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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Vacation PSTSS: "Pictures of You"

Come early Monday morning, we'll be hitting the road, to begin a 3500-mile-or-thereabouts round trip out West. Our destination is the Pacific Northwest--specifically Spokane, Washington, for a big family reunion. Along the way we plan on stopping and seeing the aquarium in Denver, checking in with old friends and relatives in Wyoming, and hopefully making it all the way out Portland to celebrate our 15th anniversary with a stop at my friend Nick's new restaurant, Kenny and Zuke's. As for the reunion part...well, yes, that's right, we did have one of these just last year in Utah, and we drove all the way to that one and back as well. The driving isn't actually that much of a problem (even with these gas prices, it's still cheaper than flying when you include the four children); we've been throwing the kids into the car and racking up the miles for as long as we've been a family. But I admit I do wish these things would stop being planned in late July and August, which is just when the tomatoes are ready for canning, and besides, after a few years of these westward journeys, Melissa's family--who are almost all to the east of us--deserve a visit.

Even with the wear and tear and days in the car, I think we're looking forward to this trip. We like seeing the country; we like being our own little family unit for a while, just plugging along, seeing the sites, stopping when we're tired, driving into the night when we can. As long as it's not Christmas, hitting the road is something we're okay with. I don't think Melissa and I will ever be bone-deep fans of traveling; we like coming home and being back in the place where we belong too much! But traveling does give us a chance to see other places, and how people make homes for themselves there. There's a kind of romanticism to it, I admit, and even the occasional screaming-kid fit doesn't seem to shake us of it.

Way back when we lived in Washington DC while I was in graduate school, Melissa and I went to see a show featuring the Red Clay Ramblers, a wonderfully innovative bluegrass and folk stringband based in North Carolina, but which has made a quite name for itself over the decades. I picked up a recording of theirs that evening, titled simply Live, recorded in 1997 and released in 2001. It included a fantastic tune by Bland Simpson, an English professor, composer, and pianist who often plays with the band: "Pictures for You." Nominally a love song, it's actually a tribute to being on the road while always thinking of one own place and people back home. And as an added bonus for me, the paths Simpson was traveling down his mind as he wrote this song are paths that I know pretty well--the roads and train tracks and mountain paths and rivers around Washington and Oregon, which, as much as Kansas is growing on me, will always remain a homeland of mine:

I'm going out west for a while--
riding alone, though, that ain't my style.

Just 'fore I left, I heard what you said:
"Keep you eyes open; never forget
there's someone back east." Oh I'm missing you so;
tell you what I see wherever I go.

Like the sun going down over Boundary Bay,
that big barn in Washington burstin' with hay.
Oh the Columbia River, all indigo blue...
I took every one of these pictures for you.

Oh crossing the desert again--
pulled up alongside of a hundred-car train.

Burlington-Northern, the Cotton Belt too;
let Southern serve the south--baby I'll be servin' you.
Going to race that old train, probably come out ok...
another story to tell you, got to tell you today.

'Bout the sun going down over Boundary Bay,
that big barn in Washington burstin' with hay.
Oh the Columbia River, all indigo blue...
I took every one of these pictures for you.

That day coming through the Cascades--
got tears in my eyes, wherever I gazed.

I saw you in the fir trees, that blanket this land;
I saw you everywhere: I was in the palm of your hand.
Came boltin' down Snoqualmie Pass about noon,
surrounded by mountains, singin' this tune.

'Bout the sun going down over Boundary Bay,
that big barn in Washington burstin' with hay.
Oh the Columbia River, all indigo blue...
I took every one of these pictures for you.

Some might have forgotten--that's something I would never do...
I took every one of these pictures for you.

