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Saturday, December 24, 2005

Have Yourself a Very Liberal Christmas

(Yes, I'm still here. What can I say? It's been a hectic month.)

I go back to Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol every holiday; I consider it the greatest noncanonical Gospel of them all. Where does that position me in the Christmas wars--as fundamentally liberal, more interested in tending to the needs of the individual than to religious truth? I wonder. Dickens himself isn't nearly so easy to pigeon-hole as some tend to think: he did once, in a letter to his youngest son, describe "religion observances" as "mere formalities," but he also insisted that his son "never abandon the wholesome practice of saying your own private prayers, night and morning--I have never abandoned it myself, and I know the comfort of it." So, he was a praying man--but what was he praying for? Certainly not for a sectarian Christian establishment, but neither was he wishing for, much less actively fermenting, revolution: while many of Dickens's contemporaries characterized his work as expressions of a "sullen socialism," as George Orwell observed in his wonderful essay on Dickens, he was in no sense a "revolutionary writer"--on the contrary, his whole message, with all its vicious and righteous attacks on the injustice and inequality present in practically every English institution imaginable, in the end appears to be "an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent." So is that what it comes down to--all the spirits walking the earth in A Christmas Carol, and all its earthly invective as well, just want us to show a little liberal decency? Well, yes. But as Orwell also reminds, Dickens's platitude is far more profound than one might at first think.

"Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" So says the Ghost of Christmas Present to Ebenezer Scrooge, throwing his own words back at him. It is perhaps the most powerful line in a story filled with powerful lines. Yes, Dickens's vision of Christmas is a liberal one, in the deepest sense of the word: characterized by expansiveness and sympathy and "liberality," of discovering for oneself who the "surplus population" is, and putting oneself in their place. Modern philosophical tropes position liberty as a concern of the threatened individual and his or her body or property; there is nothing wrong with that, but to capture Dickens we have to think about the term more broadly. Christmas is a holiday premised upon what Christians consider to be that one supremely undeserved Gift which humbles and gladdens and changes us, all at once. Such a gift makes us remember, and it makes us hope too. Think again about Scrooge: the spirits use all that he had ever been given, and all he would ever be given, to reveal just how selfishly, how thoughtlessly, he had and would have discarded it all, counting all of it--family, friends, fellow-feeling, love itself--for naught. In the end, his own words convict him, and the horror he feels at how he had denied his own indebtedness to others drives him to his knees in prayer--and then out into the streets, in great generosity and joy. Scrooge the materialist, the miser, the master of his counting house, suddenly a child again, seeing treasures uncounted, gifts both large and small, flowing from him to others and back again, in all the ordinary world around him. That is the real liberty at the heart of the holiday.

But is such liberty naive? Is it a reduction of the glorious Christian message to a plea for what Orwell called "good rich men" (of which there are candidates aplenty) to come and save the poor, and by extension us all? Yes and no. Certainly to focus on ordinary gift-giving is sentimental...but I consider that a virtue, not a vice. A Christmas that does not combine the familiar and sacred in its estimation of the gifts we can and do both give and receive is, I think, no Christmas at all. Of course this particular version of the message of Christmastime is a little mawkish; in Dickens's hands, it provides no program for world transformation, no blueprint for a better society, almost no constructive criticism whatsoever--only an insistence on how we ought to have, how we need to have (again in Orwell's words) a "moralized version of existing things." A change of heart, of the "inner vessel," and not just a change of outward institutions, is what is most necessary. That is not to say that outward institutions do not need to be changed as well--Marx's diagnosis of private property, Orwell tartly observed, has as much a role to play in bettering society as Dickens's moralism. It is just that, should there be a revolution (or a sectarian restoration, if that's your preference), whatever replaces the workhouses and prisons--and schools and factories and slums and assembly lines and hospitals and asylums and everything else that Dickens attacked in his day for failing to serve the common welfare--will still be no better than what came before...if those who wield power through them remain indecent, unwilling to give of themselves. Dickens could see that. His liberalism--his wide-ranging, far-reaching, "generously angry" liberality--can be attacked by both secularists and the pious for lacking many things, but it most certainly was not reductive to the "smelly little orthodoxies" of the present day.

Nowadays, liberality is often is reduced to a polemical, ideological category, and thus is (unintentionally?) transformed into something easily attacked as unrealistic, and easily dismissed as cliched. For evidence, consider the work of Garrison Keillor, a pious liberal whose politics and beliefs are probably much the same as Dickens's were. Keillor spoken art is rightly considered a national treasure--as a humorist, storyteller and raconteur he is perhaps one of Dickens's greatest heirs--but I doubt any one would dispute that when he turns his expansiveness of spirit to political critique, he is sometimes, well, a little lacking in generosity. There is a place for ideological argument, of course, but to wrap it up in the language of a religious witness only makes it that much easier for those who are trying to point out the place and meaning of that Gift at the center of the holiday to be ignored. Fortunately, Keillor sometimes still reaches Dickens's level, and one can find an untainted spirit of liberality in his works nonetheless. As fans of A Prairie Home Companion know, Keillor likes to spend Christmases in New York City when he can: looking at the lights, reflecting on the past, serving and spreading cheer as best a man like him might. A few years ago, on his radio show, he put down some new words to a familiar tune; the result is deceptively simplistic. Like the holiday itself, it calls for neither a religious revival nor a political referendum, but something deeper--and hence is truer to that liberality we are called to this time of year than all the rest of the liberal vs. conservative talk which pollutes the airwaves.

In the bleak midwinter / all around the park
Tall apartment buildings / blazing in the dark
Standing here on Broadway / and West 64th
Watching for a taxi: / who is heading north?

In the cafe window / little candles glow
Where we met for dinner / long, long ago
In the bleak midwinter / happy times recall
Loved ones smiling, laughing / blessed memories all

Over by the church door / twenty feet away
A figure wrapped in blankets / lying in the hay
Who is this stranger / sleeping in cardboard?
So says the gospel / it is Christ the Lord

Where can we find it / Christmas love and cheer?
Where are the shepherds / standing, waiting near?
Who is the choir? / Shall we sing our part?
Hear the Christmas music / in you heart.

Merry Christmas everybody.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Surprised by Snow

Yesterday was St. Andrew's Day, which we have arbitrarily chosen to be the first day of our family's Christmas season. Well, not entirely arbitrarily; we like the excuse to make and eat shepherd's pie and put on some Scottish Christmas music, after all. But mostly it's a good day to get out all the Christmas decorations and go crazy putting everything up at once, which we seem to prefer to spreading it out over several days. Then it's December 1, and the kids get to fight over who opens the first door on the advent calendar or who gets to light the advent candle for the first time, and we're up and running. Well, that's exactly what we did last night, and it was good fun; we were all set for the morning. Then I woke up to find that about 4 inches of snow had fallen overnight. I got out the snow shovel (the first time I've needed to in over three years--that's what living in the South will do for you) and shoveled the driveway, pausing to look occasionally across the cornfields and lawns around our home, now covered in white. It was hard work; the shovel felt clumsy and unfamiliar in my hands. I couldn't have been happier.

Why? Well, it was just that our family celebrations had gotten off to a good start, partly; we've had our share of November 30th catastrophes too. But I think, mostly, it was the snow. I've missed it, especially around Christmastime. It's not necessary, of course, but like a lot of Americans, the cultural images of Christmas and its traditions that have mostly shaped my consciousness of the holiday are thoroughly north European--if not strictly New England--in origin; that is, Christmas always makes me think about the winter weather and the retreat within, about getting close to home and hearth. And while that's by no means the only mode of thought appropriate to the holiday, it is one that fits it well: winters can be hard, but their beauty is often sublime, thus leading to a sense of hiding oneself way alongside a wonderment at the changed world all around. And doesn't that express the meaning of the season well? A weary couple in an out-of-the-way stable, yet overwhelmed by the world opened up to them. The celebration of something weak yet transformative at the same time.

Snow is silent; it can be forecast, but it doesn't announce itself as it falls, and once it's there on the ground it muffles the rest of the world. Sure, there's the bad road conditions and the accidents (I saw two cars off the side of the road while riding the bus to work this morning). And on the fun side, there's the skiing and ice skating and sledding (speaking of which, we need to buy a sled--with our children having been born and raised in Virginia, then, Mississippi, then Arkansas, we've never really had a need before). But like every season, the winter also has it's quiet side as well--and because the winter is darker, and often harder to endure, its silence perhaps looms even larger, in our imagination as well as reality. It can be haunting, as well as humbling. The idea that our loud and busy world can be rendered slow and silent and dark, and that yet in the midst of such there is a birth, a gift, a little thing--a present under a tree, perhaps--that will nonetheless illuminate it and make it all seem alive again . . . . well, again, I'm not saying that you can't grasp Christmas if it isn't wintertime where you live. But for me, it certainly helps.

