Sunday, November 20, 2022

Thoughts on Reading (and Being Surprised by) Isaiah

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Back in 2014, I embarked on a read of the complete Old Testament, with a close focus on the text. It took me two-and-a-half years to finish, and my insights along the way were hugely important to the way I have come to think about scripture and what it has to say about my life. Last year I decided to repeat that read, since Robert Alter, whose translations of various books were central to my first journey through the Old Testament, had finally finished his edition of the entire Hebrew Bible, and wanted his poetic sensibility and commentary to guide me through what I'd missed before. Of those missing parts, none were more important than Isaiah (the image here is Marc Chagall's surrealist interpretation of Isaiah 6:6, when one of God's seraphim descends from heaven, touches the prophet's lips with a burning coal taken from God's altar, cleansing his lips and calling him to reveal God's will).

The centralized Sunday school schedule followed by the Mormon church around the world has only recently finished reading Isaiah; it is a heavily proof-texted and selective approach--but then, Isaiah itself has been heavily proof-texted and read selectively by Christians for centuries. No other set of poetic and prophetic texts which made their way into the canonical Old Testament have had a similarly massive impact on how Christians, over all the course of ancient and medieval and even modern Christendom, articulated the faith which the recorded statements of Jesus and the accounts and letters of His early followers inspired. It's not just that Jesus Himself is shown in the New Testament gospels to be quoting from or referencing Isaiah more than any other Old Testament book besides the Psalms; it's that our entire cultural and theological appropriation to and interpretation of Jesus's message and meaning comes to us via a heavily Isaian lens--language of Handel's Messiah being just the most obvious example. And Mormons like me have our own particular doubling-down on this; you can't get a more unambiguous association than the resurrected Jesus explicitly stating in 3 Nephi 23:1 in our Book of Mormon, "great are the words of Isaiah."

That the words of the prophet--or possibly two or even more prophets, spread out over a century, all writing under the name of Isaiah--are great is something I fully agree with. (When I summed up my Old Testament journey before with personal ranking of its books, I put Isaiah in my top ten but near the bottom; now that I've read Alter's translation, I think I need to push him up a few slots.) The poetry of the book is stunning, and frequently arresting, especially for a life-long Christian whose background assumptions include a Christianizing of the language of the Isaian text at such a basic, routine level as to often not even be aware of it. It soars to immense heights, but also digs deep within; it's lovely. For whatever it's worth, I want to share some of what Alter's translated words captured for me--and also push back against Alter is one crucial way, where is deeply informed secular perspective struggles to make sense of something which all us clumsy, pious proof-texters over the millennia might have gotten right after all.

From the beginning, the book of Isaiah is--far more than those associated with any of the other Old Testament prophets--is a text which presents calls to social justice on the same level as its condemnations of the cultic failures and ritual sins of Israel. Isaiah 1:14-17 sets the theme with its explicit comparison of those who hypocritically attend outwardly to religious duties, but ignore the needs of those who are part of that same religious community:

Your new moons and your appointed times I utterly despise. / They have become a burden to me, I cannot bear them. / And when you spread your palms, I avert My eyes from you. / Though you abundantly pray, I do not listen. Your hands are full of blood. / Wash, become pure. Remove your evil acts from My eyes. Cease doing evil. / Learn to do good, seek justice. / Make the oppressed happy, defend the orphan, argue the widow's case.

Importantly, the text of Isaiah regularly connects the evil that must be ceased if the orphan is to be defended with the accumulation of wealth itself, entirely aside form what charitable purposes such wealth might be set to. Growth itself, in a society where land had been--at least insofar as the legends of the Israeli conquest of Palestine suggested to those living in the 7th century BCE--distributed as an inheritance to every family, risks great evil: "Woe, who add house to house, who put field together with field till there is no space left, and you alone are settled, in the heart of the land. / In the hearing of the Lord of Armies: I swear, many houses shall turn to ruin, great and good ones with none living in them" (Isaiah 5:8-9). Of course in today's economy, far more shaped as it is by speculative, debt-financed exchanges of information and images than by productive, land-based work, such warnings about growth might be easy to dismiss as limited to the agrarian world of ancient Israel. That the author(s) of Isaiah were primarily reflective of an agrarian sensibility is undeniable--but perhaps recognizing the pastoral and anti-urban context from which such beautiful visions and invocations of God's justice were articulated ought to be recognized as potentially inseparable from the repentance which this prophet-author called for as well. Consider Isaiah 32: 13-20:

On My people's soil thorn and thistle shall spring up / for on all the houses of revelry, the merrymaking town, / the villa is abandoned, the town's hubbub left behind. / The citadel and the tower become bare places for all time, / wild asses' revelry, pasture for the flocks. / Till a spirit is poured on us from above, and the desert turns to farmland and farmland is reckoned as forest / And justice abides in the desert, and righteousness dwells in the farmland. / And the doing of righteousness shall be peace, and the work of righteousness, safe and quiet forever. / And My people shall swell in abodes of peace, in safe dwellings and tranquil places of rest. / And it shall come down as the forest comes down, and in the lowland the town shall come low. / Happy, you who sow near all waters, who let loose the ox and the donkey.

Pastoral visions like this naturally generate all the usual individualistic reactions--start associating God's promises some kind of communitarian ideal, and the next thing you know everyone's on the hunt to drive out the dissidents, the foreigners, and anyone else who is seen as not fitting in with the community, right? To be sure, there's really no way to honestly discern in the Isaian voice any kind of validation of liberal concerns; it just ain't there. But, perhaps surprisingly, what is there--and which I'd never noticed, until I read Alter's translation--is the degree to which the prophecies in the book of Isaiah reflect the Mosaic insistence upon respect for, even the inclusion of, the stranger--even strangers that live in ways contrary to the community's shared faith. "And let not the foreigner say, who joins the Lord, saying / 'The Lord has kept me apart from his people,' nor let the eunuch say, 'Why, I am a withered tree.' / For thus said the Lord: Of the eunuchs who keep My sabbath, / and choose what I desire and hold fast to My covenant, / I will give them in My house and within My walls a marker and a name better than sons and daughters, an everlasting name will I give them that shall not be cut off..../ For My house a house of prayer shall be called for all the peoples" (Isaiah 56:3-5, 7). These kind of almost-if-not-quite universalist moves appear frequently throughout text (especially in the later, so-called Second Isaiah sections). Of course, that move away from understanding God's revelation solely in terms of a tribal covenant and towards recognizing in it the seeds of a kind of universal love, is, culturally at least, inseparable from Jesus's message in the Sermon of the Mount and elsewhere that God calls us to higher law. And while Alter's presentation of the book of Isaiah is rigorously committed to a secular literary interpretive lens, there comes a point when even he struggles to separate the voice coming through these ancient prophecies from the Christian promise.

It's not the usual suspects; passages like Isaiah 9:5 ("For a child has been born to us, a son has been given to us, and leadership is on his shoulders") are pretty obviously--at least in Alter's capable linguistic hands--presented as belonging to 7th-century BCE concerns particular to an Israel longing for an escape from the threats posed by Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. But then you come to Isaiah 53, starting with a powerful question--"Who could believe what we heard, and to whom was the Lord's arm revealed?"--and going from there into a long, unprecedented vision of a Servant, first mentioned in the previous chapter, who redeems Israel through his suffering. Alter, while dismissing the Christian interpretation, to his credit admits that the verses perplex him, suggesting as they do a posthumous restoration of a Servant whose identity--as least insofar as "virtually all serious scholars" are concerned--remains unclear:

Yet he was wounded for our crimes, crushed for our transgressions. / The chastisement that restored our well-being he bore, and through his bruising we were healed. / All of us strayed like sheep, each turned to his own way, / and the Lord brought down on him the crimes of all of us. / Afflicted and tormented, he opened not his mouth. / Like a lamb led to the slaughter and like an ewe mute before her shearers he opened not his mouth. / By oppressive judgment he was taken off, and who can speak of where he lives? / For he was cut off from the land of the living for My people's crime, bearing their blight. / And his grave was put with the wicked, and with evildoers his death, / for no outrage he had done and no deceit in his mouth..../ My servant shall put the righteous in the right for many, and their crimes he shall bear. / Therefore I will give him shares among the many, and with the mighty he shall share out spoils, / for he laid himself bare to death and was counted among the wrongdoers, / and it is he who bore the offense of many and interceded for the wrongdoers (Isaiah 53:5-9, 11-12) 

My reading of the Old Testament over the years has, more than anything else, taught me to think in terms of God's patient, always evolving, always emergent work: the divine power manifest through the inconsistency and inconstancy of we fallen human beings. Such haphazardness, revealing almost against its own grain the loving attendance of the Creator, has come to me to be essential to understanding the whole complicated structure of this ancient, fascinating, maddening collection of texts. What I have come to not expect, by and large, is exactly the sort of thing so many Christians like myself were raised to focus solely upon: proof of the truthfulness of some doctrine or practice or miracle, delivered to us whole, across centuries of time and thousands of editorial interventions (both intentional and unintentional), in the plain words of the text. I'm pretty confident at this point that I'm really not missing much actual spiritual nourishment by discounting pious claims of such. But when a text more than 2500 years old lays out the possibility of resurrection and restoration, one that has barely any connection to what we know about Hebrew thought of the time, and which matches both future texts and the spiritual experiences of hundreds of millions so well? In this case, bring on "All We Like Sheep," says I. I mean, Christmas is on its way, isn't it?