I'm sure we'll take plenty of pictures while we're on this trip. Maybe I'll post some once we're back. Until then, take care, and thanks for reading.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Friday PSTSS: "Allentown"

I suppose if I'm going to share a thoughtful bit of pop songwriting that pays tribute to the struggles faced by America's farmers, then I ought to do the same for a song that focuses on America's Rust Belt workers as well. Billy Joel doesn't have any more of an authentic understanding of the history and troubles of the steelworkers of Allentown and Bethlehem, PA, than Don Henley did of the farmers of Des Moines or Omaha, but that doesn't mean the story he tells is false or meaningless. Quite the contrary, in fact.

This comes off of Joel's 1982 album The Nylon Curtain: probably his most ambitious recording ever, certainly the one where he tried his hardest to achieve some sort of Beatlesesque mix of pop craftsmanship, socially conscious lyrics, and rock and roll experimentation. Some find it pretentious, a reminder that Joel might have been a more respected pop artist--and maybe just plain a happier person--if he'd been born ten years earlier and had been able to start his career cranking out Brill Building hits in the 1960s along with Neil Diamond, Carole King, and Bobby Hart. Perhaps; I can't say I'm his greatest fan. But still, he's written some fine stories to go along with his excellent tunes over the years, and I say this is one of his best.

Well we're living here in Allentown,
and they're closing all the factories down.
Out in Bethlehem they're killing time:
filling out forms,
standing in line.

Well our fathers fought the Second World War.
Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore.
Met our mothers at the USO:
asked them to dance,
danced with them slow.
And we're living here in Allentown.

But the restlessness was handed down,
and it's getting very hard to stay....

Well we're waiting here in Allentown
for the Pennsylvania we never found.
For the promises our teachers gave:
if we worked hard,
if we behaved.

So the graduations hang on the wall.
But they never really helped us at all.
No they never taught us what was real:
iron and coke,
chromium steel.
And we're waiting here in Allentown.

But they've taken all the coal from the ground,
and the union people crawled away....

Every child had a pretty good shot
to get at least as far as their old man got.
Something happened on the way to that place--
they threw an American flag in our face....

Well I'm living here in Allentown,
and it's hard to keep a good man down.
But I won't be getting up today....

And it's getting very hard to stay....
And we're living here in Allentown.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Time for Some Campaignin'!

The JibJab guys have done it again.

I like the bit where Obama flies over a rainbow on a pink-maned unicorn the best.

(Hat tip: Laura.)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Noah (and Herder) on Obama on Language

So yesterday, Noah Millman--who has been, at the least, intrigued by Senator Obama's presidential campaign, as I think any intelligent person ought to be--came out swinging hard against a brief comment the man made during a campaign stop in Georgia. The substance of his comment was, simply, that more Americans should strive to learn another language, and in particular we should, as a nation (and as parents and teachers), try to ensure that our children are learning some Spanish. You can listen to his comments here (that seems to be how most people are learning about them), but here's the actual transcript:

I don't understand when people are going around saying, "We need to have English only." They want to pass a law "We want English only." Now I agree that immigrants should learn English. I agree with that. But understand this. Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English. They'll learn English. You need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about how can your child become bilingual. We should have every child speaking more than one language. It's embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is merci beaucoup, right?

For a variety of reasons--a couple of which I respect, but others of which I just find silly--this comment really ticked Noah off, and he unloads on Obama. Well, allow me to unload back:

Noah says--
We do not want a formally bilingual America. We don't! I can think of only one clearly successful multilingual polity--Switzerland--and it's an exceptional society in almost every way. Bilingualism is an inescapable historical fact in Canada and Belgium, and as such it is appropriately a political fact as well, but any argument that it has been beneficial would be very strained. And there are plenty of countries with distinct linguistic minorities--Spain, Israel, China--and others with no real linguistic majority--India, South Africa--but in neither case would anyone say that these are optimal situations. The optimal situation from almost every perspective is to have a national language that everyone acknowledges and speaks.

I completely agree with the Noah here...but then I also completely agree with the senator? How is that possible? Well, for one, as a couple of commenters on Noah's post have pointed out, what Noah is attacking in his first point isn't anything Obama actually said. He wasn't calling for a "formally bilingual America" in this little riff; all he was doing was 1) condemning what he sees as a kind of paranoia behind the "English Only" movement, and 2) making a jab at a kind of stereotypical American parochialism, in that we don't seem to be too concerned about our lack of knowledge of other languages. Pretty straightforward, yes?