I have no idea what Hannah Arendt thought of Christianity as a set of religious claims, but I like what she said about how Christianity--and perhaps in particular the Christmas story--can illuminate the nature of our existence: it teaches us about freedom. "Man does not possess freedom so much as he, or better his coming into the world, is equated with the appearance of freedom in the universe; man is free because he is a beginning . . . In the birth of each man, this initial beginning is reaffirmed, because in each instance something new comes into an already existing world which will continue to exist after each individual's death. . . . [Such freedom is a "miracle], namely, interruptions of some natural series of events, of some automatic process, in whose context they constitute the wholly unexpected" ("What is Freedom," Between Past and Future, pgs. 167-168).

Snow, of course, is an "automatic process"; it's just one of those meteorological things the world gives us. But in another sense, snow is interruptive and always unexpected; it breaks into our routines, makes us break out the snow boots and shovels, requires (and invites) us to put ourselves out into it, while at the same time making us wish to hide away and hoard what we have. It can be, in other words, part of a story and sensibility that makes us think not about the ends of our actions, but about the actions themselves: how small they are, and yet how meaningful. And, more importantly, about the correspondence between exactly those two: the tiny beginning, the baby's cry, the turn of the calendar on the darkest day of the year, the surprise of a snowdrift outside your window--and the way it is the very fact of such possibilities and opportunities (for work, for learning, for forgiveness and loving) which makes us all free.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

A Bloggy Thanksgiving

Matt S.: Thanks for encouraging me to take my very first philosophy class, way back when, and for being a model for so much that followed as a result.

Matt F., Aldo, and Glen: Thanks for the laughs and the good counsel, and for helping to make my first year at BYU about as good as such a year could possibly be.

Mary Ellen: Thanks for making The Daily Universe a place of good memories, rather than bad.

Scott and Nick: Thanks for teaching me just about everything worth knowing about food and movies, and for more sympathy and generosity over the years than I could ever repay.

Ross, James, and Mark: Thanks for all the music and conversation and movies and dinners and babysitting and get-togethers in D.C.; I still miss those days.

Rob: Thanks for never letting me forget about Zion (or birds).

Jacob: Thanks for inspiring me to get into blogging in the first place.

Damon: Thanks for tolerating (but never blandly putting up with) my many intellectual permutations, and for the pleasure of having been able to contribute to a few intellectual and spiritual permutations of your own.

Laura: Thanks for making me laugh, and making me think, and so often doing both at the same time.

Tim: Thanks for showing us all how to be for one's side without being of one's side, and for doing so with such thought and wit.

John and Belle: Thanks for being so smart and funny, for teaching me what to think about David Frum, and for the pony.

Hugo, Scott, Rob, and Dave: Thanks for holding my feet to the fire.

Harry, Henry, and everyone else at Crooked Timber: Thanks for being my first blog-stop, every morning, every day.

Steve: Thanks for letting me blog along with people far cooler than myself.

To the whole Times and Seasons gang: Thanks for making me part of something important and good, and for helping me think about what I have to share (and for helping me share what I have thought about) in a way I perhaps never would have otherwise. In particular, thanks to Kaimi for running the show, to Jim for always striking the right tone, to Nate and Frank for never letting any of my lousy arguments stand, and to Kristine, for sticking through it all.

Mom and Dad: Thanks for almost everything.

Melissa: Thanks for everything else, and more.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Thinking About France

The New Republic this week is just about all-France, all the time, with long and thoughtful pieces by Paul Berman, Keelin McDonell, and David A. Bell. Berman's essay digs deep into French anti-American literature . . . and the French literature on French anti-American literature. He makes some fine observations, especially in the last part of the essay, when he makes use of a recent book by Andre Glucksmann to discuss parallels between anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny. Like most things Berman writes, even if you can't swallow his grand conceptual synthesis, the details are fascinating.

The Bell essay is also very rewarding, and very pertinent to events in France over the last month or so. His basic thesis is that France's "republican model of integration," which was really an unheralded success for several generations, has over the past 40 years irreparably broken down. This is something of a great loss, in Bell's telling--rather than approaching the pluralism of modern life through policies of (as James Forsyth, in another TNR article, put it) British or Dutch-style liberal or "laissez-faire" multiculturalism, France had shown the value of placing an "unyielding emphasis on universal, enlightenment values" in the education of its citizens. Becoming French had nothing to do with addressing, balancing out, or even acknowledging, racial or religious or ethnic grievances (that's why France famously refused to even gather ethnic data on its citizens); rather, it had everything to do with embracing French language, civilization, and history as steps on the road to enlightenment. To really make that kind of republican model work, however, you have to have a faith in the Enlightenment project, and a faith in its identity with the particular civic norms being taught in the schools. In other words, it required a sense of destiny and confidence in the place on one's own project. And Bell is very clear on the consequences of the loss of that confidence by the late 1960s:

It was into this changed and diminished France--stripped of its empire, unnerved by the wars of decolonization, deprived of its traditional peasantry, and shaken in its cultural authority--which the new immigrants from Africa arrived as cheap labor. Even had they come at an earlier time, their integration would have proved far more difficult than that of Italians, Portuguese, or Jews. The cultural differences were greater, as was the sheer extent of the racial and religious prejudice against them. But, in the context of the '60s, they had hardly any chance. The French state simply no longer had the will to apply the older model of integration fully. Instead, for a time, the state held fast to the fiction that the newcomers were mere "guest workers" who would eventually return home. When it became obvious that large numbers of Arabs, Berbers, and black Africans were in France to stay, the state shunted them into bleak suburban housing projects, effectively segregating them far more radically than earlier waves of immigrants. . . . I have known several French teachers who worked in suburban lycées where North African students were the majority. Only one of them saw the assignment as a chance to follow in the footsteps of those teachers who went forth to proselytize for French civilization, and she received precious little institutional support for her beliefs. The others have endured it simply as a purgatory and counted the days until their release.

[I]n practice, [the French model] was never simply about the principle of making everyone equal within the civic sphere. It was also about genuine missionary fervor--about taking little Gascons and Normans, little colonial subjects, little Italian and Jewish immigrants, and converting them, in the full meaning of the word, into French men and women. The absence of that sort of fervor in places like Clichy-sous-Bois or Saint-Denis, where some of the worst rioting has occurred, has contributed powerfully to the alienation that has expressed itself in the recent wave of arson and destruction. The very use of the word "immigrants" for these second- and third-generation French youths is an insulting reminder of just how little attention official France has given them.

Observations like this can't help but underscore the degree to which some kind of "faith" is a necessary component in establishing the boundaries within which a free and also multicultural society can operate. If the riots in France are even remotely the result of an anger which comes from the French establishment's inability to educate and incorporate the many North African Muslims who have called France their home for decades now into the mainstream of French life--an education and incorporation which would surely require, given France's (I think admirable) commitment to the republican ideal, a rethinking of just what destiny French men and women ought to have confidence in--then I would argue that much of this year's unrest was foretold a couple of years back, in the midst of the "headscarf" controversy regarding the banning of "blatant" (which in practice meant primarily Muslim) religious garb and symbols in the country's schools. As I wrote then:

"Secularism always has been a poor tool for solidarity. One could score cheap (though perhaps justifiable) points along these lines by pointing to the abysmal lack of "solidarity" manifest during last summer's heat wave in France, in comparison to other nations which haven't severed their ties to their religious heritage quite so firmly, but far more relevant (to my mind at least) is the simple truism that religious identity is almost inevitably communal: even mystics gather in groups. Of course rival groups can lead to Balkanization, but still: religion (even when the habits of faith are 'merely' ethical or social, rather than pious, for any particular individual) directs the inner person outward, towards an engagement with others, and why would anyone want to premise their social existence on an ideal which rejects personal manifestations of that public fact? This is a lesson as old as Tocqueville's writings on civic religion, and the evidence in support of his old thesis is plentiful; it's remarkable that France, of all places, was so desperate to reject the Catholic establishment that they forgot all about the insights of their native son. No, religious communities are not necessarily 'better' communities, but an aggressively irreligious community--especially one which actually goes so far as to label, as Chirac did, individual expressions of religious faith to themselves be 'an aggression'!--is a dubious accomplishment, at best. So the fact that this particular response to one aspect of France's (and to a certain extent, all of Western Europe's) identity crisis is so popular among French citizens is doubly distressing: because it is likely a poor way to negotiate that crisis, and because it moves, I think, in the wrong direction entirely anyway."

