history such surprising diversity. The Oxford political theorist David Leopold has made a career out of exploring and undermining (or at least seriously complicating) the rationalist, universalist, non-utopian reading of Marx's legacy, arguing that even within the first century of the modern European socialist movement, when the materialist assumption of universal revolution were strongest, you nonetheless can find robust expressions of and arguments about the age-old understanding of socialism as a cooperative, communitarian ideal, as something that must necessarily be rooted in the organically constructed architecture of a locality and place. The intermingling of these became even more pronounced as the revolutionary determinism of Marx's early interpreters was replaced with a recognition of the inevitability, even sometimes the value, of party politics in democratic countries. Ultimately, Leopold suggests, the differences between place-obsessed reformers like Robert Owen, the founder of New Harmony who constantly experimented with forming small, cooperative, egalitarian communities (what Leopold calls the "communal" or "horizontal" strategy), and detail-oriented policy wonks like Sidney Webb and Beatrice Potter, early members of the Fabian Society who worked within the Labor party to introduce specific egalitarian and collective policies to the whole of the United Kingdom (what Leopold calls the "political" or "vertical" strategy), are not nearly as great as their similarities.

You don't need to work out the historical implications of such political theories to recognize the truth of that judgment, though--you could, instead, simply look at the real world example of dozens of intentional communities and communes and collective projects throughout history, and the mixed perspectives they embodied. You could look at the Bruderhof, an Amish-inspired movement of deeply traditional Christians, organized into communities of cooperation and equality around the world, whose communal devotion have led them to a political position of uncompromising pacifism. Or you could look at Koinonia Farm, an intentional community of believers in Georgia who humbly practice sustainable agriculture, but were also central to shaping, in the face of enormous racial hostility, the non-violent resistance which politically defined much of the civil rights movement in America.

Or, much less celebratedly but with no less admiration, you could look to the Solidarity Collective, a cooperative association of activists, artists, and democratic socialists, deeply committed to the vision of living sustainably and defending justice in Laramie, Wyoming. Close to four years ago, the collective was founded by several passionate workers and dreamers, one of whom is an old and dear friend; its charter (read it here!) is frankly revolutionary in its vision of a fully democratic and inclusive socialism, while its actual operations reflect the difficult, patient, humbling work of living in accordance with "utopian" ideals of cooperation and consensus. It was at the invitation of my old friend that I began to seriously reflect on the particularity--including the topographic particularity, or simply the "locality"--incumbent to the physically and emotionally demanding labor and negotiations involved in building a home, a refuge, and a community that seeks to exemplify its ideals, and has only the material and psychological resources which its own members can bring to it. As no doubt everyone who has ever been part of an attempt to comprehend and bring to life a community (or a church, a labor union, a co-op, or any other such idealistic effort), sometimes it seems that community "always fails." With typical honesty, the members of the collective turned their own impasses into a podcast episode, talking about how impossible it sometimes seems to bring everyone laborious work into "union" with one another...and why they keep trying anyway. (Hint: it's because, in part, they genuinely believe in the place--the house, the farm, the community, and the human resources through which they are enabling to flourish--which they're building.)

Listening to that podcast, as members of the collective honestly and searchingly challenge one another regarding the roots of their manifold struggles, I was struck at how intentionally and comprehensively pushing against the norms of capitalist modernity in the 21st-century requires practices that have not changed much since the 19th century, or earlier. In Chris Jennings wonderful history, Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism (though his focus is really just the story of the early utopian movements which emerged in the context of Protestant revivals in Europe and America and the Great Awakenings they were part of), he lays out one of the secrets of the success of the Oneida Community, whose radical communism--which included the sharing of not just all property and work, but of sexual partners as well--endured in the face intense opposition and deep internal divisions for more than a generation:

"[T]he biggest reason the Perfectionists were able to maintain communal harmony despite such fraught circumstances was institutional: a form of weekly group therapy that they called 'mutual criticism'....[B]y the time the community relocated to Oneida, regular sessions of mutual criticism had become a central pillar of [what the followers of John Humphrey Noyce, the found of the community, called] Bible Communism....As the Perfectionists got better at mutual criticism, most of them came to regard it as a vital catharsis and an essential means of maintaining the colony's delicate social harmony. It functioned like a cross between confession, performance review, and psychoanalysis, but crowdsourced. The fact that everyone had a turn in the hot seat took some of the sting our of the ordeal....One man was cautioned that he had 'masculinity carried to excess. There is not enough woman in him'....Perhaps most important, the regular sessions of mutual criticism allowed the colonists to air the countless minor aggravations that will erode a cooperative colony from within if left to fester" (pp. 346-348).