But of course, Noah is a thoughtful man, and this first point of his--the most important one in his whole post--deserves a thoughtful response. And my response would be two-fold:

First, I agree agree with him: if one has a choice, bilingualism is to be avoided. I say this for pedagogical reasons (more about that below), for political reasons (having to do with the civic element which comes along with any proper education, an accommodation and teaching about civic life in America--or any nation--which will be inevitably complicated and perhaps even compromised if it has to be conducted in more languages that one shared one), and for philosophical reasons as well. I'm both a student and an admirer of J.G. Herder, and he of course is well known as advocating a kind of cultural--or more particularly a linguistic nationalism, and position I find intellectually important and not a little morally persuasive. I've written about this professionally a couple of times and on both this and my old blog before as well--in that latter case, specifically addressing and somewhat defending Samuel Huntington's concerns about the "Hispanic challange" to America's national identity, particularly in regards to his belief that, because of the particular historical products of this country's "Anglo-Protestant" culture, Mexicans and other immigrants to the U.S. "will share in [the American] dream and...society only if they dream in English."

So--am I changing my mind? Not really, I don't think. My defense of Huntington's ideas was more an attack on some clumsy attacks upon it, coming from the likes of David Brooks and others. There is a weakness and a xenophobia present in his arguments (and even more so in many of the "English Only" claims which Obama was mocking), but dismissing his concerns as irrelevant and outdated in our globalized, cosmopolitan, supposedly post-national world doesn't do the trick. As I wrote then: "The English language spoken in the U.S. is by no means the sum total of American identity, but it is a vital part of it. America is a whole lot more than an 'Anglo-Protestant' culture, but that doesn't mean that specific heritage can be completely dispensed in understanding how it is that our country perpetuates itself either. Assimilation, in one sense or another, is a real issue, and a hard one, and easily disregarded by universalists of one stripe or another on both sides. When folks like Brooks say that being an American just boils down to having 'a common conception of the future,' he's dealing in platitudes that make it easier for xenophobes to justify themselves. And when folks like Huntington impose rigid civilizational lines on complicated questions like, for example, language assimilation, it makes it easier for liberals to think that 'culture' needn't mean anything at all."

Herder is, I think, a pretty good guide to these complicated matters, and while I'd hardly take it upon myself to give reading advice to brilliant guy like Noah, I would suggest that he give his writings a chance; there's a lot to be gained from this late 18th-century cleric, critic and philosopher's ideas, especially regarding language. Forgive me for quoting myself again, this time from one of the articles linked to up above:

[A] Herderian reading of the relationship between language and nationality is "conservative" in some ways:...it assumes that national communities have an enduring place in the moral structure of the world and argues that said nations should acknowledge the necessity of maintaining a dominant linguistic field, for the sake of perpetuating the meaning which a people may culturally realize within their group. Herder's communitarian vision thus suggests that a choice-driven policy of bi- or multilingualism is greatly limited in its ability to transform or shape the realization of a people's affective identity, because it ignores or distorts the context by which we are aesthetically brought into a sense of belonging....But Herder's understanding of language and identity would also seem to have "progressive" elements as well, in that it denies the value of specific linguistic forms apart from their always fluid use and adaptation by the people who discover the content of their identity through them....[T]he idea that changes in language will necessarily lead to the "demoralization" of a nation is far removed from Herder's philosophy. ["J.G. Herder on Language and the Metaphysics of National Community," The Review of Politics, Spring 2003, 255-256]

For all his ferocious and philosophically informed defense of the German Volk and their way of speaking, for all his contempt for cosmopolitanism, Herder never saw any good reason not to be acquainted with other languages...in fact, he thought a fuller appreciation of one's own tradition would only come through a greater awareness of how other traditions are articulated. He made this pretty clear in his early work, On Diligence in Several Learned Languages: "How little progress we would have made, were each nation to strive for learnedness by itself, confined within the narrow sphere of [its] language?" This isn't linguistic imperialism; this is saying that languages deserve respect, and that means teaching one's own properly, as way of making possible the sort of growth and judgment which comes from learning other languages as well. And if time and circumstances make certain kinds of growth and judgment more important to and incumbent upon responsible citizens than others, than plainly, that's where one's efforts ought to go. Which leads me to...