Friday, November 11, 2022

Planning and "The Politics of Beauty": Reflections on Stewart Udall

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic

John de Graaf, an author, filmmaker, and friend of Front Porch Republic, has recently completed a documentary tribute to a hero of his: Stewart Udall, the pioneering conservationist who in many ways defined (almost entirely for better, though perhaps, in a small way, partly for worse) the environmental agenda of the U.S. government and, more specifically, the Democratic party for the past 60 years. “Stewart Udall: The “Politics of Beauty” is a gorgeously shot and highly informative short movie, a wonderful introduction to a fairly unique and entirely admirable figure from 20th-century American history: a crew-cutted WWII veteran and New Frontier liberal whose passion for the natural world literally changed the landscape of this country--but also an open-minded thinker, a lover of poetry, family, and community, whose conservationist passions led him to be ever more conscious, as the decades went by, of the complications inherent to the liberal statism through which he did his greatest work (even if he never did turn against it entirely). In an essay last year, de Graaf called Udall a “true conservative,” someone who “really wanted to conserve things: land, air, water, beauty, the arts and graces, gentle human relations, the best of tradition, democratic ideals,” and this movie reflects that aspect of Udall’s life very well.

Udall’s early history—his birth into the Udall family in 1920 (which was already by then an expanding political clan), his life as a young Mormon in Saint Johns, Arizona, and the poverty, the conflicts, and the fellowship which existed in that arid farming community—is by no means the focus of de Graff’s film, but I was entranced by those opening shots and the story it told, complete with comments from Udall’s surviving siblings. It put me in mind of my own maternal grandfather, Joseph Arben Jolley, who was born just four years before Udall in Tropic, Utah, a similarly remote and tiny Mormon hamlet on the Colorado Plateau (though 300 miles, a couple of mountain ranges, and several Native reservations separate the two towns). Like my grandfather, Udall’s early years were without electricity or running water, something which FDR’s New Deal (specifically the Rural Electrification Act) changed, with radical consequences for the Udall family—among other things, they became Democrats, convinced that government action really can improve human lives.

It was that conviction, tied to his passion for racial and, especially, environmental justice, which shaped his public career, first as an elected representative, and then as Secretary of the Interior under both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. During those years, Udall orchestrated the establishment of more national parks, historical monuments, wildlife refuges, and recreational areas than any other Interior Secretary either before or since; if you’ve ever visited Canyonlands National Park, or hiked the Appalachian Trail, or spent time at over a hundred other similar locations across America’s beautiful and diverse ecosystems and geography, it’s likely that you have Stewart Udall at least partly to thank. His years of government service were not restricted to what he did to strengthen and expand the conservationist mentality in Washington D.C.; de Graaf’s documentary does an excellent job highlighting Udall’s broad engagement with cultural issues, as well the tensions and frustrations he faced as a leading government official during the heights of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and all the protests both unleashed. But still, it is the lessons he leaned in Saint Johns, the way he applied those lessons, the things he learned from his struggles over them, and how his own take on those lessons thus evolved over the decades, which strike me as most valuable to America today.

In 1963, Udall published his first book, The Quiet Crisis. An idiosyncratic and unsystematic but still deeply insightful history of conservation attitudes and efforts throughout American history, its perspective on the role of government in protecting wilderness, particularly in the American West, was in some ways superseded by later books of his. But the original remains something of lost classic, regularly rediscovered and praised by those trying to understand the development of American society’s relationship to the land. Reading it in conjunction with watching de Graaf’s film both complicates and deepens our understanding of this indefatigable public servant.

In these pages, there are a fair number of embarrassing paeans to the presumed virtue and wisdom of American planners and policy-makers. Among others, the book begins with Udall presenting the national government’s Indian Claims Commission, which is generally accepted to have utterly failed in its task to treat Native land claims justly, “as a singular gesture of atonement, which no civilized country has ever matched,” and then towards the conclusion includes some glowing praise for Robert Moses, the devastating over-builder of American cities, highlighting his efforts to “overcome earlier failures to plan” and bring to American urban areas “asphalt for beach parking lots, for playgrounds, and for roads” (pp. 11, 163-164). But between such missteps, there much worth admiring and pondering.

In The Quiet Crisis, Udall provides thoughtful portraits—and critiques—of influential naturalists, conservationists, and geographers like George Perkins Marsh, Gifford Pinchot, John Wesley Powell, John Muir, and Frederick Law Olmstead. He off-handedly introduces the idea of global warning decades before scientific debates over such crashed into the public consciousness ("What are the long-range results of man's modification of the environment? When men clear a forest in order to make space for agriculture, how does this clearing affect the climate, the rate of erosion of soil, and the populations of birds and other wild animals?"--p. 81). Predictably, the book includes vicious condemnations of what he various refers to as the “Big Raid,” the “Great Giveaway,” and the “Myth of Superabundance,” the guiding ideology of many American business interests and monopolists which, facing only occasional resistance, exploited and denuded American forests, ecosystems, watersheds, species, grasslands, resources, and more throughout the 19th century and the first part of the 20th. Perhaps just as predictably, he lavishly praises those who took executive action on behalf of environmental interests, particularly Presidents Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. According to Udall, TR “regarded himself as the trustee of the lands owned by the people” and “dared to use his pen,” aggressively expanding the application of the Reclamation Act and the Antiquities Act so as to more than quadruple the size of protected natural lands in the United States (though whether TR’s actions really “dealt a decisive blow to the Myth of Superabundance” in America is doubtful--pp. 131, 136). And in Udall’s view, FDR’s New Deal aimed to reverse effects of “the Big Raids…[during which] much of the nation's resource capital had been borrowed and used up to advance the personal fortunes of a few”; through the creation of the REA, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Soil Conservation Service, and more, the government aimed to “to invest in land-rebuilding programs that would assure adequate resources for tomorrow….[with] the needs of the community and of the next generation…given first priority" (p. 144).

Udall’s reference there to “the needs of the community” may give one pause here, and it should. Because as the aforementioned tendency in The Quiet Crisis to occasionally see national planning as an obvious solution to any environmental or historical or urban problem demonstrates, Udall’s passion for the American landscape and wildlife was not always entirely cognizant of the local people who actually live in those landscapes and with that wildlife. It’s an attitude he clearly struggled with; in “The Politics of Beauty,” de Graaf shows an excerpt from a 2003 interview with Udall, in which he reflects that “there has always been local opposition, regional opposition, state opposition to the creation of new national parks….because people…wanted to control [the land around them] and do it the way they wanted to do it.” But even 40 years earlier, Udall was, I think, conscious of the ambiguity here. On my reading, the heart of that ambiguity resides with Henry David Thoreau, whom Udall calls “one of our first preservationists” and “a naturalist’s naturalist,” and whom, I believe, haunts his thinking. Consider his criticism of the man’s oeuvre:

Thoreau was alarmed by the Raider spirit, but he failed to realize that the land spoilers were already in command, and were committed to a course of action that would destroy the land values he prized the most. With his negative feelings about government and politics, he failed to perceive that it would take government action to stop the destruction. There were other contradictions:  although he abhorred the very thought of social action, land conservation could not begin until men organized for action; he was anti-reformer, but it would take the crusading zeal of reform-minded men to save the woods and wildlife; he was, moreover, the most thoroughgoing nonconformist alive, though the dangerous drift of the time pointed to the need for conformity to minimum rules of resource management. In short, government action was necessary to curb the exploitation of resources and allow the land to renew itself, but Henry David Thoreau was constitutionally and unalterably antiprogram and antigovernment (p. 52).