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Real Anthropocentrism

Last month, Smithsonian Magazine ran an excellent, thoughtful piece that gave voice to a bunch of individuals rarely heard in the debate over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge--specially, the indigenous people who actually live there. The area is dominated by two main tribes: the Gwich'in, whose villages are scattered along the migratory route followed by the caribou which traverse ANWR, and the Inupiat, a coastal people whose homes and lives have been transformed (mostly, if not entirely, for the better) by the flow of North Slope oil and the money it has brought to the region. The author did a fantastic job of capturing telling moments in the lives of both tribes (the Inupiat slightly outnumber the Gwich'in). On the side of the Gwich'in, who oppose any development of ANWR because of its unpredictable consequences on the local caribou herds, you see a mix of proud traditionalism, interest-group savvy and paranoia; on the side of the Inupiat, a contempt for the quasi-spiritual, development-opposing environmentalism that so many Native opponents of drilling have adopted, but also the fear that too much development and pollution could cut into their primary traditional economy--whaling. If you can find a copy of the October Smithsonian, check the article out; it's an example of the best kind of environmental reportage: one that brings people into the equation, in all their complexity.

I was reminded of the article by this essay which appeared in Orion on the grave threat which environmentalists pose to indigenous peoples:

It's no secret that millions of native peoples around the world have been pushed off their land to make room for big oil, big metal, big timber, and big agriculture. But few people realize that the same thing has happened for a much nobler cause: land and wildlife conservation. Today the list of culture-wrecking institutions put forth by tribal leaders on almost every continent includes not only Shell, Texaco, Freeport, and Bechtel, but also more surprising names like Conservation International (CI), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Even the more culturally sensitive World Conservation Union (IUCN) might get a mention. . . . [In 2004,] at a Vancouver, British Columbia, meeting of the International Forum on Indigenous Mapping, all two hundred delegates signed a declaration stating that the "activities of conservation organizations now represent the single biggest threat to the integrity of indigenous lands" . . . .

"We are enemies of conservation," declared Maasai leader Martin Saning'o, standing before a session of the November 2004 World Conservation Congress sponsored by IUCN in Bangkok, Thailand. The nomadic Maasai, who have over the past thirty years lost most of their grazing range to conservation projects throughout eastern Africa, hadn't always felt that way. In fact, Saning'o reminded his audience, ". . . we were the original conservationists." The room was hushed as he quietly explained how pastoral and nomadic cattlemen have traditionally protected their range: "Our ways of farming pollinated diverse seed species and maintained corridors between ecosystems." Then he tried to fathom the strange version of land conservation that has impoverished his people, more than one hundred thousand of whom have been displaced from southern Kenya and the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania. Like the Batwa, the Maasai have not been fairly compensated. Their culture is dissolving and they live in poverty. "We don't want to be like you," Saning'o told a room of shocked white faces. "We want you to be like us. We are here to change your minds. You cannot accomplish conservation without us."

The article does a great job documenting the shock, condescension, frustration and arrogance which the complaints of native persons have elicited from many leaders of diverse conservation programs around the world. The fact that local human beings, with their farming and wandering and hunting and industry, might actually need occasionally to be part of any real discussion about how to preserve habitats and species was something that eclipse the overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly Western, overwhelmingly wealthy patrons who make up the bulk of self-described "environmentalists" the world over. Some groups, thankfully, are coming around to an acknowledgement of the obvious, populist point which Saning'o made above, a point which (as I noted in an earlier post) has even penetrated some levels of the U.S. government: a conservation which does not tend to the local knowledge and needs of the people who actually interact with that environment one wishes to conserve is not only likely to be incoherent on its face, but is also likely to fail.

This is a concern I've had for a long time; it goes back to frustration I felt about the Clinton administration's creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah in 1996--a tremendous accomplishment, and a worthy monument to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's vision of federal leadership in land-use planning, but also an act of conservation that antagonized rather than respected the locals, as Babbitt himself now apparently admits. And it's a concern I wrote about a couple of years back, when Nicholas Kristoff took off for ANWR to write for the New York Times about the importance of preserving a land "where humans are interlopers" (he meant "humans" like himself, obviously). This is not a rejection of any and all environmentalist arguments for maintaining the natural world for more than just materialistic reasons: I am hardly immune to or dismissive of the romantic and aesthetic qualities of the earth. But it is a suggestion that the sublime ought not be imagined without some reflection upon who, exactly, experiences that sublime. It is relatively easy for those who--like Kristoff--find something appealing about visiting (but not living in; oh no, of course not that) a place where "bears are king" to condemn all those who have problems with, say, the slow re-introduction of grizzly bears and other potentially dangerous animals to populated areas as unenlightened knaves; the fact that a lot of those locals buy sufficiently into an us-vs.-the-government mentality as to allow them to participate in covering up crimes against endangered animals only makes such condemnations even easier. But the tendency to ignore such factors--to ignore how one's wealth or distance can lead one to see those actual people who want and need to work and live around the vistas you might want to "protect"--needs to be resisted. The story (at ANWR, and elsewhere) is more complicated than that.

In the end, I think the attempt to purge the human, to reduce the everyday productive place of actual human beings from one's picture of the natural world (an attempt that can lead ultimately to rather bizarre conclusions), rests on a perverse kind of anthropocentrism. Isn't anthropocentrism exactly what deep ecologists have long said is the root of our problem--the way in which our economies and societies assume that human beings are the center of creation? Yes. But isn't the belief that human beings are utterly and uniquely destructive of the natural world, that in our ordinary consumptive lives we cannot help but be a "foreign" presence on the earth, equally anthropocentric? In fact, it might be an even worse anthropocentrism: in the real world, farmers and gardeners and all those who care about the earth take seriously their stewardship of it, a stewardship which makes them, in my experience at least, humble and careful, aware of the fragility of their relationship with nature. Whereas radical environmentalism too often allows for no such complexity; there is humanity and there is nature, and the further the two are kept tightly separate from each other (close enough for the former to look at and "commune with" the latter, but nothing more), the better for both. For any who find themselves agreeing with this position, I strongly recommend 1491--a wonderful, provocative new book which argues that "pristine" New World which European explorers "discovered" and invaded in the from 15th to the 17th centuries, and which many today consider today to have been a kind of paradise lost, was to a great extent the creation of prolonged human interaction. The Amazon basin, the buffalo herds--all a result of generations of indigenous "species maintenance" and "land planning" (though tragic accidents played a part as well). Real environmentalists know that human technology and society, for better and for worse, are as much a part of the geography of the planet as the life patterns of any other species. Only a truly anthropocentric thinker would think that you can take humans--like either the Gwich'in or the Inupiat--out of the equation, and call what remains to be conserved truly "natural."

Monday, November 21, 2005

What Bob Casey Means to Me

Thanks to this post by Scott Lemieux over at Lawyers, Guns and Money, I've been alerted to a recent article by Peter Boyer in the New Yorker on Bob Casey, Jr.'s campaign for the Senate in Pennsylvania against Republican senator Rick Santorum. I'm going to have to dig up a copy of the article, which I probably would have missed otherwise. Scott didn't think much of the piece though: he felt Boyer's treatment of the abortion issue amongst Democrats was, at best, facile, and downright credulous in the way he presented the complaints of Tim Roemer, a tone-deaf conservative Democrat who apparently thinks the reason he couldn't get any traction in his race against Howard Dean for the leadership of the DNC was because of his anti-abortion voting record, whereas the real reason is that Dean actually worked for it, meeting with local Democrats and building an organization instead of grandstanding. All that may be true--but I'm interested in the article anyway, because I'm fascinated by what a Casey-Santorum campaign could mean, and it'll perhaps help salve my annoyance at not living in Pennsylvania right now: there's no prospective senate race in America right now I'd be more interested in contributing to than that one.

From what I can tell from Scott's and others' summaries of the Boyer article, the central question is whether or not the Democratic base, all the big donors and activists, will be willing to support a "pro-life" (I hate that term, by the way) if that's what it'll take to get rid of Santorum. This kind of talk annoys Scott to no end; he has frequently insisted that Republican tolerance of "pro-choice" candidates and politicians is mere window-dressing, while at the same time pointing out that the number of Democrats who describe themselves as opposed to abortion and yet are somehow able to pass the "litmus test" supposedly enforced by the party's base is not insignificant. This is true--but it is also incomplete. I completely grant that the decision by the organizers of the Democratic national convention to refuse to allow Casey's father, the pro-life then-governor of Pennsylvania, to speak in 1992 has been blown far our of proportion; and that, in many ways, when it comes to simple (including religious) declarations of belief, the Democratic party today is often more tolerant and supportive of a diverse range of candidates than the Republicans. But of course the issue for social conservatives is not merely to keep the pro-life flag waving one way or another; it is, very simply, to discourage abortion. Here the tolerance of the Democrats ends (and rightly so, Scott would say). The reason Bob Casey excites people like myself is that he is no conservative, whatever that term means today; rather, he is a Democrat with a strong progressive record on trade and the minimum wage, public education, and Social Security, while also being a candidate who won't be pro-life the way Harry Reid, or for that matter John Kerry, are--that is, he is a candidate whose social conservatism just might not be retired to the backwater of personal belief, but instead will be taken as a piece of his religiously grounded progressivism.