Second, we Americans probably are not going to have too much of choice in these matters. A--if not wholly, than at least significantly--bilingual America is on its way; in some parts of the country, its already here. The Spanish language (and here feel free to blame and/or praise immigration or demographics or any combination thereof you please) is shaping, bit by bit, large swaths of America's popular culture, dress, religion, diet, and more; and that influence will likely only increase further in the years and decades to come. The American southwest and Florida are not really Quebec yet, and for historical and political reasons almost certainly never will be...but so long as we're talking about education and the value of bilingualism and the long-term here, we might as well be cognizant of the significantly Hispanicized America which is on our horizon. In the 18th and 19th centuries, there were German nationalists who thought that the Dutch republic was a scandal that never should have been allowed to get out of the German cultural orbit; Herder thought such folks were ridiculous: there was a new Volk out there, one to engage and learn from. America ought to do the same with the Spanish-speakers among us and south of us just the same. That's not an invitation to "a formally bilingual America"; that's treating the cultures around us, and the need America has, as an English-speaking country, comprehend what they are and what they can reflect back to us, with respect.

Okay, that was good enough for a post all on its own. Let me try to run through the rest of Noah's post quickly:

Noah says--
English-speaking peoples don’t learn a second language. It’s a weird but true fact.

Well, actually he's probably correct here. Because of English's global dominance in areas of mass (especially electronic) communication, high finance, and scientific exchanges, there are very few cost-beneficial reasons for English-speakers to branch out. And perhaps there are deeper linguistic/cultural factors in play as well. But how is that a normative claim? A practical warning not to indulge in pie-in-the-sky hopes that we'll all become linguistic cosmopolitans overnight--Herderian and communitarian that I am, I wouldn't want that anyway--but a reason not to encourage the study of foreign languages? Doesn't seem to cut it to me.

Noah says--
Spanish is good for basically two things. First, communicating with immigrant neighbors, employees or clients. Unless we are aiming to create a permanently bilingual America--and we shouldn’t be--there is no reason for our strapped primary schools to be paying for this; you can get a perfectly good working knowledge of everyday Spanish without studying it in school....Second, learning any second language is good for expanding one’s cultural and intellectual horizons, gaining perspective on how one’s own primary language shapes one’s thoughts, and so forth. But this is, relatively speaking, a luxury good. For your average student, it’s much more important that they understand the concept of compound interest than that they learn Spanish.

All well and good (though I think more than a few students of Spanish and/or aficionados of one or another aspect of Mexican culture might want to question how he frames the "usefulness" of Spanish); I suppose I can't fundamentally disagree with any of this. But even allowing what Noah says in his first claim, he's still not really disputing the "ought" in Obama's rather prosaic and offhand statement; he's now merely detailing the marginal costs and benefits of doing so. Which are certainly worth looking at--Obama is, of course, speaking as a potential president, and hence a setter of priorities and budgets--but such side concerns are not particularly on his real point.

Noah says--
Whatever one might think of it in theory, in practice, bilingual education is a massive boondoggle that hurts immigrant children.

I agree: making certain people have, insofar as possible, a shared and sufficient grounding in a single language before--or concomitant to--branching out into other areas of study is crucial. Throwing kids into a school system where basic math is taught in this classroom in Spanish as part of an "immersion" is moronic. But urging everyone to learn a foreign language--in the context of thus discussion presumably, though I guess not necessarily, Spanish--isn't the same as bilingual education: it just means getting the foreign language there in the curriculum.