It is probable that Jennings would not entirely agree with my likening of the practices of the comprehensive community-builders of the 19th century with those of today. In his view, while the revival of intentional efforts to create alternative forms of life over the past half-century is admirable--"[l]ike the nineteenth-century utopians, the long-haired communards of the sixties and seventies rejected the prevailing values of their day as morally corrupt and expressed that rejection through the total reconfiguration of their own daily lives"--their intentionality is of a lesser category entirely: "[a]lthough the communalists of the sixties and seventies tried (and often succeeded) to build strongholds of cooperation, pleasure, and consciousness amid the mercantile bustle of American life, they...expressed a secessionist impulse--a leave-taking from the World...[and thus their] revolution was more personal and, ultimately, far less utopian" (pp. 379-380). But I find this unfair, because it wrongly assumes that any envisioning of a place that isn't millenniarian--that is, that doesn't proclaim it to be a model for a world which teeters on the edge of total destruction and/or transformation--has no radicalism, no true utopianism, to it at all.

In a world where the pluralism of the human condition has been, for centuries, from the age of imperialism to that of industrialization and beyond, both subject to and expected to express itself through an ever-evolving, ever-varying, but nonetheless also ever-expanding, technologically-enabled socio-economic universalization, privatization, and individuation, it seems to me that any attempt to build into one's topos principles and practices that aspire to, or at least are in dialogue with, ideals of social justice and civic strength and equality, cannot help but involve at least a degree of comprehensiveness, a degree to utopian hope. To quote the striving local socialists of the Solidarity Collective, "there are many potential models of anti-capitalist activism and politics," and the search for "cooperative, sustainable systems" will always be a matter of "good-faith deliberation."

Such deliberation--or "mutual criticism," for that matter--isn't a rejection of the possibility of building a locality of such comprehensive, communitarian "felicity" that others will be inspired and transformed by it, and thus go forward to build other such "eu-topian" communities in other places. (That is, in fact, exactly the primary aim of the Solidarity Collective: as they write, "We hope that by creating a thriving, fun, and engaged non-capitalist ecosystem we can demonstrate the viability of a more cooperative and less oppressive way of life and hence attract more people to our cause.") What it is, is a recognition that such places shouldn't be conceived as environments that will just rationally unfold, without particular work done by particular people in particular topoi. Thus, maybe, does incrementalism and utopianism meet. If you're looking intentionally at your locality, wanting to make it more just and more civil and more communal--with, say, cooperative food practices, responsible energy usage, democratic decision-making, and social arrangements premised upon love and respect rather than financial and racial advantage--well, that doesn't automatically make you into a communard, fully engaged in the struggle to build a comprehensively new world. But it does mean, I think, that you probably share more with those inspired folk than you may think.

Sunday, March 06, 2022

On Simplicity, Transparency, and Educational Trust in Topeka

[A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Wichita Eagle here.]

There are several different ways to talk about the "Parent's Bill of Rights and Academic Transparency Act" being debated in the Kansas legislature. One obvious way is to look at the role of ALEC and conservative and Republican-leaning groups and activists in flooding state legislatures across the country with bills challenging what their advocates see as the unpatriotic curriculum often taught in public schools (usually associated with the "Critical Race Theory" bogeyman), employing the same claims which helped elect Greg Youngkin to the governorship in Virginia. But that perspective, though obviously correct, focuses only on the ideological and partisan actors at work in the promotion of this legislation. However polarized American voters have become, I also suspect that bills like this can ultimately only enjoy whatever popular success they do because they also appeal in part to a frustration and confusion, and certain kind of a longing for simplicity and trust, which is all but universal--because it seems to so often compromised-- in our modern lives. So as politically naive as it may be, I want to set aside the dark money accusations for the moment, and focus on that appeal.