Of course, such a hope is, for a great many secular liberals, one that would cut the heart out of the Democratic party if actually realized: as Michael Kinsley recently put it, Democrats like himself "believe that forcing a woman to go through an unwanted pregnancy and childbirth is the most extreme unjustified government intrusion on personal freedom short of sanctioning murder." Not a lot of room for compromise there, especially when the stakes regarding abortion have been judicially stacked in such an absolutist way, and majorities have developed accordingly. (As everyone familiar with the issue knows, two things can definitely be said about public opinion regarding abortion in the U.S.: 1) a consistent majority of voters oppose completely overturning Roe v. Wade, and 2) it is quite easy to get a majority of Americans to confess that they consider abortion to be "immoral" and in need of greater restrictions, depending on how you frame the question.) Nonetheless, "left traditionalists" like myself still exist, and still hold at the hope that, every once in a while, the Democrats will throw us a bone (given that the odds of the Republican party of Bush and Delay suddenly remembering social justice are vanishingly small). Perhaps Casey could be one such, and believe me, we'll take whatever we can get. If along the way our hoped-for candidate can take out an incumbent like Santorum, and thus perhaps incidentally make the point that civic compassion and family values still have to be defended and paid for, not just cheaply invoked, then all the better.

There isn't going to any sort of agreement between someone like Scott and myself on this particular issue, at least not without a lot of difficult debate, and perhaps not even then. For my part, I see Bob Casey's potential presence in the Senate as, perhaps, just possibly, a step towards making this debate a reality, rather than the Kabuki theater which Scott and others rightly observe that the Republican party constantly engages in. Is bringing on that debate so important to me that I'd vote any self-described conservative into office? By no means; there is too much that could be lost in the meantime. But, leaving aside the disagreement between myself and others over the supposed identity between abortion rights and all the other elements of the progressive agenda, I see no reason to think that Casey's (as yet not-fully elaborated) opposition to abortion rights could usher in, should he be elected, a wholesale progressive retreat. Scott, unsurprisingly, isn't sure; he points to the fact that Casey has been silent about Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court, and wonders how "a strong union man could even consider advocating his confirmation." He's got a point--but again, his point is incomplete. The hostility Alito has shown in the past to most kinds of legislatively-created rights and protections should obviously be worrying to anyone with even the smallest populist bone in their body; but as Jacob Levy pointed out in a comment in a Crooked Timber thread addressing the above-linked article, it's not as though those (like myself) who are terrified of the "Constitution-in-Exile" movement that Alito may well represent have explained exactly where they think the boundaries of proper legislative authority ought to rest either. Casey's silence regarding Alito, if it isn't just canny campaign politics, may represent nothing more than a general faith that socially responsible reforms need not come to an abrupt end even if the Supreme Court does become even more unfriendly to progressive politics than it is today--in fact, such an occurance might turn out to be a helpful step in getting Democrats to take popular, grass-roots legislation more seriously. Of course, this brings up one of Scott's other bete noires: the notion that progressives are better off without relying on the judiciary, with the enormous hostility and controversy engendered by Roe v. Wade as exhibit number one. He's argued with folks like Nathan Newman about this endlessly; I haven't a clear opinion one way or another. Still, any position whose advocates include Bill Galston and Jeremy Waldron is one I take seriously--at least, seriously enough to hope Bob Casey, and all that I think and hope he may mean, all the luck (and votes) in the world come 2006.

Friday, November 11, 2005

On Holidays, and Other (Invented) Traditions

I love holidays, as anyone who has read this blog for a while surely knows. In particular, I enjoy the holiday mentality which descends upon the U.S. during the fall, or what my father-in-law calls (jokingly, but not without affection) "Hallothanksmas." Yes, it's true, for a lot of Americans Halloween and Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays all smear together, sometimes creating a cascade of annoyance and stress, all of which is greatly aided and abetted by a consumer culture that starts shoving holiday commercials and goods down our throats at the first opportunity. (I can remember watching TV at my grandmother's house after Thanksgiving dinner when I was a child, curious to see the Christmas commercial season begin. Nowadays, when Santa Claus starts making appearances at some shopping malls around November 1, that seems like a century ago.) Nonetheless, I still think it's a wonderful time. Partly this is simply because of the turn of the season; the arrival of autumn and eventual its transformation into winter is, in much of the North American imagination at least, an even greater seasonal marker than the arrival of spring: it generates feelings of remembrance, renewal, and thoughtful reflection (as well as some great writing in the blogosphere, as the foregoing links attest). But mostly, I think, it's because these are still, nonetheless, good holidays, which year after year give us a chance to ground ourselves in traditions that both enlighten and entertain.

A couple of weeks back, Scott McLemee wrote a snarky-but-somewhat-serious column about Festivus, the Seinfeld-inspired holiday that, apparently, actual people actually "celebrate." The fact that I just put "celebrate" in quotations marks (and, indeed, just did it again) is part of McLemee's point: Festivus is so wholly manufactured, so completely a creature of the mass media and the narcissistic world of ironic detachment that it enables, that it can't possibly be celebrated without that celebration itself being comment on the presumed constructedness of all celebrations; Festivus is, therefore, the "postmodern 'invented tradition' par excellence."

It's a funny and sharp piece, like everything Scott writes, but something about it bugged me. The way he set up his analysis on Festivus leaned on Eric Hobsbawm's argument about the invention of tradition. Hobsbawm, a Marxist historian who played a large role in developing the "constructivist" or modernist reading on nationality, is of the opinion that the fact that we associate certain traditions with holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and so forth, is indicative of our historical position vis-a-vis those holidays: only when they are no longer binding, no longer obligatory, no longer necessary--in other words, once the world had sufficiently modernized that we could actually partake of forms of life that our illiterate, village-dwelling ancestors couldn't possibly have imagined--do any of these holidays actually suggest anything traditional. In other words, "traditions" are themselves always invented. They are modern creations, cobbled together from "bits and pieces of the past," as Scott put it; pieces that allow us to imagine what that lost world must have been like, a world that isn't any longer, but which still holds a kind of longingful "the way things ought to be" over our lives nonetheless. No one who actually lived what we reconstruct as "traditional" ever thought about it that way; that kind of sentimental treatment of various rituals and practices only comes along when one doesn't actually live that way any longer (assuming you ever did).

That last parenthetical aside is the heart of my complaint with this interpretation. Scott doesn't press the point, but anyone familiar with such Hobsbawmian readings of history know that central to such arguments is the presumption that our acts of cobbling bits of the past together are always profoundly flawed. Scott eludes to this when he mentions the argument that "traditional Christmas carols" only became such when moderns started getting interested in identifying and encouraging the singing of carols at Christmastime as a way to preserve the feeling of the day, whereas the actual historical record of Christmas observances suggests that for centuries people just sang the same hymns in church all year long, whatever the season. In short, this argument tells us that holiday traditions, indeed all traditions, are more about our own longings (and perhaps our own power struggles) then anything which actually "connects" us to a larger historical or cultural whole; any "meaning" drawn out of a tradition, therefore, like any meaning attached to a community or nation, is a sentimental fiction. Which makes it that much easier (and even, in the eyes of many, admirable) to tire of all the presumed pressure which modernity puts upon us to prop up connections to whatever came before, say "bah, humbug!" to the whole thing, and celebrate--if one celebrates at all--with complete detachment from one's own arbitrary inventions. Bring on Festivus!

My complaint with this argument isn't, primarily, with the history (though I'm one of those who think the meaningful ties people feel to a culture or nation are a lot less arbitrary and a lot older than Hobsbawm & Co. would have you think). Rather, it's with the little normative punch hidden within it--the implication that, obviously, as all our reflecting and cobbling are driven by psychological factors and hang-ups, the mature thing to do is to just adopt a Festivus-type attitude towards all of them. Again, this isn't Scott's argument, at least not directly, but it's one that lurks over much of the debate about holidays and traditions. It assumes that the ability to meaningfully affirm things through ritual and observance depends upon a "naivete" which has been destroyed by modernity, and that talk of "tradition" means little more than aspiring to some kind of blinkered "second naivete" that will cover up our constructive role in establishing said rituals and observances in the first place. Such aspirations, some say, are both flawed and foolish. I'm bringing in Ricoeurian language here, I realize, and I don't want to derail this into a belabored philosophical discussion (I've done that a couple of times already), but I think it's necessary in order to refute both those claims. It is not as though holidays and traditions in the premodern world somehow existed in the absence of any sort of subjectivity or interpretive correspondence; the constructive identification of rituals and observances with particular ends has always been present. (This point is underlined by Scott's offhand description of premodern holidays as something you did because "[n]ot doing it would be weird, almost unimaginable"--which implies, of course, that there were acts of imagination involved, acts which defined what rituals pertained to the holiday and how and why they so pertained, thus allowing one to label that which was out of bounds or abnormal.) And if this is the case, then the increased subjective awareness which attends our own rituals and observances does not mean that our appreciation of them is categorically different from what came before; we may well be inventing something when we celebrate holidays today, but whatever we come up with need not be an arbitrary invention, because our inventing can very possibly a kind of adaptive remembering, a connecting that is potentially every bit as morally valid as that which was experienced by those who went through the same process as the seasons turned a hundred or even a thousand years ago.