Noah says--
[W]hat does this have to do with being President of the United States? Why is this wish even remotely on the list? If I thought this was some indication that Obama thought tougher education of the American elite needed to be a higher Federal priority, that would be an interesting development. But it isn’t. It’s just intellectual luftmenschtichkeit.

Oh sure, Noah, condemn the man for encouraging the study of foreign languages, and finish it off by displaying some of your erudite-and-perhaps-completely-unique German/Hebrew/Yiddish/whatever.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Cycling Commuters, Unite!

Well, those in Wichita, anyway. Everyone else using their bicycles to commute elsewhere should unite also, of course, but you've got to start somewhere.

For us around this part of Kansas, the best place to start is with the new, wonderful Cycling in Wichita blog that John Buass has started. John's a better blogger than I--he's more consistent and though in his thinking and his writing, and it shows on his latest blog. Not only does he have all the essentials for cycling commuters and just plain recreational bicyclists living in Wichita--beginning with a link to the knowledgeable folks at Bicycle X-Change, which is where I go to get all my work on my bike done--but he's quickly networking to the larger cycling commuter world, particularly in this part of the country. And here in Kansas--and Wichita in particular--it is networking that we need; those who use bicycles to commute to work around here constitute a very distinct minority. Anyway, I'll be checking it out regularly, as a way to supplement and enrich my bicycling lifestyle.

"Lifestyle"? Well, maybe that's a bit much...or then again, maybe not. I've never cycled professionally, never raced, only ever used my bike to get to school and now to get to work and in between, when times and circumstances have been amenable to it, to go on rides with the kids or to get some shopping done. When all is said and done, I guess that does add up to making me a fairly serious cyclist. Here's the six-mile route I ride pretty much five days a week, rain or shine (the link says 5.5 miles, but I've clocked it, and I think the difference comes in the bike map's inability to accurately calculate my path through Town Square West's huge parking lots), and here's the bike I use, all ready to leave our driveway this morning:

It's a Trek 7100 which I bought new in 2006, trading in an old mountain bike that I'd rode the life out of over the previous 12-15 years or so. (No, I was never into mountain biking, but I was living in Utah back in the mid-90s, and everyone was buying mountain bikes then.) It's a fine bike for working the main roads and sidewalks and bike paths and parking lots of Wichita; I'd say I've put close to--or maybe even more than--4000 miles on it in the nearly two years that I've been here. And yes, I do commute year-round--biking in the cold isn't usually a problem, if you've got the gear for it (I've biked to work when it's 20 degrees out); the only real difficulties in Wichita weather-wise are the occasional patches of snow and ice on the roads (very hard to get through, depending on one's tires) and the high winds (slows you down and can make navigation a pain). When things really don't look good out, or I'm just feeling beat, Melissa and I will work something out with sharing the car (yes, we only have one car, for both economic and environmental reasons), or--very rarely--I'll take the bus. Overall, we've been able to make it work.

My commuting has gotten me some notoriety here at Friends; on bad weather days, my students will make jokes or express disbelief that I rode in that morning, and my leaving meetings early so I can manage the 25-35 minute ride home (depending on traffic and weather) before, say, one of the girls has to be taken to piano lessons have attracted a little envy from other faculty members occasionally. All in all, I guess it is a "lifestyle," or at least a regular enough part of my life that I can't imagine myself getting along without my bike. I hope to be able to continue to ride here in Wichita and elsewhere for decades to come. And thanks to John's new blog, accomplishing that goal has become a little easier. So John--thanks.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Friday PSTSS: "A Month of Sundays"

Having just written something (an, as usual, much-too-lengthy something) on farming and food, here's short, oft-overlooked, beautiful pop creation by Don Henley off his 1984 album, Building the Perfect Beast. People know the big hits off this record, now nearly 25 years old--"The Boys of Summer," "All She Wants to Do is Dance," "Sunset Grill"--but I like best of all this musically slight, haunting, minor-key, stream-of-consciousness number, the only tune on the album Henley wrote entirely by himself. I'm a lot wiser than when I first heard to the ways the struggles of farmers and others close to the land can be turned into stereotypical liberal agitprop, but amid all the tropes Henley wheels out for their usual sad effect, the song's lyrics still say something worth hearing: something about growing food and growing children, about banks and machines and wars, about transformations social and economic, and most of all about the passing of seasons--how it always happens, and how it always hurts.