To Udall, the results of this disposition was obvious: no national parks, no resistance to those would abuse the natural world for their own profit. And yet, consider also Udall’s concluding remarks, in which he looks out the suburbanizing, postwar America he was partly responsible for leading:

We are now a nomadic people, and our new-found mobility had deprived us of a sense of belonging to a particular place. Millions of Americans have no tie to the 'natural habitat' that is their home....A land ethic for tomorrow should be as honest as Thoreau's Walden....Henry David Thoreau would scoff at the notion that the Gross National Product should be the chief index to the state of the nation, or that automobile sales of figures on consumer consumption reveal anything significant about the authentic art of living. He would surely assert that a clean landscape is as important as a freeway, he would deplore every planless conquest of the countryside, and he would remind his countrymen that a glimpse of a grouse can be more inspiring than a Hollywood spectacular or color television. To those who complain of the complexity of modern life, he might reply, 'If you want inner peace find it in solitude, not speed, and if you would find yourself, look to the land from which you came and to which you go (pp. 189-190).

This ambivalence—leavening what is otherwise a learned and vigorous defense of what Udall clearly understood as a progressive and beneficial fight by experts to tame American individualism and protect America’s natural bounty, most especially in the arid ecosystems of the American West—shouldn’t surprise anyone who sees in Udall the mature wisdom which de Graaf’s movie so ably demonstrates. Udall was a person capable of changing his mind—about the postwar passion for dam-building, most prominently—and of growing and rethinking as the years went by. That growth helped him come to see the foolishness of his support for Cold War policies which have paved the way for American militarism, and to regret his support for energy and highway development projects which have only led to greater urban centralization and pollution. His deep, almost religious commitment to principles of frugality, family, and justice (my sole complaint with de Graaf’s wonderful documentary is that its brief references to Udall’s Mormonism don’t capture the complicated reality of his membership in his and my shared tribe) may have expressed themselves in different ways over the decades, but they surely only grew stronger with time.

It would be too much to say that the work he committed himself to in the decades following his later years—among other things, a long legal struggle to get the national government to acknowledge the harms of the radiation it had exposed thousands to through nuclear testing in the American southwest through the 1950s and 1960s—was something he took on as a penance. On the contrary, it’s unlikely he ever regretted his role in using the power of the national government to accomplish ends which provided great benefits to the broader public, to say nothing of the benefits to the ecosystems which his push for conservation and protecting wilderness areas made possible. But I do think that over the years the ambivalence I sense in his writing--an ambivalence which reflected a frustration with Thoreau's rejection of collective action, but also an admiration for Thoreau's committed locality--put him on a somewhat different trajectory. He's not alone in finding himself struggling over the best balance between the local and the national, or between engaging individual ecological tending and establishing collective ecological boundaries. As I noted years ago, in connection with other contentious acts of national conservation--the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, specifically--Udall's trajectory has been shared by other Interior Secretaries as well. In an essay for Front Porch Republic, Nathan Nielson once spelled out this dynamic well: reflecting upon the protective routinization which the National Park Service provides to America’s beautiful places, Nielson observed that while “local governments have a better sense of what the land means…the federal route is the only viable option when the clamor for nature reaches critical mass.” Indeed.

In a letter Udall wrote to his grandchildren in 2005, Udall had a lot of advice, some of it still quite programmatic and planning oriented, and perhaps defensibly so. But he also brought his mature, reflective perspective to bear on his own part in the ambitious planning of his generation:

Operating on the assumption that energy would be both cheap and superabundant, I admit, led my generation to make misjudgments that have come back and now haunt and perplex your generation. We designed cities, buildings, and a national system of transportation that were inefficient and extravagant. Now, the paramount task of your generation will be to correct those mistakes with an efficient infrastructure that respects the limitations of our environment to keep up with damages we are causing.

Not a fully Thoreau-esque statement, to be sure, but one that is perhaps animated at least in part by his non-comformist, place-loving spirit nonetheless. Sharon Francis, Udall’s longtime aid who knew his work as well as anyone, was extensively interviewed by de Graaf; she called Udall “the Henry David Thoreau of his generation.” Ignoring all the circumstantial ways that comparison doesn't quite work (to say nothing of the fact that, two generations on from the high point of Udall's impact sixty years ago, perhaps environmentalism needs less Udallian confidence and more Wes-Jackson-style apocalyptism), and focusing instead on the shared, fundamental passions which make it essentially true, one can’t help but wonder: what better tribute could a true “conservative”—that is, a conserver of the land and the resources which provide human communities and indeed the whole human race with life and joy—possibly receive than that? "The Politics of Beauty" reminds us of this romantic, poetic, but also practical conservation-minded Udall, and that alone is reason to watch it again and again.

Wednesday, November 02, 2022

Wondering About a (Highly Unlikely, But Not Inconceiveable) Local Wave

At the Great Plains Political Science Association annual conference held last weekend at Wichita State University, four political observers--three of them Insight Kansas contributors--were asked to make their predictions for next week’s elections. All four said they believed Sharice Davids would win re-election in the Third Congressional District; three out of the four said they believed Governor Laura Kelly would defeat Derek Schmidt and be re-elected; and two out of the four said they believed Chris Mann would defeat Kris Kobach and be elected Kansas’s attorney general. But further down the ballot, and pretty much everywhere else besides, maybe, the 3rd District and Kansas's northeast corner? The agreement was near unanimous (and in line with the latest public opinion analysis): November 8 will likely be a red wave, terrible night for the Democrats.

“Near unanimous,” of course, means at least one voice of dissent. The dissenter was me.

Am I totally confident in my belief that Kansas, come November 8, may provide national Democrats with some tiny, consoling blue ripples during an otherwise rough night (which, on the macro level, I agree it will be)? Not remotely. So why bother saying so, when the usual political science variables—a midterm election during the first term of an unpopular President at a time of high inflation—point towards a Democratic bloodbath?

Maybe it’s just contrariness. Or maybe it’s the lesson of two elections. Or maybe, once again, it's the yard signs.

The first election I’m thinking is the one we just had: the August primary vote on the “Value Them Both” amendment. That the size of the victory enjoyed by abortion-rights supporters has been much commented on—but more relevant here is just how much of a surprise it was.There had never really been a vote like that one before: a straight-up, yes-or-no vote regarding the right to at least minimal abortion services. Frankly, no one really had any data to work with. Reasonable guesses could be made on the basis of demographics or party affiliation—but no serious observer could have guessed that the amendment would lose by nearly 20 points (I certainly didn't). 

The 2016 election of Donald Trump similarly took a huge number of people by surprise—but in that case, the surprise wasn’t because of the lack of data, but because so many people (myself included) didn’t take seriously all the relevant information—the unpopularity of Hillary Clinton, the shifts in white voting patterns in upper Midwestern states, etc.—which pointed to the real chance that Trump could win. It seemed to so many of us just so unlikely and bizarre that we discounted it. 

So we come to the Kansas 2022 elections, where we’re not in the same situation as before the August amendment vote. In fact, thanks to that vote, the Kansas Speaks survey, and some other data points, we know a fair amount, particularly about high levels of voter engagement among Democratic-leaning groups, and the early numbers which suggest that engagement may be continuing into the week of the election. We also know that Kelly’s approval numbers are pretty good, and that abortion, along with Medicaid expansion and medical marijuana legalization, are motivating many voters--presumably in a Democratic direction.

But are they motivating enough voters to entirely overcome the huge, historical advantages which Republicans enjoy in Kansas? Or all the other already-mentioned disadvantages weighing down Democrats this year? Probably not. 