Recently, when listing a bunch of favorite holiday children's books in our family, I mentioned Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving, by Laurie Halse Anderson and Matt Faulkner. It very entertainingly tells the story of Sarah Hale, an abolitionist, editor and social reformer, who spent thirty years writing letters and publishing articles, trying to get the U.S. government to officially acknowledge (and thus hopefully resuscitate) Thanksgiving, the observance of which in the mid-19th century was slowing dying out. She finally succeeded, and the book makes President Lincoln's declaration of a national Thanksgiving holiday out to be Sarah's greatest triumph. But I think we can take a lesson from that. Sure, you could cynically dismiss Hale as a sentimental busybody. But maybe she was more; maybe she was committed to helping her country engage in a little creative remembering. The fact that what she accomplished was, strictly speaking, a political invention doesn't, I think, take anything away from the real connections it made possible for all Americans. That's a valuable point to keep in mind. Note that if you accept this view of holiday "inventions," it becomes possible to actually critique the construction of holidays, to study and reflect on their rituals and observances as better or worse adaptations of the meaning of the day. This is especially appropriate today, on Veterans Day, an American holiday that honors people richly worth honoring, but along the way does terrible disservice to the deeper roots of the day, roots far better honored in those countries that have preserved November 11th as Remembrance or Armistice Day. (See here, here, here, and here for just a sampling of those who agree.) You could make no such critique if all holidays, and all the remembering they make possible, were essentially just arbitrary poses adopted by nostalgic moderns.

Not to say that you shouldn't celebrate Festivus, and be as postmodern as you can, if it turns you on. And it's not like I'm suggesting holiday traditions can't be mocked. (Misrule plays a part in every Christmas, after all.) But don't read that postmodernism back into the very existence of modern holidays, if you please. There's too much truth to be found in letting traditions seasonally locate you in a place and time and community to stand for that.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Has Leon Kass Seen The Corporation? (Conservatism, Part 3)

The second of Lee's posts to really get me thinking was this one, where he makes the observation that

[T]he Christian theological tradition would say that our proper attitude toward material creation is to receive it as a gift and with thanksgiving. But the consumerist attitude is similar to the attitude of the Israelites in the desert hoarding the manna that came from God. They wanted to have it at their disposal, rather than as a gift received anew each day. In a similar fashion, we want things in our possession, at our disposal, and under our control. We turn them into commodities....[We] need some way of making communal judgments about how far is too far in the realms of consumerism and technology. Can we discover something like that while still preserving the achievements of liberalism and liberal institutions?

Eric Lee, commenting on this post, suggests that what Lee is talking about is well explored in the documentary The Corporation--and he's absolutely correct. I recently gave a presentation on this film (which everyone should see--it is, I think, just about a perfect mix of careful thinking and outrageous agitprop) here at WIU, and it struck me just how fundamentally its attack on the power of corporate entities to treat practically anything human or natural as a potentially ownable commodity relates to conservative complaints about technologically-driven social transformations. It made me think--not for the first time, I'm afraid--that Leon Kass, and many social conservatives others who share his opinions, would be well served by viewing this film.

Kass came in for a lot of mockery around the blogosphere last week (see here and here), and deservedly so. I'm not sure where I saw the comment, but someone pointed out that Kass's worldview (which I think is more quaint than dangerous, but in any case I don't agree with it) basically turns on a particular Straussian--or Allan Bloomian--reading of the ancient Greeks which presents the argument that men and women can't ever really be friends; true friendship is a intra-gender phenomenon, whereas across genders the erotic force often gets confused. (Maybe I should call this a When Harry Met Sally reading of ancient learning as well.) And so, of course, when it comes to women and men associating with one another, women need to be on their guard and discipline themselves so as to be able to sexually control men and lure them into marriage, because of course, as Kass put it, "why would a man court a woman for marriage when she may be sexually enjoyed, and regularly, without it?" The possibility that the man and woman might actually be interested in one another and enjoy each others' company--that they might, in other words, be friends--is simply not likelihood in his mind.

But that's not what I wanted to talk about; what is on my mind is Kass's many strongly worded warnings about and occasional denunciations of genetic engineering, embryonic stem-cell research, cloning, and biotechnology in general. I'm enormously sympathetic to the work Kass has done on the President's Council on Bioethics (see here and here and here and here), because I share his fear that our society's needed and basic moral notions of dignity and humanity can easily be compromised by allowing technology to turn too much of what is fundamental to our nature and our everyday lives into, as Lee put it, possessions, "at our disposal, and under our control." Once again, pointing back to yesterday's post, there is an important sense in which our ability to act freely and meaningfully in the world depends upon respecting limits--denying the ability of any one person, through the supposedly neutral and empowering aegis of the market, to make their own or someone else's life utterly pliable and choice-driven. If everything is a potential possession and commodity, if everything can be bought or sold or designed or reconstructed, then nothing is permanent, and if nothing is permanent, our ability to draw moral lines, much less our ability to build our institutions and laws in reference to such, will collapse. In the end, we need to distinguish between what is human and what is merely an accoutrement of humanity, and set the former beyond the reach of profit and pleasure-minded choice.

What bothers me about Kass and many other such conservatives is that, so far as I can tell, they have not identified the real driving force behind these choices: corporations, these legal fictions which we have created that our law grants the legal standing of persons, and yet are fundamentally unable to include within the logic of their actions any kind of human value or moral concern. Yes, individual persons are the ones who make the decisions which corporations then act upon, but no individual, on their own, is so powerful or so removed from the real world of everyday moral concern to be able to do something so horrendous as, say, patent a life form. Yet that is exactly which many powerful corporations have done. The modern corporate form is wonderful for harnessing the potential of capitalism; they can, through legal mechanisms, take money from investors and rapidly buy property and move into markets and innovate the production of goods to a degree single actors never could. But it is exactly that speed, that impetus towards constant growth and exploitation, which has allowed corporate powers to generate structures within which technology escapes human control: you just have one genetic engineer here, and one lawyer over there, and each of them are doing their job, and if, in the end, you're suddenly placing patents on goods which makes the basic stuff of life--genes, seeds, DNA codes, etc.--nothing more than objects of speculation and profit...well, who is to blame? The Corporation lays out all this expertly, and entertainingly as well.

I've been reading Norman Pollack's The Just Polity, an intellectual exploration of Populism in American history, and he has much to say about the populist critique of corporations and consumerism. Much of what he has to say about "property" just as clearly applies to matters of "technology" as well, so much so that you could easily replace the former with the latter, and the basic argument would hold: "[Technology]," he writes regarding the 19th-century Populists, "was only regarded as a threat when it became integrated with the mechanisms of domination....When [technology] was concentrated, Populists viewed it as taking on a politicized form" (pg. 6). This this puts it very well--the concentration of technological power, and economic power, in the hands of corporation is hardly a neutral event, an unavoidable and harmless byproduct of the functions of the market, but one which impinges upon politics. The makers of The Corporation (which, despite its occasional rabble-rousing goofiness and its heavy use of Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore, is a lucid and insightful film) do not argue against capitalism itself or urge an agrarian-Luddite revolution; what they do is ask how, and to what degree, we can continue to justify essentially outsourcing such transformative issues to a bunch of centralized, strictly speaking inhuman, acquisitive entities. I do not expect Kass to become a Luddite--I'm not myself. But I would expect him to recognize that what is primarily driving the kind of technological danger and commodification which he fears is to a great degree the one economic agent operative in our present socio-economic world that is almost completely structurally immune to the sort of democratic "communal judgments" which Lee mentioned. If he can't do that, especially in regards to these most pressing of issues, then really, what could he possibly be "conserving" anyway?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Populist Farmer (Conservatism, Part 2)

Let me pick up on a point Lee made in the first of these Verbum Ipsum posts I mentioned, where he reflects upon the arguments of one of my favorite thinkers, Christopher Lasch:

Lasch favored what he called 'populism'....Lasch's populism valorizes what he considered to be lower-middle-class or 'petit bourgeois' values of local community, solidarity, dedication to craft, loyalty and self-denial. In essence, it is an ethic of limits that doesn't expect ever-expanding wealth and opportunity, but finds satisfaction in concrete attachments to family, neighborhood, honest work, and civic participation. Lasch's vision combined a desire for a certain level of economic egalitarianism with a distrust of the state and a commitment to what we might call "traditional values." But it's not entirely clear that such a state of affairs is possible (assuming that it's desirable). Is it possible to ensure a measure of economic independence for working people without an expansive welfare state? Is it, as some have suggested, that it's the state that makes the concentration of wealth possible through the various subsidies and supports it provides to big business? Is a kind of Jeffersonian agrarianism/populism feasible in the 21st century, or is that just nostalgia?