I used to work for Harvester;
I used to use my hands.
I used to make the tractors and the combines
that plowed and harvested this great land.

Now I see my handiwork on the block
everywhere I turn.
And I see the clouds cross the weathered faces
and I watch the harvest burn.

I quit the plant in '57;
had some time for farmin' then.
Banks back then was lendin' money--
the banker was the farmer's friend.

And I've seen dog days and dusty days;
late spring snow and early fall sleet;
I've held the leather reins in my hands
and I've felt the soft ground under my feet.

Between the hot, dry weather and the taxes and the Cold War
it's been hard to make ends meet.
But I always put the clothes on our backs;
I always put the shoes on our feet.

My grandson, he comes home from college;
he says, "We get the government we deserve."
My son-in-law just shakes his head and says,
"That little punk, he never had to serve."

And I sit here in the shadow of the suburbia
and look out across these empty fields.
I sit here in earshot of the bypass and all night
I listen to the rushin' of the wheels.

The big boys, they all got computers:
got incorporated, too.
Me, I just know how to raise things;
that was all I ever knew.

Now, it all comes down to numbers;
now I'm glad that I have quit.
Folks these days just don't do nothin'
simply for the love of it.

I went into town of the Fourth of July.
Watched 'em parade past the Union Jack;
watched 'em break out the brass and beat on the drum--
one step forward and two steps back.

And I saw a sign on Easy Street,
it said "Be Prepared to Stop.
Pray for the Independent Little Man."
But I don't see next year's crop.

And I sit here on the back porch in the twilight
and I hear the crickets hum.
I sit and watch the lightning in the distance
but the showers never come.

I sit here and listen to the wind blow;
I sit here and rub my hands.
I sit here and listen to the clock strike,
and I wonder when I'll see my companion again.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Food, Farming, and Sovereignty in a (Late) Capitalist World

Two very thoughtful--and very unconventional, by mainstream American political standards at least--self-described conservatives have produced two very thoughtful pieces on food and farming in recent weeks. John Schwenkler--who is becoming a bit of a must-read for those who are interested in what "conservatism" is and where it's going, as I am--has a cover article in The American Conservative this week on why "renewing the culinary culture should be a conservative cause." And Caleb Stegall--my local Kansas populist idol (and sometimes antagonist)--had a fine and lengthy review of Michael Pollan's recent work appear in the independent conservative publication Taki's Magazine a couple of weeks back. Both are pieces that much deserve every thinking person's attention, and both pieces mostly make good sense. Mostly, that is.

John's piece isn't as provocative as Caleb's, but is possibly more important for all that: his aim is simply to get people who describe themselves as "conservatives"--more plainly, anyone who considers themselves a friend of families and traditions and what Russell Kirk called the "permanent things" in life--ought to think seriously about the food they eat, about where it comes from and what it consists of. He starts out discussing how various advocates of local food production, sustainable agriculture, neighborhood gardens and all the rest have often come to the point they're at through what are usually considered to be "leftist" critiques of big business, pop culture and all the rest. But "a closer look tells a different story"; what's really going on in these co-ops and community supported agriculture farms, John asserts, is teaching people "redemption through a deep appreciation for the real, the authentic, and the lasting--for the things that money can’t buy: the very things that matter most of all if we are going to lead sane, healthy, and sustainable lives." In other words, rebelling against big agriculture and fast food is an act of conservation, and thus ought to be a conservative cause.