But in this election I don’t want to discount the data out there, however limited it may be. Yes, the election fundamentals and the polling (as flawed as much of it may be) suggest fairly comprehensive Republican gains, both across the nation and here in Kansas as well. Nonetheless, I believe there really is a chance that not only will we see some top of the ballot Democrats winning in this state, but also see enough Democrats holding on to or flipping state houses races—perhaps in Manhattan, Shawnee, Emporia, Hays, Hutchinson, or even here in thoroughly polarized Wichita—such that the Republican super-majority in Topeka could actually be lost, bizarre as that may sound in the wake the Republican redistricting of state and congressional legislative districts earlier this year.
(I admit that I added Wichita to that list out of simple self-interested curiosity. I'm looking at Representative Dan Hawkins, my neighborhood's representative in the state house, and the House Majority Leader--a pretty powerful figure in the Kansas legislature. Yet in light of what I've written before about Wichita slowly turning purple, if not blue, we've seen Hawkins's percentages consistently decline in this strongly Republican area through the election cycles since the last redistricting, from 70% down to 60%. And against that you have some local Democratic urgency, an urgency I see with his opponent Mike McCorkle--learn all about him here--whose team is managing to place yard signs simply everywhere around our little part of Wichita, meaning that he is either better funded than past local Democrats, or has a better team knocking doors and placing signs than candidates of the past, or just plain has more voters out there willing to show public support for him. Add it all up, and I wonder if Hawkins might actually be brought down to 50% of the vote this time. Or, dare I say it...maybe even a smidge lower?)

Again, I’m not remotely confident about any of this. All the macro level stuff I mentioned above remains true--and frankly, the smart money is to always bet on what the macro trends say. But after 2016 and 2022, I’m not so confident as to discount the possibility of the truly unlikely happening either. I mean, what's the worst that can happen--I get it all wrong? I've eaten crow before, I can do it again.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Two Voices for Evan McMullin

[I've written about the intriguing Mike Lee-Evan McMullin Senate race in Utah before, and it's not hard to figure out where someone like me would stand in such a contest. On By Common Consent, a blog with far more Utah readers than this one, I've given voice to a couple of McMullin supporters, in the mostly vain (but not, mathematically speaking, absolutely vain!) hope that promoting such voices might help move the needle in some tiny, tiny way. In that same spirit, though with even more infinitesimal likelihood of making a different (but hey, Blogger doesn't cost me a penny) I reproduce their voices here. Enjoy!]

First, from the conservative former Republican:

As Utah contemplates whether or not to allow Mike Lee to continue his efforts to subvert democracy for another six years, it is worth revisiting the last time his political career was hanging by a thread.

I use that metaphor deliberately to associate it with the prophecy/folklore/nonsense that the United States Constitution will likewise dangle precariously, and it will be the elders of Israel who ride in on a white horse to save it. This has been the animating idea of all Utah Republican politics for as long as I can remember, and certainly for as long as Mike Lee has been alive. It is therefore the reason Lee repeatedly announced on the 2010 campaign trail that he, Mike Lee, was the wise man raised up unto the very purpose of mounting said horse and rescuing his pocket Constitution from the brittle thread upon which it dangleth. 

Actually, no, he never said that. That would be too much for non-loons to stomach, and it would have given a name to the fermenting extremism that would ultimately splatter into Lee’s victory. Lee was never so direct, but he always couched his campaign stump speech in religious language and culture. He spoke of “releasing” the sitting senator with “a vote of thanks,” and, more significantly, he ended each stump speech quoting Doctrine and Covenants 101:80 about the “wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose” to write the Constitution, trying very hard to get his audience to think that he, Mike Lee, the not-so-wise future Trump sycophant who envisioned an orange Captain Moroni, was the guy who would somehow be charged with saving it.

This was an effective strategy, for the most part. He sounded reasonable enough that mainstream Republicans didn’t feel threatened, but those looking to Lee as their Constitutional savior heard enough dog whistles to satisfy them. They knew he had to play nice for the RINOs, but they knew that Lee was one of them.

Then, right before the 2010 Republican State Convention, somebody said the quiet part out loud.

A day before the convention, a postcard arrived in every delegate’s mailbox. It showed Bob Bennett standing in front of the U.S. Capitol and Mike Lee standing in front of the Salt Lake Temple. The headline screamed “Which of these men really represents Utah values?” On the back of the flyer, it proclaimed that Mike Lee was the hanging-by-a-thread guy and screamed explicitly everything Mike Lee had been preaching implicitly for well over a year.

Going into the convention, all polls should Lee running away with the whole thing by garnering over 60 percent of the vote, eliminating the need for a primary. But after that mailer hit, Lee’s numbers all but collapsed. He barely eked out a second place convention showing behind Tim Bridgewater and scrambled to rebuild his support to win a modest primary victory a few months later.

This story remains relevant in 2022 because it serves as a reminder of just how rancid Mike Lee truly is.

When Mr. Save-the-Constitution was working hard to prevent the peaceful transfer of power in 2020, he did so with he still considers his mandate from heaven. He genuinely believes that God put him in office to save the Constitution. So when he spent fourteen hours a day trying to find state legislators to overthrow the Constitution, he was doing it on God’s orders. The Trump-is-Captain-Moroni garbage wasn’t some casual error; it was emblematic of how Lee sees himself and his cause. He is delighted to have accomplished nothing whatsoever and always being the one senator voting nay when 99 others vote aye.

A brittle thread, after all, has to stand alone.

Mike Lee is therefore worse than just a run-of-the-mill lousy senator. He is political and religious poison. His extremism is accompanied by delusions of divine sanction. That kind of venom needs to be sucked out of the Senate and spewed into the spittoon of history.

Please vote for Evan McMullin.

Second, from the independent:

I have spent a lot of time writing about why I will not vote for Mike Lee, and a lot less time on why I’m voting for McMullin. So why am I voting for McMullin?

In short: the alternative is Mike Lee. That is a huge reason for why I’m voting for McMullin, and I’ll be up front about that. If Lee were not the alternative choice, maybe I would not be pulling for McMullin so hard because McMullin is not my ideal candidate. But the alternative is Lee and it’s hard to do worse than Lee.

We know who Lee is, what he stands for, how he operates, and his beliefs. Now, Lee has made that the heart of his campaign pitch, but unlike Lee, I don’t think that is a ringing endorsement. He has not represented the people of Utah or the GOP well. He has been the lone veto on a host of important issues; he publicly compared Trump to Captain Moroni; and we have his texts and actions leading up to January 6th, which he still has not accounted for. I could continue, but I have spent too much time writing about that.

Instead let me explain why I think McMullin is a good choice. Here’s why:

I think our country is in trouble. January 6th should have been a bigger wake up call for us, but many of us are going along as nothing has changed. Our country needs us to rethink and think outside the box and to change some of the status quo that led to that moment of crisis and has led to many people ignoring it since then.  We need some reimagining, restructuring, and restoring. That’s the message McMullin is running on, and we need more people to buy into that idea. We need people who will work to ensure events like Jan 6th don’t happen again. We’re at such a desperate point, I’m willing to take a gamble with McMullin. Because I know what we’ll get from Lee, and I’m not sure we can afford more of it.

McMullin’s pitch is creating a coalition of voters he will listen to. That is something Mike Lee has not done for a long time—listen to constituents. If it turns out McMullin doesn’t listen to voters or create this coalition, then he will be like nearly any other politician. But too many, like Lee, don’t even try to pretend to listen anymore. Signaling that we will demand more from our politicians than Lee has given us is necessary. McMullin is at least trying.

McMullin has not vilified half the state of Utah as evil and corrupt. Approximately 50% of the state are registered Republican voters in the state. However, notably many are registered Republican for strategic reasons. We know how Lee feels about us who aren’t loyally Republican. I love that we have a candidate in McMullin who is committed to seeing humanity in people, who can look past party labels. McMullin is trying to say people matter, not just what letter they have next to their name. I also want to reward that message.

McMullin could have a unique and unprecedented role to play. Lee and several ads are saying we can’t vote McMullin because what if the senate is close and it comes down to how McMullin votes. They say we won’t know how he will act then. I actually think that would be very exciting for our state! If this came to fruition, I think it would give Utah an interesting role to play that we have never played before. Having a senator that people need to convince to vote with them on any particular issue would make Utah a powerful state in ways we have never been before.

He’s publicly committed to work across the aisle and caucus with both parties. Maybe when he gets there, he reneges on that message. But I love the idea of having an elected official free to leverage principles rather than party. A candidate who is saying he will work with everybody is an exciting prospect to me. It’s worth a shot!