Lee--and Lasch, for that matter--aren't really explicitly talking about farmers here; their invocation of agrarian populism has more to do with the Jeffersonian ideal of a democracy of small property owners, of producers and workers that can stand independent of large commercial machines, than with an actual celebration of farm life. Still, Lee's comment got me thinking about farming, partly because my family is involved in it, but even more because through that involvement, I think I can grasp some of the practical problems and possibilities that might go into answering Lee's question, and thus make for a better conservatism than what passes for such today.

Farming is an economy of limits, and teaches one an ethic of limits. You cannot retool a plot of land the way you can a factory; you cannot redesign or alter a crop the way you can a production line or menu or novel or any other material thing that someone might produce through their labor. Of course, over time--through working with the land, judging the seasons, experimenting with different hybrids, developing new planting and harvesting procedures--the sort of agriculture any given person or community is involved with can change; and by the same token, it's not as though any non-agricultural business or practice can just turn on a dime: there are machines and investments that need tending to, there is training that has to take place, etc. Still, broadly speaking, the essential distinction between an act of creative labor that involves oneself, or an organization, or a factory, and the labor which involves the land, holds firm: farming is--must be--careful, slow, patient, conservative work. In short, working on a farm teaches you about time, teaches you your own limits and thus turns you to others, teaches you value, as Wendell Berry put it in his essay "Going to Work," "the nature of the place itself and what is naturally there, the local ecosystem and watershed, the local landscape and its productivity, the local human neighborhood, the local memory." (This is in contrast, according to Berry, to "much modern work" which takes place in "academic or professional or industrial or electronic enclosures," and thus encourages a "separation between the workers and the effects of their work...permit[ting] the workers to think that they are working nowhere or anywhere.")

So there is a reason why Lasch--who once wrote that it was simply "common sense" that (here he quotes Raymond Williams) in the future, "work on the land will have to become more rather than less important and central"--focused on farming along with so many other lower-middle-class or "petit bourgeois" forms of work as the key to his conservative but also egalitarian, humble but also hopeful world. But does any of this have any connection to farming today? Setting aside the full-bore agrarian vision, and assuming that every person will just have to find, if we so choose, a way to recover a little bit of Jeffersonian social and economic independence (an independence which exists in the context of a defined community, not an open and uncaring market) in whatever vocation or lifestyle we live, can contemporary agriculture offer anything from which we can learn?

I think so, though perceiving it isn't easy. The terrible burden of farming in America today, and for several decades now, is that of bigness--between the technology of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, and the machinations of political and corporate leaders in the 1970s, the principle of limits, while still an undeniable aspect of farming, was officially denigrated: the goal of every farmer was to increase yields, to "get big or get out," to plant, as Richard Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz put it, "fence row to fence row" (and, of course, that meant trying to get more land within those fence rows as well). Of course, this didn't happen over night; in many ways, due to the enormous amount of arable land available in the United States, combined with a free-market ideology that has always encouraged farmers to think about growth rather than conservation, the lure of limitlessness has long been with us. Today, corn is so overproduced in the U.S. that massive subsidies--more than twice as much as any other crop receives--are necessary to keep it profitable, with the result that the corn economy spills over into such ridiculous and environmentally destructive endeavors as ethanol, corn-fed beef, and--worst of all in our household--the omnipresence of corn syrup as a sweetener. But to a degree this is simply a replay of the 19th century, when the overproduction of corn made possible the near-universal consumption of cheap corn whiskey and rampant alcoholism. Wise farmers and managers of farms have long been sensitive to the lure of bigness, and the crises it can cause; but such wisdom is difficult to hold onto when agriculture has become captive to obsession with growth and "feeding the world." (As Amartya Sen demonstrated years ago, famines are rarely caused by a lack of food, but rather by poorly developed or managed local economies that prevent people from finding the kind of work and wealth needed so that they can afford food.)

Today in the U.S., 90% of farms are still technically family-owned and "small"--but they account for an increasingly small percentage of total farm production. Over one-third of all agricultural output in the U.S. is now determined by corporate contracts, and two-thirds of American farms are obliged to specialize in only one or two commodities. The raw number of farms in the U.S. have been falling for decades; but what is far more worrisome is the collapse of the mid-sized farm economy, the "agriculture of the middle," as one report puts it. Small farm operations, especially those nearby urban markets, can often deliver their goods directly to consumers and stores, especially as the interest in organic food and farmers markets has grown. Huge corporate farm operations, of course, increasing dominate the agricultural scene (helped along enormously by subsidies which are tied entirely to sustaining price despite overproduction). The farmers who are falling through the cracks are the ones who are working perhaps 200, perhaps 500, perhaps 1000 acres, who still sell their crops on the open market and still make decisions about what to plant and how to manage the soil and when to harvest themselves, who still can manage the land and pass down that knowledge directly, frequently within their families. This is a grave concern: while the major agricultural conglomerates (some scholars suggest that we will soon see economic pressures and incentives force or lure most non-boutique farmers into joining massive, 225,000-acre "industrial" farm complexes) will always be able to produce food (though whether it's good to eat or not is a different story...), it is these mid-sized farms which are most able to produce unique, highly differentiated commodities in sufficient quantities to be able to participate in economies of scale. More relevant to this discussion, it is farms like these that are at the outside edge of the sort of consciousness of limits, and the virtues which follow from the same, that farming at its best represents. If we lose them, then farming's connection with Jeffersonian hopes, with a model of populist empowerment and discipline so important if we wish to prevent the free market from descending into pure anarcho-capitalism, will mostly disappear. Fortunately, things may be turning slowly around.

My family owns a farm--in two parcels, one 400 acres and the other 1400 acres, of which about 1100 acres are tillable--in the Kootenai River valley in northern Idaho. (See here for some more personal information and reflections on our farm.) We grow mostly wheat, with the occasional excursions into lentils or barley. We're lucky in a lot of ways: our land is tended for us by a family of Mennonite farmers, the Amoths, that have been associates of the Fox family for going on four generations now. Moreover, the arable land in our part of the Inland Empire is some of the finest wheat-growing land in America, with no need for irrigation and a climate well-suited for a variety of strains (we grow both soft white and hard red varieties, including the comparatively rare and valuable dark northern spring). And wheat itself is a fairly high-demand and stable crop. Still, it isn't at all impossible to imagine losing our toe-hold in the market, especially when confronted with the huge subsidies and contracts pulled in by the major operations out there. Fortunately, there are programs which have been designed to help, in particular the Conservation Security Program. This program, which has only recently become available in the Kootenai River watershed area, is a quantum leap forward in the relationship between the federal government and farmers. Rather than simply paying them the difference between their costs and the market price of their goods (thereby warping the latter), or paying them to destroy their goods outright so to keep them off the market, it treats farmers as stewards, subsidizing them in their efforts to transform--and, thereby, limit--their land in accordance with good environmental principles. Individual plans are developed in consultation with those who actually work the farm, and the result in a more natural farm, but one that is still productive, still producing marketable goods, and still ultimately in the hands of their knowledgeable, local owners and operators. As my father put it, "Someone in Washington finally figured out that people who spend their lives on the land are better environmentalists than those who visit it for a weekend." This sort of trust--call it populist empowerment--strengthens the mid-sized farm and those who, in their own independent way, make the land and their work upon it part of the American scene, thereby making it and them that much more like to endure in a world characterized by the colliding demands of environmentalism, efficiency, and economic centralization.

The CSP is just one program, and it alone can't make much difference across the country; but then, it is just an example of some of the ways in which farming's contribution to the fabric (as well as the feeding) of America can nonetheless still be drawn out. The legacy of the New Deal--which always was far more about building economic security and solidarity than simply cutting welfare checks--included several programs that built upon the expected ability (and obligation!) of farmers to make wise use of their land, assuming the market would pay for and respect the kind of limited, disciplined work they were doing. The Burley Tobacco Program is a good example of such; this is how one farmer and writer described the effects of that program (which Wendell Berry has also praised):

The Burley Tobacco program, for example, has sustained more small- and moderate-sized family farmers than has any other agricultural program in any other state in the US. When I was raising 3-4 acres of tobacco on my 155-acre dairy farm in Kentucky in the 1970s, I was making enough money from tobacco to take care of my mortgage and loan payments on the whole farm. I never got a subsidy check. The companies were required to pay a fair price, or they didn't get the tobacco. Tens of thousands of small farmers making a living meant that church and school events were always packed with people. There was a healthy, lively rural economy and social fabric....Some of my economist friends didn't like the tobacco program because they said it "retarded efficiency." They explained to me that tobacco-farming methods were antiquated, that more tobacco could be produced more cheaply if the production weren't required to be disbursed among so many "inefficient" little farms. They were right, of course, but when farm leaders talked to me about the importance of the program, the never talked solely about efficiency—they always talked about the really good farmers whose income from tobacco enabled them to be livestock and grass farmers, thereby stewarding the land. They also always talked about how many kids were sent to college with tobacco checks. This was a stark example to me of two different paradigms about economic systems. One considers financial efficiency primary and all other goals derivative. The other considers social and environmental goals as important as financial ones.