Now, to anyone who has followed this blog and my frequent preoccupation with Rod Dreher's "crunchy con" movement at all over the years, this doesn't sound at all new; I've been arguing that there is something "conservative"--or at least "illiberal"--to the movement against our corporate-dominated, too-easily-commodified food world ever since I reviewed Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. But while John's main thrust is to make a cultural argument over what he thinks properly should be conservative priorities and practices when it comes to producing and consuming food (a thrust I agree with, and which Michael Pollan, one of the gurus of the movement, agrees with too--see Rod's interview with Pollan in the same issue as John's essay, in which Pollan confesses that "[W]henever I write about food or nature, I feel like I am actually to the Right...the 'Wendell Berry-Michael Pollan Right'"), he also wants to be able to stake a claim for a style of conservatism that is more than traditionalism, a conservatism which partakes of America's "liberal" (or libertarian) contribution as well:

Adopting an alternative view of food does not require rejecting the possibility of a free and prosperous market economy. Indeed, the rise of the New American Diet—meals eaten in a rush and very often alone, made from processed and prepackaged ingredients—was not solely or even primarily the product of Adam Smith’s invisible hand....The substitution of state-sponsored nutritionist technocracy for the collective wisdom of taste, instinct, common sense, and tradition is a perfect example of the triumph of Tocqueville’s feared "immense tutelary power" ("absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild"). The same goes for the extraordinary industrialization and global "flattening" of our culinary economy....Price controls and multibillion-dollar farm subsidies prop up corporate agribusiness and discourage smaller producers from trying to find alternative market niches. Real local autonomy--setting regulatory standards that do not conform to national or international ones, restriction or taxation of imports or exports, and preservation of place-specific forms of agriculture and animal husbandry--is undermined because it makes for economic inefficiency. The natural capacities of location, season, and culture to link people together and shape the ways they farm and eat are countered by artificial measures designed to maximize yield.

But it is exactly these social and cultural dimensions of our culinary economy--the centralization of processing and production into an ever shrinking number of multinational corporations, the incredible distances over which food travels before it reaches our tables (an average of 1,500 miles in the United States), the loss of idiosyncratic foods and food cultures, and so on--that should raise the greatest concerns for traditional conservatives....Hence even the smallest acts of resistance to the hegemony of the present system, where corporate representatives and industry-funded scientists at public universities collaborate with government officials on regulatory policies and nutritional guidelines, are crucial steps in recovering local culture and reconstituting our "little platoons." This will nurture the ability to govern--or resist being governed.

There is much wisdom in that passage, with its invocation of Burke's "little platoons" and its slam on Friedman's "flat," globalized economy. It is properly suspicious of corporations and respectful of localist "economies of place." So what's the problem? Nothing really...except that, in the end, it seems to posit the revival of such localism in terms of "resistance" to a government invariably corrupted by various industrial and "expert" interests. The goal is local "autonomy," which--unless one wishes to get all philosophical and argue over different interpretations of Kant--is, politically at least, another way of saying local "independence." And I've nothing against independence. But an independence that does not address how that locality is not just supposed to become free, but also how it is to be sovereign--that is, able to establish itself, govern itself, exercise authority over its place and build something lasting there--is not really going to be able to pull off the kind of cultural transformation John wants to see happen. He speaks, to be sure, of nurturing self-government, but also of resisting government--which is sometimes necessary, but which also leaves the door open to libertarian assumptions that I do not think are helpful to his--to our--cause.

This is where Caleb's essay comes in. Caleb has sharp things to say about what Pollan gets right, and about Pollan's disconnect from the actual work that farmers do as well. Ultimately, his essay makes the argument which John only gestured at in harsh, polemical terms:

A few weeks ago I attended a meeting of Kansas secessionists [actually, local farmers organizing a farmer's market]. The participants were rowdy, complaining of economic gigantism squashing them flat and bureaucratic thugs hounding their every move....Damned were the federal busy-bodies who tell local farmers what they can and can’t sell; condemned were the centralized agents of agribusiness who want ID chips implanted in livestock; mocked were the credentialed witch-doctors from the department of agriculture who own the brand "organic"....[W]hile there was no Declaration, it was clear that these small growers wanted out--out of forced participation in the economic union of cheap mass production, central planning, credit money, and the ignorant consumerism they despised.