McMullin is not the liberal many make him out to be but nor is he a follower of Trump. Why conservatives should vote for him: The reality is before Trump McMullin would have been considered staunchly Republican. He broke from the party (like many of us, including me) after Trump’s ascent and his utter transformation of the Republican party. For those worried, he will be liberal—he’s about as traditionally conservative as they come. So for liberals: why vote for him then when we aren’t conservative and want a liberal? What distinguishes him from Lee? He’s was willing to go against the current and stand up to some of the more dangerous elements of the GOP. We need to reward more of that and principled conservatism. And again, the alternative is Lee.

McMullin has his moments. He has moments where I see a flash of greatness.

McMullin can win! My gut says that Lee will win this race but only if people like us do show up. If even a fraction of the disenfranchised voters, the moderates, independents were to vote, then McMullin would win. People are counting on us to stay home. This is the best chance we will have in decades to effect change in our state. It comes down to who shows up. So let’s surprise everybody, and show up. Let’s be that voice for change. It’s worth trying. Worst case, we vote and Lee wins anyway, but at least then, we can still say we did everything we could.

Let’s make it happen, Utah!

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Back to the Bottom-Line (Apocalyptically and Practically Speaking) at the Land Institute

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

The cabin pictured here, both with its original inhabitant and with some of my students and I standing in front of it, is a relatively new feature at The Land Institute in Salina, KS, a research center for sustainable agriculture and a source of inspiration to localists, agrarians, and the left-wing rural counter-culture everywhere. Wes Jackson, who founded TLI in 1976, describes himself as a radical in terms of his approach to wealth and power, and a conservative in terms of his approach to living; that description probably fits well most of the scientists, farmers, and activists associated with the Institute, especially those who gather for its annual Prairie Festival in late September (this year was its first in-person Festival since 2019, and you could feel the joy many felt at gathering together once again). Certainly that odd mix of the radical and the conservative, the apocalyptic and the practical, is well embodied in the tiny cabin of Leland Lorenzen, an “indispensable” friend of Jackson’s who passed away 17 years ago, and whose relocated shack was recently opened as a TLI exhibit.

There was much else to see and hear during the Prairie Festival this year, to be sure. Besides taking place in a beautiful and inspiring natural and agricultural space, the Festival has been an opportunity, over the years, for my students and I to listen to, learn from, and be challenged by writers and thinkers like Wendell Berry, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Loka Ashwood, and Jackson himself. This year, Eric Schlosser, he of the game-changing book Fast Food Nation and a member of TLI’s Board of Directors, was one of the headliners. Having had the chance to meet and talk with him 17 years ago, before I came to Kansas, it was great to ask him now about the tensions I perceived in his writings back then about America’s food system. Did he believe then, or does he believe now, that the enormous health, environmental, and economic problems which the fast food revolution and the industrial agricultural model it depends upon (one example Schlosser mentioned in his data-packed presentation: thanks to groundwater contamination, probably as many of 80% of Americans already have traces of carcinogenic chemical fertilizer in their blood) can best be responded to by more and better progressive liberal regulations, or are more extreme, anti-capitalist, even “anti-liberal,” responses called for? Schlosser chuckled at my question, admitting that back then he knew almost nothing about the larger currents forcing humanity along its current socio-economic and technological trajectory, and acknowledging the radical need to return to the land; “like it or not,” he added, “all of us will go back to the soil someday,” so why resist its call now?

That sense of radicalness stayed with me as, later in the afternoon, my students and I peered into Lorenzen’s cramped, 6 ft. by 16 ft. living space, which had been moved from his one-acre plot some 30 miles from Salina, and in which he had lived for the last 29 years of his life, surviving mostly off soaked wheat, scavenged greens, and milk from his goat (at one time Lorenzen had maintained a fairly impressive garden, complete with greenhouse, but in time abandoned it, feeling that intentionally shaping the land around him in accordance with his appetites and needs was a matter of "projecting an image" onto the world, and thus always an invitation to manipulation, conflict, and violence). Looking the simple bed and small wood-burning stove, I was put in mind of the apocalyptism of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the mystics in the early centuries of the Christian movement who fled to the deserts of Egypt and elsewhere because they saw God’s creation as a hard, demanding gift, something given to us to be endured and to be purified by, something which directs our attention to deeper and more transcendent truths, and which we fail to understand when see in it mere resources for material accumulation, social accomplishment, or even just plain physical security. Lorenzen wasn’t at all a spiritual person, in the same way his friend Jackson isn’t, despite the latter knowing his Bible and Christian history very well, something Jackson revealed when talking about his friend in a recent memoir, Hogs Are Up:

A major effort for Leland was to stop the internal dialogue….This was a source of worry. He said the only out of it was to be alone; after a while, his image of himself would fade, and then he would have the “awareness of a squirrel.” A squirrel’s awareness is of the “effective,” immediate environment surrounding him. One can then be out of the environment where the buds of violence would grow.

He took me once a couple of miles from his shack to an abandoned pasture with prairie and trees all around where there were some large protruding rocks. Using those rocks and a minimum or building materials, Leland had built a small shelter just large enough to sleep in. It was really spare. The pillowcase was stuffed with prairie grasses. Here the deer and other wild animals would come to lie down outside, within a few feet of where he was sitting or sleeping, undisturbed by his present. As I surveyed the surroundings and inspected his handiwork, he explained, “Here is where Leland goes to get away from Leland.” I didn’t ask what he meant and still think it would have been improper to do so, but I have wondered. My first question was “Why isn’t life back at his shack enough?” I thought of Francis of Assisi, some of the mystics, some monks, Elijah, and other examples….

Once….[Leland] took me around to visit some drop-out communities in the Missouri Ozarks. Most of the people [there] had been antiwar protesters, civil rights activists, and the like who had thrown themselves out on the land, taking their advanced degrees from places such as the University of California, Berkeley with them. It was near-subsistence living….Leland and I talked about that trip many times, noting how difficult it is to try to become a satellite of sustainability orbiting the extractive economy. Over the years, most of these idealistic, strong individuals found themselves increasingly pulled into the orbit of the dominant culture….[Leland’s shack] now stands as a monument to the most bottom-line person I have ever known (pp. 162-164).

It is unsurprising, perhaps, that the admirable ”bottom line” for someone like Jackson runs right up to—if not entirely embracing—a fairly extreme and apocalyptic rejection of the technologies and accoutrements of modernity, seeing them all as ultimately a kind of Titanic deck-chair shuffling in the face of complete ecological breakdown, or worse. (Lorenzen, it’s worth noting, may have been profoundly inspired by Thoreau, but apparently began his retreat to the land specifically because he was convinced nuclear war was imminent.) While Jackson has long been associated with Wendell Berry, Joel Salatin, Bill Vitek, and others who have challenged all the environmental and social devastations wrought by industrial agriculture, for him agriculture itself has always been humankind’s “10,000 year problem,” a choice that committed our species to following our “human-carbon nature” (that is, the biological instinct to obtain energy-giving food, and to obtain the resources that enable us to obtain ever more energy-giving food) in the direction of economic centralization, political corporatism, territorial expansion, and natural exploitation. As Jackson’s memoir makes clear, growing up on a farm, tending to livestock and a huge vegetable garden, in the Kansas of the 1940s and 1950s (he was born in 1936) left him with habits and perspectives he deeply appreciates. But when the opportunity to work for a summer on a farm in South Dakota introduced him to a different natural topography and thus a different perspective on how human beings live on the earth, the choice for him was clear: “[S]o during my youth were two experiences with land. One, which became known to me later as the Jeffersonian ideal, was where culture dictated that ground be plowed, worked, and planted. The other, rangeland life, was where the plow had no place and was even anathema. I preferred the glassland” (p. 64). His agrarianism, then, is not Berryesque, whatever their many other agreements. Berry’s agrarian sensibility is fundamentally about tending to and partnering with the fruitfulness of our places, while Jackson is far more keyed to our biologically necessary submission to the geological and evolutionary time-frame of Creation (despite his secularism, Jackson regularly speaks of the natural world in such terms), and the long-term consequences of our refusal of such.

Perhaps we could call this vision “catastrophic agrarianism,” in the sense that Jackson is convinced the only kind of life that awaits the human species in the long run is a return to a non-industrial one, and that eventually our carbon-seeking nature will someday be forced by “multiple cascading crises” to express itself—unfortunately, probably at great social and human cost—in entirely decentralized, technologically limited, and far less complex social and dietary contexts. The short book he authored with Robert Jensen this year, An Inconvenient Apocalypse, lays out this perspective in bracing, efficient detail. So far as they are concerned—and, to be clear, a huge number of ecologists, agronomists, and climate scientists essentially agree with them—the time is long past to admit that “[t]he coming decades are likely to be marked by dramatic dislocations as a result of our social and ecological crises,” including global warming, species extinction, food insecurity, water depletion, universal pollution, and more.