I neither smoke nor care much for people who do, and I'm anything but a fan of the tobacco industry. But you have to recognize and applaud sincere efforts, wherever you may find them, to make farming work in today's open-ended social and economic environment in the egalitarian and empowering way that agrarians from Jefferson on down have insisted that it can and should. The American government spends billions of dollars on agriculture, flooding world markets while protecting our own, propping up bloated agribusinesses that soak up the corporate welfare and use their wealth to patent crops and micromanage farming like any profit-minded corporation would, and all the while fails to do the basic things which France--which is hardly free of such abuses themselves--has successfully done with far less overall spending: identify limited niche markets where agricultural commodities, produced in conservative and limited--and therefore all the more personalized and enriching--ways continue to shape an overall way of life.

I don't imagine that the majority of the Illinois corn fields surrounding our house will be transformed into numerous small or mid-sized, locally productive and managed farms anytime soon. Still, one can hope: hope that the CSP and programs like it receives more funding and is extended to more areas of the country, hope that more people will key into the way in which farming can help to sustain a populist public good. The state must play an important role here: not simply as a provider of welfare per se, but because--absent, as I said above, a complete agrarian revolution--it alone has the democratic power to structure and thus shape the way in which modern technologies and markets interact with farmers and farming communities. Without such structuring, the best--most communitarian, most Laschian, most egalitarian, most local, most conservative--aspects of American farm work will be hard-pressed to survive. But if they do survive, or even flourish, farmers like the Amoths might well endure to be popular examples of the kind of good life which workers the country over might someday be clamoring to conserve.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Conservatism on Trial in St. Louis

Well, it seems that once again I've managed to let nearly month go by without much serious blogging. I guess I'll have to do something about that.

I just got back from a conference in St. Louis--it was the annual meeting of the Association for Political Theory, a relatively new and growing professional academic group--and I was on a roundtable discussing "Prospects for American Conservatism." It was an excellent panel, with some great discussion afterwards--in some ways, a replay of the panel I was on with some of my fellow bloggers at APSA, but in some ways going in a very different direction. For one thing, it was much more personal, reflecting the efforts of four people thinking very hard about how to place themselves and their interests, hopes and fears in relation to what passes for "conservatism" in America today. I can't do justice here to the energized discussion which followed afterwards; suffice to say it was an excellent exchange all around. And there was a lot of material presented worth arguing about: Steve Millies used Burke to thoughtfully explore and critique the highly imprudent and anything-but-traditional Bush Doctrine ; I did my usual Christopher Lasch-inspired social conservative-Christian socialist shtick (our panel chair, the sharp and funny Daniel Pellerin, said after listening to me that he was surprised to find an old-fashioned Red Tory living in the U.S.); Gus Dizerega discussed his break with libertarianism and his suspicion of a totalitarianism lurking within the soul of the Christian right; and Ed Wingenbach reminded us of the danger of getting caught up in a merely "nominalist" argument when the conservative movement in America today, whatever it actually consists of, has been so successful in positioning itself as the party of power.

Ed's comments were particularly relevant given the arguments which emerged in the discussion period, most having to do with the apparent intentions of contemporary imperialists and certain neoconservatives. Does talking about "conservatism" do anyone any good in diagnosing this phenomenon at all? You link this wholesale revision of much of what has long been assumed to be "conservative" (realism, prudence, community, tradition, localism, etc.) with the ambitions of certain religious activists, and what you find is the acknowledgement that the word itself simply doesn't describe the existing movement; as Joseph Bottum himself admitted in a prominent essay in First Things, "this isn't conservatism....But so what? Call it the new moralism, if you like. Call it a masked liberalism or a kind of radicalism that has bizarrely seized the American scene." Daniel's observation that, if Hartz's thesis about the liberal tradition in America has any truth to it at all, then there is every reason to properly read Bush's adventures as a somewhat radicalized iteration of American Whiggery, the liberal imperialist mindset which has always lurked below the surface of America's civic creed and which now, post-Roe, post-9/11, has found a new outlet. I think there's a great deal of truth to that. But, for my own sake, I also think it's important to point out the enduring, oft-misunderstood presence of at least one authentically conservative strand of thought in the current Republican party.

As the discussion turned to the war on terrorism, I confessed that I had drank the Kool-Aid: back in 2003, as most of you know, I was a worried but nonetheless emphatic supporter of the Iraq War. I have long struggled, against my better judgment, with the problem that there is much that someone of my views can plausibly admire about President Bush, and a great deal of that is caught up the way he and those around him intentionally or unintentionally tapped into a deep idea--an idea that, as I put when I finally admitted that I needed to eat some crow, "appealed to me: [one that] made sense, [that] matched what I thought ought and could be possible in a world of danger and oppression where the meaning of sovereignty had changed but the role of national power hadn't." When one member of the audience suggested framing the present condition of conservatism and liberalism in the U.S. explicitly in post-9/11 terms, this is what I came up with--

In the aftermath of 9/11, and reaching all the way to the invasion of Iraq, Bush's and the neoconservatives call to war has ideologically caught up three distinct groups of Americans. The first and largest group responded to the attack on the U.S. and its interests with a straightforward patriotism, the sort of civic and religious pride in America that united many diverse factions all throughout the Cold War when Soviet communism was presented as a legitimate and dangerous threat to the American way of life. Despite the way in which, post-Vietnam, self-described "conservatives" were able to claim this mantle for themselves, there was never anything coherently conservative about it; in fact, to the extent that the "American way of life" is basically a liberal one, than this patriotic reaction is similarly "liberal" in a rather fundamental way. The second group, smaller but highly influential, were the liberal nationalists and internationalists, who resonated to the call to war for reasons of human rights and idealism and the promise of uniting democracy promotion with imperial might. So much has been written about this group (and so much of which, I must admit, I still cannot help but be sympathetic to) that there's no point in elaborating it further, except to note that, whether they called themselves liberal hawks or neoconservatives, this too, at bottom, was just another iteration of liberal reformism and humanitarian imperialism, Gladstonian-style.

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

When I was making my remarks, Steve told me later, he scribbled down on his pad "Christopher Hitchens conservatism!"--and that nails it, absolutely. There is something subtly yet authentically conservative about the present Republican party, and it draws on that portion of the left which knows that social egalitarianism, or indeed any social ideal, will never be enough--you need an socially engaged community, a socialist and egalitarian culture, and for that you need a common morality and collective goods. A very small yet real part of the progressive left has, I think, rightly decided that we're the only one's left actually defending the authority of community and tradition, and we'll take any ally we can find in this battle, with the result that religious and communalistic progressives often end up with odd bedfellows. Too bad a lot of us for a long time couldn't see (as some of us, like Hitchens, still can't) that Bush's "traditionalism" appears to involve far more cronyism that communalism, which means that--arguably unlike the more honest imperialists of 19th-century Britain, or even the liberal-yet-still-culturally-traditional architects of America's transformative occupations of Germany and Japan after WWII--he is unwilling to acknowledge, or more likely is entirely ignorant of, what respecting and encouraging a decent culture actually means.

Anyway, since I'm now thinking about all this stuff, I might as well try to get down a couple of other recent, more theoretical ideas I've had related to conservatism, both inspired by a series of wonderful posts written by Lee at Verbum Ipsum a few weeks back. In those posts, he touched a bunch of important and interrelated issues--populism, agrarianism, technology, and the role of the state and the market--all in the context of exploring conservatism. I'll see if I can't them both up over the next day or two.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Happy 5766!

It's Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Last year I wrote a long piece, weaving my thoughts about the importance of this holiday with some reflections on seasons and holidays in general; I doubt I could do any better this time around, so I'll just link to that old post, which you can read if you're so inclined. You might also be interested in a post with some links to Jewish-related matters over at Times and Seasons, where I also blog. In the meantime, if there’s a synagogue here in Macomb, IL, I’m unaware of it, so there will be cultural dimension missing from our family celebrations tonight. Still, Melissa will make her chicken soup and challah bread, and we’ll share stories from the Old Testament with our children. Shana Tova, everyone!