That the ordinary lives lived by you and I and anyone else who may read this in the United States today--as in almost every other industrialized and post-industrialized economy--are regularly shaped by all sorts of complicated corporate, governmental, and bureaucratic systems is hardly a new insight (paging Rousseau, Weber, Berry, or my own pretentious writings about "simplicity" from the early days of this blog, more than a decade and a half ago). Almost no one like this, and almost everyone complains about it, but relatively few people--maybe entirely home-schooling parents, maybe off-the-grid Amish farmers, etc.--are both willing or able to reject the many goods (in terms of time, convenience, and specialized services, many of which are life-saving, but may others of which are, I'd like to believe most people would admit, merely distracting fun) which these complex, usually out-sourced systems provide. In the midst of this complexity and tension, how to hold onto the ideal of ordinary citizens being able to access the information to truly governing themselves? For some, like this bill's authors--or, probably more accurately, the audience for whom the ideologically disposed authors of this bill intended it--the answer is “transparency.”

That “transparency” is a key component of modern democracy is undeniable. If the decision-making of those whom we elect stays invisible, it invites corruption and poisons our civic health. But like “democracy” itself, the concept of “transparency” can sometimes become a totem, a term used to advance a cause rather than a standard to assess what is actually taking place. And that is, unfortunately, what I think has happened with this proposed educational reform. When a couple of Kansas legislators recently defended the bill, they only passingly mentioned the “unhealthy ideas” and “harmful ideologies” which they believed could find their way into the public schools. Instead, they focused upon how parents “have a right to know what their children are being taught,” claiming that the bill simply aims to guarantee “easy access to curricular materials that already should be available today,” and concluded by writing that there are no enemies in transparency. And on a certain level, they’re completely correct. 

Who, after all, likes to be kept in the dark, however unintentionally, by the specialized bureaucracies were are obliged to negotiate? When these two Republican legislators--both of whom, for whatever it's worth, are mothers and former educators themselves--point out that for “busy parents” the process of finding out just what exactly is happening in their children’s classrooms may be “unclear, unfamiliar, and tedious,” I would imagine that anyone who has ever had to negotiate the complex systems around us (think about trying to find a human being to talk to when calling to file an insurance claim or fix a problem your wireless plan) can relate.

But all the same, I wonder about their perspective on their former careers. The great majority of public school teachers I have known regularly bend over backwards to involve parents in their curriculum, and to help them through the process of understanding that curriculum, with frequent parent-teacher conferences, open houses, book fairs, and so much more. The history of our four daughters moving through Kansas's public schools haven't been conflict-free by any means (I can remember one rather tense meeting when we and several other parents confronted the principal of Wilbur Middle School over a division action a teacher had taken), but overwhelmingly, when have sacrificed sufficient time so to become fully familiar with and thus committed to the specialized work being done by the neighborhood schools our daughters have attended, the results have been pretty wonderful, and as close to collective, slowly built, long-term educational experience with pursuing the public good as I've ever known.

Weigh that reality--which I am sure I am not alone in having experienced--against what is actually in the proposed bill. It woulds require school districts to set up “transparency portals” to give parents online access to “each test, questionnaire, survey, or examination,” as well as explanations of the rationale behind each assignment and accounts of how any of the data collected from any of those assignments will be used in the evaluating the student, plus links to all the library materials used in any of the aforementioned assignments, and much more. In light of all that, it’s not unreasonable that many here in Kansas see bills like this as using the cry of “transparency” to express, instead, a simple distrust in educators themselves.

The bill won’t pass right now, thanks to strong Democratic opposition and dissents from some Republicans concerned about the intrusive governmental mandates it involves. But whether it dies, or sneaks through as part of an appropriations bill, or comes back again next year, the problem inherent to employing a valuable concept like transparency to justify creating more work and reporting for teachers whom parents should be talking to regularly anyway will remain. 

Outside of a complete embrace of home schooling, the classic small-r republican ideal of parents and teachers working together in local schools for the “the common good of the child”—as these legislators put it—will probably always face at least a little difficulty, since their roles and responsibilities of parents and teachers are different. Public schooling in America has always involved a balance between providing a private service to parents--providing their children with the skills and knowledge that will presumably benefit them in their adult lives--and a public good to society at large--introducing to minors civic concepts and a degree of cultural literacy which is judged to be appropriate to the responsibilities of adult democratic citizenship. That balancing act, in practice, will likely disappoint and frustrate as often as it succeeds; that’s what life in a complex, specialized society unavoidably brings us. Technological transparency may smooth over some of these frustrations, but considering its costs, maybe resisting the temptation to demand that the internet to be used to survey everything happening in one's children's classrooms at all times, and instead making the time to respectfully talk and listen, thereby showing trust in each others’ areas of concern and expertise, would surely be the better path.