The root cause of these multiple crises is a “crisis of consumption,” specifically that “the human population has too much stuff,” and are by and large ignorant of the “ecological costs of the extraction, processing, and waste disposal to produce all that stuff.” Jackson and Jensen, who regularly acknowledge the deep racial injustices which the imperialist and corporate overdevelopment of much of the planet has involved, tip their hat to their preferred economic and social justice arrangements—“we support egalitarian principles that are central to socialism”—but also conclude firmly: “there’s no reason to believe…that a more egalitarian system today would be able to limit ecological destruction in significant ways, unless it embraced a collective rejection of the contemporary high-energy ‘lifestyle’….The more democratic decision-making possible in a well-designed socialist system offers a path for rational planning. But it is naïve to believe that such a system will make it easy to impose limits, especially when the techno-optimists tell us that we can have it all.” (pp. 5-6, 38-39, 40). 

Our “carbon-human nature,” in other words, has forced us—just like, as Jackson and Jensen remind us, many other species throughout the evolutionary history of life on Earth—out of our own natural “context.” We have spent the past 10,000 years, perhaps a mere 5% of the whole history of homo sapiens as a species (but especially just the past century, “when new forms of mass media made it frighteningly easy for concentrated power to shape the public mind and transform our carbon-seeking instincts into the madness of consumer capitalism”), consuming and expanding and imposing at a size and scope and scale and speed utterly incompatible with the planet’s ecosphere. They conclude: “We are starting too late to prevent billions of people from enduring incalculable suffering. We are starting too late to prevent the permanent loss of millions of species and huge tracts of habitat. We are starting to late, but we have to start….We believe that we start by telling ourselves and each other the truth” (p. 74).

For Jackson and Jensen, despite their avowed secularism, the truth the believe must be told has a strong religious character to it. Not for them various individualistic responses to consumerism, whether survivalist (while both live highly frugal lives, neither are Lorenzen-style, off-the-grid types) or minimalist (though they allow that “the current bourgeois bent of consumer minimalism is better than nothing”). What they believe is necessary is to seek out, or to experiment with establishing, in our own places and neighborhoods, a “saving remnant,” a model of community which, whatever its particular geographic and environmental conditions, will “manage to survive on the other side of collapse,” primarily by adopting a sense of humility and relative powerlessness before the “ecospheric grace” expressed through the hard rhythms of the natural world, and by cultivating new (or recovering old) skills, buildings, liturgies, and routines, and thereby telling new stories “born of resistance to the Consumer.” Because they are certain that, ultimately, our ruinous drive to consume ever more energy and resources and land and food can only consume itself:

[A]t some point, “fewer and less” will not be a matter of choice but will be reality, whether we like it or not. We will have to manage collectively the choices we make within new limits. We see no reason to believe that, in the time frame available, human societies will embrace public policies that significantly change the collapse trajectory. But once we are faced with new limits, societies will need to work out strategies for the democratic self-management of resources at the local level, allowing people to hold each other accountable without centralized power….In the ten thousand years of agriculture and empires, we’ve made “progress” that leaves us in dire straits. But we can remember that not only is there another way, but that for most of human history our species lived in other ways, and some still do today….There’s a saying in the minimalist movement that less is more; a good life is not only possible but also more likely when one reduces consumption. Fair enough, but it’s perhaps more accurate to say, “Less is less, but less is okay.” Whatever we may want, our future will be marked by less consumption. The pleasures of consuming will have to be offset by other activities that provide satisfaction. The more people there are embracing a mill-around [that is, focusing on tending to one’s particular places and resources, rather than always trying to “build greater” (see Luke 12:18)] theory of life, the more we will be able to accept less (pp. 102, 112-113).

The dismissal by Jackson and Jensen of any dream of building greater (better technological solutions, larger system changes, more comprehensive regulations, etc.) isn’t a dismissal of any kind of building, period; as they write: “There is nothing wrong with individuals or communities taking action that might enhance short-term survival in crises….Being more self-reliant is a good thing” (p. 90). But the building they have in mind is a local, neighborly, collective sort of remnant-building. And so it isn’t surprising to find, standing right alongside more apocalyptic thinkers, are local farmers—in this case, a panel of African-American farmers and food producers from across the region, from Common Ground in Wichita to Sankara Farm in Kansas City, talking about their attempts to move the needle when it comes to food policy. This obviously means a strong systems awareness, and their presentations reflected that (lots of praise for the ecologically minded food-related proposals of Senator Cory Booker or the USDA’s support for Healthy Corner Store initiatives across the country, lots of frustration with PETA’s distracting obsession with the science of fake meat or the overall leadership of Tom Vilsack, President Biden’s corporate agriculture-friendly choice to lead the Department of Agriculture). But the systems-change they surely recognize as necessary does not dictate their local experimentation, in the same way that the concerns about climate change do not primarily dictate the genetic research into perennial grains conducted by TLI’s geneticists. Rather, the goal is to act practically, to lean into whatever practices and innovations might enable to the local accomplishment to their particular vocations, whether that be improving the nutritional intake of the poor without contributing to the ecological footprint, or enabling greater access to food markets by Black farmers without forcing a homogenizing abandonment of local adaptations.

None of this may seem to have much of anything to do with investing our talk about the environment with a fierce, bottom-line apocalyptism, a rejection of any false hopes in some kind of techno-providence, and a harsh, Lorenzen-like return to the land to await the end. On the contrary, there is a self-deprecating good humor to Jackson and Jensen’s screed (though perhaps that is more Jackson than Jensen; in Hogs Are Up, he has a great line about stopping by Lorenzen's shack where his friend was somewhat distraught over receiving Social Security payments which he did not want, then mentions that he had to leave Leland to his struggles because he had to go and catch a plane and further increase atmospheric carbon). In my experience, this same good humor is manifest by many of the hippies and hard workers who populate The Land Institute. To my mind, such attitudes reflect different takes on “milling about”--or put another way, attending to whatever humble efforts present themselves in one's local environment and one's everyday life which might contribute to more just and more sustainable local practices, all in the shadow of the apocalypse. Because if you accept the diagnosis of Jackson and others at TLI—or even if you don’t entirely, but at least acknowledge its sobering plausibility, which is the camp in which I count myself—then one should also accept that in the long-term, patient local work which eschews the grand solution is the only work that can ultimately be sustained through and beyond the systems-level consequences that our own socio-economic choices and carbon-addicted natures are bringing about. Wendell Berry has written endlessly about the goodness of local work; if, for Berry, the goodness of such work is connected to agrarian virtue, while for Jackson it is connected to ecological necessity, does that make much practical difference? In the end (which may be closer than we know!), perhaps not that much.

Tuesday, October 04, 2022

On Philosophy, Religion, Nazis, Conservatives, Leftists, Damon Linker, and Me

[Damon Linker--pundit, author, oft-infuritating centrist, and all-around great human being--recently lost his father, and is taking a break from his Substack to take care of family issues. I well understand how consuming the loss of a father can be, and my prayers are with him, his wife Beth, and their children at this time. I thought about delaying this post for a while, but then decided that it ultimately was, in some ways, a kind of a tribute to him and his, to me anyway, deeply clarifying philosophical journey, with just some perhaps interesting comments on political theory, metaphysical hopes, and regime-threatening racism along the way. Part of me thinks he'll appreciate that odd mix. Anyway, best wishes at this difficult time, old friend.]

 Damon and I have been friends for over two decades, going back to when we discovered each other in the late 1990s as two young ABDs working on dissertations on the 18th-century German educator and translator Johann Gottfried Herder. That launched a friendship--perhaps not a super-close one, but one that I've been consistently grateful for over the years--filled with deep disagreements and loud laughs over politics, religion, family, movies, music, and much else. Still, it wasn't until Damon started his Substack "Eyes on the Right," and particularly until he published a series of reflective, searching columns over the past couple of months, that I was able to see, via his writings, just how much we shared, and how much we were divided nonetheless

In the first of those posts, Damon identifies himself as "a peculiar kind...of conservative"; definitely a non-ideological, small-c conservative, whose primary motivation is a "persistent hostility and resistance to unpredictable, rapid change." Damon is up-front about how much of this is a particular anxiety of his, rooted in the painful upheavals of his childhood and young adult life. But it is also intellectual; he strongly identifies with the dispositional conservatism of Michael Oakeshott, who described conservatives as being those who "prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss." This kind of conservatism obviously barely has any home in the Republican party of today, or the last 40 years for that matter. Damon not only has no sympathy whatsoever to Trump and Trumpist reactionary wishes to "Make America Great Again"; he wasn't particularly sympathetic to Ronald Reagan's "morning in America" call when he was teenager either. So an ideological right-winger in any sense Damon most definitely is not.