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

What Deterring Abortion Means

Hugo Schwyzer is talking about Proposition 73 out in California, the referendum that would require that parents be notified if an underage child of their's seeks an abortion. Hugo plans to vote no on the proposition. His reasoning for doing so is heartfelt, thoughtful, and completely respectable. And also wrong. He writes:

"Do I want to see an end to abortion in this country? Yes. Am I willing to advocate for laws to restrict access to abortion to adults or minors? No. Despite my own history, I've flirted in the past with supporting anti-abortion regulation. My faith informs me that all life is equally precious, including life in the womb. But with great heaviness of heart, I've come to agree that it's destructive and pointless to try and end abortion legislatively....If my daughter were pregnant, I would want to know. Perhaps I would want her to keep the child, or choose adoption--though those would not be my decisions to make. But even greater than my desire to know, I would want her to be safe. Ultimately, it wouldn't be about me, but about her and her needs. And if for some reason she felt she couldn't tell me or her mother, I would want her to be able to turn to medical professionals."

I added the final emphasis there, because Hugo's comment touches on the delicate, difficult heart of what deterring abortion--assuming one wants to deter abortion, which Hugo surely does--plausibly may sometimes mean. Not that I fault him for pulling back from this aspect of the debate; I actually tend to think that parental notification laws, and similar laws which have nothing to do with the procedure itself (like the partial-birth abortion rigamorale, which--however disturbing the surgical act itself may be--I think to be a distraction that generates legislative grandstanding mostly irrelevant to the real issues at hand), but which rather concentrate on the actual choice of abortion, are the most difficult parts of the pro-life agenda to get past. Unfortunately, I also think they are the most important; if we can't agree on this, then the widespread practice of abortion is never going to go anywhere. (This, of course, assumes I'm speaking to other opponents of abortion; in other words, this is an intra-faction argument.)

One commenter on Hugo's site observes that "the fact that not all parents are 'good' enough to allow their kids to go through with [abortions] without objection is a feature, not a bug." He puts it crudely, but correctly. The reason parental notification laws are even debated is because they presume the legitimacy of the interference of others (particularly parents) in a choice that is nominally guaranteed but regarded by many as morally wrong. To require notification (not consent, mind you; the proposition only mentions notification, and it allows for legal alternatives for those who come from abusive or dysfunctional homes) means the state is officially saying to those under the age of 18: "We are not going to let choosing abortion be easy. We will make it, possibly, burdensome. We will make it other peoples' problem, not just your own."

The question must be asked of those of us in agreement that abortion is often wicked and always tragic: is it an evil that is nonetheless so thoroughly tied up in complicated facts of embodiment and gender and power that any attempt to interfere with the ability of anyone, including (or especially!) a minor, to choose it is unwarranted? Or can we make our way through that tangle, and attempt to at least instantiate some sort of deterrence of abortion? For many opponents of abortion, apparently including Hugo, the integrity of the individual's choice (even if their choice is a poor one) is a fundamental that must be protected at all costs, because otherwise the risks are just too painful to imagine (foolish teen-agers with mean parents clearly being the absolute least of it). So the only alternative available to those who come to such a conclusion is persuasion, example, and taking positive steps--economically and otherwise--to try to make abortion every bit as "rare" as Bill Clinton said he wanted it to be. This is a legitimate pro-life position, I think, and I respect people who hold it--indeed, I wish more social conservatives would acknowledge it and copy from it, because the dominant "conservative" pro-life position in this country all too rarely thinks about all the positive financial and educational steps that could be taken to help women choose otherwise than many of them currently do.

Nonetheless, it's not my position. I recognize that a whole lot of people--and specifically, young women--out there face terrible, unjust, ugly choices. But I do not understand how the problem that their choices pose to society are made any easier by refusing to allow any kind of social consensus, any kind of deterrence, any kind of interference, to present itself in between the individual and their choice. If you think abortion is a bad choice, and if you agree that majorities of one's neighbors also think it is a bad choice (and there is scads of polling data which backs up that second claim), then I am at a loss as to why one would think that abortion cannot be a focus of social expression through law. Not any law, to be sure: Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey are still the law of the land, meaning their are constitutional concerns that must be satisfied. (And I'm not just dodging the issue by saying that; I have plenty of complaints with both Roe and Casey, but neither do I think that the constitutional interpretations--specifically about the limits of moral consensus in a liberal society--they laid down can or should be easily dismissed.) Moreover, whatever majorities may exist that are troubled by and support discouraging abortion, such support certainly does not exist at present (except perhaps in a few small regions of the country) for laws that would actually make the choice of abortion, in practice, impossible. Abortion is widely accepted as legitimate alternative. But does that also mean that nothing can or should be done to communicate that it is a disapproved of alternative? That you don't think any person, or any two people, ought to be allowed to make this choice entirely on their own? That the weightiness of the decision ought to be prolonged and made more tangible and pressing? If, I suppose, you think that the pain and harm and burden of abortion is ultimately, and solely, the province of the person having the abortion--that is, if your baseline reading of the situation is, "Who's the chooser here?"--then of course you musn't attempt to complicate or interfere with her choice; that would be oppression. But if, on the other hand, your basic framing of the problem is one that denies that abortion is wholly within the realm of the private, then the (limited, carefully legislated, intelligently enforced) expression of mild public concern--and compared to the actual disciplinary powers of the state, what could be more mild for 99% of those minors who seek abortion then to oblige parental involvement?--is a no brainer, assuming support for such exists.

So why is it so hard to accept, then, even for those opposed to abortion rights? Because we're individualists at heart, and we have a terrible time getting free from the feeling that when someone--especially someone whose situation is sympathetic, someone who we want to protect--feels no alternative but to do something that we rightly consider shameful and sad, perhaps we ought to support them in their (unwarranted but understandable) wish to tell the rest of the world to get lost for a while and leave them alone. Moreover, and more importantly, we worry about that 1%, or maybe it'll be more than 1%--the young women (often just girls) who have been raped, perhaps even by a family member, or more likely are simply (but no less tragically) so fearful of their parents, or so distraught by their situation, that they'll seek whatever unclean, unskilled abortion services they can find when confronted by the formal demands and interference of society. Yes, those cases exist, and in all likelihood more of them (probably not very many, but likely at least a few) will be brought into existence by a parental notification law. Hugo says that above all else, he wants the girls and young women of California to be safe. He doesn't trust this law will be enforced as it ought, and even if it is, the fact that it just may be that someone's choice will be made less secure, less smooth, and less safe by it is, he thinks, reason enough for him, an opponent of abortion, to nonetheless oppose it.

It's not. It's not because to hold to such a position is to claim that one's opposition to abortion is every bit as private as the choice one attributes to the person in the sad state of needing or wanting or being compelled (sometimes by one's boyfriend, or father, or friends, or peers) to seek an abortion. It is, other words, to say that one's opposition to abortion arises from a personal squeamishness, a distaste. (Which for a lot of pro-lifers is, unfortunately, quite accurate: again, one of the reasons that I think so much time and energy has been lavished on the partial-birth abortion debate is because, fundamentally, talking about how one socially discourages a choice is hard, while showing off terrifying bloody photographs is easy. It's the difference between those principled abolitionists who spoke of the ruined dignity of the slaves, versus those who just went around telling scandalous, disturbing stories about whips and leg chains, and who opposed slavery because Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin kept them up at night.) If opponents of abortion cannot engage the idea that there is a collective concern here--call it a moral principle, a natural law, a religious imperative, whatever--then the ability to articulate that truth is going to be forever held hostage to the undeniable, unavoidable reality of every single real of hypothetical tragedy out there. In which case, politics really must be just about the management of incidentals, with all the serious questions safely privatized away.

This isn't a call for hard-heartedness or realism, much less extreme disregard for costs. We have to be consciously engaged in trying to work out the best and most responsible and humane ways to formulate this expression of concern, this relatively minimal but still vital insistence that those who are still legally their parents' children not be able to act otherwise when confronted with such awful choice. And let me be forthright--it's not like I've followed all the ins and outs of the debate over Proposition 73. Maybe it's a lousy law; maybe it doesn't seem likely to even be able to do what its proponents claim. That would be one reason to oppose it. Or maybe an abortion foe could oppose it by arguing that, before parental notification become mandatory, the possible exceptions be better supported and more widely distributed; interference would therefore have to wait on changing society so that the costs of interference would be even less than they might otherwise be. Again, a reasonable argument, and within limits a responsible and necessary one (though if relied on too often, it begins to sound like an argument that Martin Luther King responded to, in essence, when he insisted that the moral cause of civil rights ought not be forced to "be patient" while the white power structure slowly "moderated" itself). But Hugo doesn't make those arguments; instead, he mournfully allows that, given the world we do have, it's just too destructive to presume to implicate the choices of individuals (or at least this special, terrible, particular kind of choice) in our morally worried social reality. I respect Hugo tremendously, and have enjoyed reading his ruminations for a long time now; but for a pacifist who presumable believes that Christians can and should, in fact, as a people, proclaim peace despite "the way the world is," I can't help but think that the decision this opponent of abortion has come to on Proposition 73 is a damn odd one, to say the least.