But his same opposition to any kind of transformative promise or crusade also stops him from sympathizing with what he sees as Ahab-like obsessions with "getting" Donald Trump. He was long doubtful about both the Mueller investigation and the Trump impeachments, and he's one of the best advocates out there (or so I think, anyway, even though I don't agree with his conclusion) for the position of treating Trump as a wholly political problem, rather than risking further violence from his cultish defenders by reaching for some kind of legal solution to Trump's baleful effects on our elections. Hence Damon is a centrist Democrat and a "conservative liberal;" the kind of worried and frustrated philosophical centrist who'd probably find a lot of agreement with Judith Shklar (or Jacob Levy) and who joins the Niskanen Center. Turning to Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night," Damon wistfully observes that, ultimately, what he values is "a place of rest. Constancy. Contentment. Stability. Reaching it, and then holding onto it. Preserving it against the ravages of change."

Those were the lines which struck me most, and sent me off on writing this long post...because that's me. I find everything about that statement simply beautiful, and could not endorse it more. I have a hard time thinking of anything I've ever written or spoken or done even just remotely associated with my obsessive interests in community, simplicity, family, and more that couldn't be summarized by the very same words Damon wrote there.

And yet, my own small-c conservatism ends up pointing me in an entirely leftward direction, however perverse or incoherent that may seem to some. Call it left communitarianism rather than left conservatism if you prefer, but ultimately it's all the same. It's a leavening of Karl Marx's economically-grounded socialism with Christopher Lasch's culturally-grounded populism; a recognition that nothing threatens settled and stable "places of rest" more than (as I wrote) "the dislocating, exploitative social power which the unregulated (and thus invariably concentrating and centralizing) flow of capital gives to those who master it," while also recognizing that any actually democratically empowering alternative to the exploitative, community-undermining reign of finance capitalism should have the aim of (as I also wrote) "jobs defended, wages secured, trade limited, cultures respected, neighborhoods supported, manual labor revived, proprietorship encouraged, industry regulated, corporations restricted, families embraced...and...done in a manner which [does] not rob authority and integrity from (quoting John Dewey--another Progressive!--here) 'the local homes of mankind.'" 

For those whose leftism is fundamentally liberal, which means fundamentally about expanding individual autonomy and opportunity in opposition to collective or environmental limits, or at least is fundamentally oriented around a fear of threats to those liberal goods which, however undeniably bourgeois, have nonetheless made hundreds of millions of lives immeasurably better (no, I don't deny that--I may not be much of a liberal, but I am, adjectivally and procedurally, quite liberal in a Bryanesque way all the same), this kind of thing might only sound like another apology for those invariably authoritarian "red-brown" alliances. As Richard Yeselson once claimed in response to a defense of Lasch by George Scialabba years ago, limiting individual experimentation and expansion in the name of community or simplicity or family or most anything else kills off the engines of liberal capitalism, which only means that there will be less to go around, and "dividing up less [however fairly and justly] leads not to serenely making your own buttermilk, but to fascism." To all that I can only say: yes, I can see that coherence of that terrible intellectual path, and will do my best not to go down it. But my "best" doesn't involve me fleeing from it entirely, particularly not in the direction of Damon's centrism. On the contrary, unlike my friend's pragmatic "distrust [of] romantic longings," I don't think I have ever really even so much as blinked at the prospect of contemplating radically populist, economically mutualist, or religiously communalist collective movements to shore up the things I think must be conserved in the face of liberal modernity. Does that mean I live a localist, agrarian, Luddite life in total support of such things? Not at all. But I don't have any particular distrust of those who aspire to so do, and I try to teach all about them as much as I can.

So what is the real dividing point between Damon and I, the dividing point which led to two people who, in terms of actual electoral choices, are rarely all that different, but whose justifications for those choices and whose hopes for better future choices are radically distinct? Of course there isn't just one thing that led two instinctively small-c conservative people to become a careful centrist liberal and unhappy Democrat on the one hand, and a constantly disappointed but still dreaming utopian and dues-paying Democratic Socialists of America member on the other. Perhaps its as our respective material and cultural backgrounds: Damon grew up in a highly fractured and secular urban milieu, and his conceptions of stability reflect the cosmopolitan pluralism of Isaiah Berlin, while I grew up in very tight and religious and almost-rural milieu, and perhaps unsurprisingly my conceptions of stability reflect the land-based communitarianism of Wendell Berry. (Or, to be utterly academic and nerdy, for anyone who wants to read our respective dissertations, perhaps its because the work of Herder which Damon found most important was his deeply historicist Yet Another Philosophy of History, emphasizing the cultural incommensurability of the rival, particularist goods that different nations will always legitimately conceive and pursue, whereas my favorite work by Herder was the religious anthropology he laid out in Letters for the Advancement of Humankind, emphasizing that there is a centripetal force in all the various expressions of human difference that point towards the unified realization of truly common goods.) But if I did have to pick just one thing, it would probably be the way our personal histories were shaped the undergraduate and graduate educations we received.

In another thoughtful column, Damon talked about how he hopes to "to attain a modicum of wisdom about what mixture or balance of competing visions will be best for the political community as a whole." His unavoidably aristocratic language there, deeply infused with classical philosophical presumptions about the need to "exercise of independent judgment" by "not just standing apart from the various factions on the playground" but also rising above it, reflects his predilection for authors like Aristotle, Thucydides, and Tocqueville, but also his education by scholars working in the tradition of the political philosopher and classicist Leo Strauss. Damon acknowledged that his "own skeptical and somewhat pessimistic liberalism has been shaped by [Strauss's] work," which among other things preaches its own kind of careful moderation, counseling those who aspire to truth to, as Damon wrote elsewhere, "[protect] society at large from the acids of skepticism and doubt unleashed by philosophical questioning, while simultaneously [speaking carefully so as to protect] philosophers from the righteous indignation of citizens who (rightly) suspect that such questioning undermines belief in the gods of the political community and thus corrupts the virtue of its citizens." In this Damon is hardly unique--there are plenty of liberals whose careful, borderline-aristocratic skepticism were at least partly influenced by scholars shaped by the legacy of Strauss. One of those is the historian Mark Lilla, who was an important figure in Damon's intellectual development. But either way, Strauss's presentation of philosophic inquiry as mandating a certain kind of  "esotericism," a hiding of the truth about ultimate goods from the unenlightened, has an unfortunate magnetic appeal: a promise that hard, uncompromising, almost invariably illiberal and undemocratic truths, truths which ordinary people cannot handle, are available to a select few.

That's the sort of appeal, as Damon has discussed at length, has warped far too many young conservative scholars into accepting philosophical criticisms of democracy as not just arguments worthy of contemplation--since, as Strauss himself wrote, "the ultimate aim of political life cannot be reached by political life, but only by a life devoted to contemplation"--but as exclusive, comprehensive truths which deserve to be politically enacted. Such exclusivity, when poorly understood, can become an apologia for Trumpist-style America-Firstism. Even more tragically, it sometimes settles in people's heads alongside other, even uglier political exclusions: that the esoteric truth of the world isn't available to those of the wrong background, the wrong gender, or the wrong race. And so Strauss, who fled the Nazis to come to America, planted seeds that sometimes grow up alongside genuine Nazis (one of whom, Greg Johnson, whose name I don't remember but whose face I think I do, very probably--as best I can determine from Damon's research anyway--sat beside me in a seminar on Martin Heidegger, another German radical thinker as well as a one-time Nazi, taught by my dissertation advisor at Catholic University of America in 1999, where both of us graduated with our PhDs in 2001).

The connection to Heidegger is important here, because like Damon and some of those mentioned above, I read a lot of Heidegger once upon a time, both at my undergraduate and graduate institutions. And like Strauss, Heidegger's comprehensive arguments about the metaphysical weaknesses of Western philosophy--or, more accurately, the metaphysical flaws about the very structure of and the central apprehensions about human existence which liberal democracies and modern notions of individual rights are the flawed fruit of--can have a seductive appeal. Damon talked about this on a recent episode of the excellent podcast, Know Your Enemy. Responding to a question of how Lilla's skeptical liberal break away from the influence of more extreme interpretations of Strauss might have played a role in Damon similarly not being overly seduced by his philosophical esotericism, Damon reflected:

I mean it's funny; it was partly over Strauss, but it was also over Heidegger. I went through a period in grad school where I was, like, deeply seduced by Heidegger and I was just reading him all the time. Not just Being and Time but a lot of the lectures that at that time were just being translated….There was a period there where I really had a kind of temptation to sort of just take the leap. And Heidegger is one of those thinkers who can inspire that. A kind of…religious conversion, like an all-encompassing worldview. It's also like a wrench that can be used to shatter the entire history of Western thought to pieces...a ready-to-hand tool of deconstruction right there. In this period I already knew that Lilla was very skeptical about Heidegger. There was a point in which I started sort of haranguing him, insinuating in a very-handed, Straussian way: “Why don’t you have the courage to really look at these things? This is the truth!” Lilla wrote a very memorable, hand-written letter back to me, in which he basically insinuated that I have Daddy issues...."You’re always looking for some teacher to kind of show you the light, and then they disappoint you, and you leave them behind; you should be a little more skeptical.” He was just always counseling skepticism. Like: “Fine; try on those garments, see how they feel. But then put them down; keep them around, but don’t make them your wardrobe.” That’s my own awkward metaphor, but it very much was: just be cautious! And I think for Lilla that comes from the fact that he was a teen-age convert to a kind of evangelical Christianity, that he then worked his way out of, and it informs his entirely intellectual make-up; you know–don’t get fooled again! That kind of attitude…he ended up passing on to me to some extent, and by the time I got to a certain point, I had inculcated it enough that I was by then pretty inoculated from it all on my own.

I don't have a story like that, but I have a Heidegger story of my own, the practical outcome of which is quite similar to Damon's, but the intellectual path it took me on--one I'm still on to a certain degree--being very different from his. Basically, I wonder if it just come down to the two individuals most responsible for bringing me to an appreciation of Heidegger's deep critique of modernity being Jim Faulconer, a philosopher at Brigham Young University, and Stephen Schneck, a political theorist and my dissertation advisor at Catholic University of America. They are both serious scholars and devout religious believers--a Mormon who has written extensively on devotional topics, whose essays have been enormously important to my faith life, and a devout Catholic who has spent the second half of his career articulating an alignment between Catholic social justice teachings and progressive politics; currently, he serves as an appointed member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. And while neither were pious in the classroom--unlike some faculty at both universities, neither ever opened their classes or seminars with a prayer--in retrospect, I have realized that they introduced to impressionable students and budding scholars deeply discomforting critiques of the run-of-the-mill liberal, rational, and individual verities which the capitalist markets, the scientific methods, the technological tools, and the democratic principles which Western modernity takes as settled, critiques not just from Heidegger, but Nietzsche, Foucault, Derrida, Gadamer, Arendt, Rorty, Ricoeur, Wolin, and more, and did so in ways that suggested anything but, as Damon put it, "a wrench that can be used to shatter the entire history of Western thought." On the contrary, to me this introduction to deconstructive arguments--expressed by some of them in the midst of an ugly anti-Semitism, which Faulconer and Schneck never failed to expose as actually undermining the better readings of these individuals' own argument--was received, to use the language of Alan Jacobs, as an "invitation to repair."

Repair what? That which our Western metaphysical presumptions, our capitalist socio-economic confidence, and our distinctly modern belief in the possibility of--indeed the presumed moral requirement of--human technological mastery, all work unknowingly to cover over. To me, the importance of Heidegger's teaching about aletheia, or "unconcealedness" or "disclosure," as that which phenomenologically resides at the heart of "truth," was that it pointed toward, lurking within every claim or discovery, an original and prior revelation, an es gibt--that, in other words, something about that which is, is a gift that has been a given, and that something, that gift, should be attended to. Derrida's articulation of "the trace" functions that way as well; as Jim once wrote, Derrida is can be understood as almost a kind of negative theologian: "the point of his deconstruction is to help us remember what the text calls us to remember but then forgets by its very nature.....deconstruction calls us to the act of remembering, wonder, and praise, and in that to a remembering relation to what we have forgotten rather than to the descriptions of what we have forgotten."  (To those familiar with Heidegger, it should probably go without saying that both Faulconer and Schneck approached his writings with a strong emphasis upon--or at least it appeared to me--the post-Kehre or "turn" towards the poetic in Heidegger, rather than his pre-Kehre work of Being and Time and such.) 

In short, from all these thinkers I received, thanks to Faulconer and Schneck, not an invitation to a potentially threatening truth which warranted liberal skepticism, but rather a philosophical appreciation which communicated more than anything else an appreciate the constructive possibilities of our essential, always particular, but nonetheless collectively shared naiveté. Our very understanding of the world and our place in it, and our ability to think and speak about such things, are conditioned by deep structural "always-alreadys," horizons of understanding--expressions of language, culture, and more--into which we have been thrown and which we can have no other moral obligations towards except the work of tending and care...which is not the same thing as protectively preserving those thrown realities against any change! On the contrary, the aim shouldn't be to distance oneself from the fray, but to authentically engage with it. 

Is that a pretentious (and therefore potentially exclusionary) assumption of one's "authentic" right to engage in acts of tending and building, something which others presumably lack? That the hunt for authentic engagement can become so is something I acknowledge above. But these philosophers, and those who taught me about them, helped convince me that everyone, including those who only wish to exercise a serene, moderate, practical judgment over those still in the cave, are equally subject to thrownness, and thus equally obliged to articulate a subjectivity that puts them in some relationship to the world, even they just wish to survey it. To put it simply, I kind of think we're all unavoidably engaged in the same project-making and meaning-creation. And yes, I do mean creation, which can be just as much directed towards stability as towards reform, revolution, or reaction. You don't have to agree with Marx's Thesis 11 that the point of philosophy is to change the world (though I mostly do)--but it is worth considering, as Stephen once put it to me in a discussion about the German philosophical tradition (from Hegel to Husserl to Heidegger and beyond), the possibly that truth isn't something to contemplate and perhaps, at best, strategically create the conditions for: it is something to be lived. As the sort of Christian who leans more towards abiding notions of grace rather than restrictive notions of commandment, and as a Mormon whose beliefs include a healthy dose of utopianism (however buried over by Mormonism's embrace of modernity those 19th-century ideals may be), how could all that not fail to click for me?

So perhaps that's the story. Not remotely all of it--I could talk about my early exposure to Rousseau and my friendship with Marxists and my years in South Korea and my subsequent fascination with East Asian political thought and the work of Fred Dallmayr (my dissertation advisor's dissertation advisor), and who knows how much more Damon could add to this description of his thinking, even assuming it's accurate (which I hope it is, mostly). But maybe this is enough to add up to a proper intellectual account of where I'm coming from, philosophically speaking, when I read friend's reliably smart but also occasionally disconcerting commentary, and see in it someone whose perspective I both value and understand, and enjoy learning from, but at the deepest level--as opposed to the much more practical and needful political level--I simply don't share at all, however much our justifications for what we believe sound the same. Damon has a small-c conservative sensibility, which makes him want to skeptically push against anyone whom he suspects of wanting to upset the apple-cart, and for that the liberal pluralism of an Isaiah Berlin works far better than any comprehensive philosophical vision, particularly the poorly-read Straussian one too common on the American right today; I also have a small-c conservative sensibility, but since I also believe--thanks to the influence both philosophical and religious visions--that we are all already and invariably in the midst of constant apple-cart-upsetting anyway, I find myself instead pushing to find the space and grace to authentically realize, to locally build or rebuild, that which constituted the cart in the first place. If that makes any sense. 

Oh well. That's friendship for you. It's been years since Damon and I had a proper (non-alcoholic) symposium; this post can't serve as one, and it's the wrong time for one as well, but this heterodox Mormon left conservative raises a class to his mostly secular conservative liberal friend all the same. My memories of you are a blessing, Damon; at this time, I wish your memories of your father to be the same for you.