Michael Pollan would understand. His The Omnivore’s Dilemma and its sequel, In Defense of Food, amount to a manifesto for farmer’s markets and locally produced food across the country. Meticulously researched, Pollan’s work chronicles and traces the gigantism that defines today’s food economy--and all the deleterious effects which result....In the wider (or narrower) world of the pundit "food wars"...these discussions tend to illicit either a retreat into faux philistinism or a mockery of the same. Pollan’s own response illustrates this tension well. His conclusions are in fact deeply traditional--one might even venture to call them conservative--a fact he acknowledges, yet one which clearly makes him uncomfortable....

Pollan’s sensibility is that of the kitchen lover--an admirable thing to be sure--but it’s a love that tends to go unconsummated in an age of gentile decadence. He frets continuously over the ethics of killing a chicken for dinner. He admits he is uncomfortable with the conservative culture of the farm. His tentative solutions tend towards state intervention rather than true laissez faire. Honest redneckery comes by dint of sweat on the brow, clods underfoot, and mud on the frock. Down at the feed store, the sun-burned, dirty men I talk to would be more likely to open up a can of whup-ass on Pollan’s hand-wringing self than celebrate his latest gourmand achievement. To bridge this chasm requires a firm recognition that self-provisioning is dirty work done by sun hardened men who obtain not the rarefied sophistication of the credentialed witch-doctors and their organic brews but membership in the rarefied league of freemen who can pretty much tell anyone and everyone, as circumstances may require, to go to hell without concern for the consequences (taxman excepted). That’s the feed store definition of freedom in Jefferson (yes, that Jefferson) County, Kansas, though it’s not taught much in social studies textbooks.

Caleb--brilliant writer and thinker that he is--frames his cri de coeur in terms of secession: secession from modern agricultural and eating practices, secession from a government and an economy of educated experts and high-income industries, and--though he doesn't come right out and say so--secession from the sort of modern life which has been built up through the aegis of such institutions. It's a reactionary call. Now in some ways I find that comforting; critiques of the whole system of modernity are things I'm familiar with, and radical reactionaries like Caleb are hardly advocates of stereotypical libertarian nostrums. But then again, if you're looking first of all for freedom, if you're looking to secede, then you're probably not looking too much to engage, and it is engagement--a taking control of the land and the means and the habits which are our own, and that means political and economic as well as cultural engagement--that is needed here. Caleb mentions "interdependence" at the end of his screed, and interdependence fits much better with what this whole argument is really about than does John's "autonomy," but the context--social, political, and economic--of that interdependence is yet to be struggled with.

I don't want to overemphasize my disagreements with John or Caleb, which are comparatively minor. But still, those minor disagreement can lead to large misunderstandings, and large misappreciations of our situation. What is our situation? We live in a capitalist world, and a late one at that, meaning that the long, fruitful, but also destructive process of specialization has reached the point in the U.S. of leaving us with, as Caleb observes, a population that mostly does not know how to "self-provide," because we live in a world where providing for oneself (not to mention the land and the resources upon which one might do so) has been outsourced, locked away by corporate land-grabs or shipped away or forgotten with the passage of time; the very notion of self-provisioning itself has come to be seen as inefficient and time-consuming and costly, and most of all disrupting--paradoxical as that may seem--to today's culture of the (therapeutic, narcissistic) self. So what must happen is the self must be properly empowered, and that means by getting all our selves to understand their (again, our) connection to communities of agency and responsibility, and that means changing the reigning connections in our modern world so as to make space for such understandings to play themselves out. A simple rejection of modern practices is a good start, but seeing the forces and the history arrayed against us--or, more honestly, the movements and the history which most of us modern American have internalized and embraced to a certain degree--it is probably not enough to plant you own garden, as important as that surely is; you also have to find away to make a community of gardeners matter in terms of how people collective spend and save and eat. The farmers and ranchers that Caleb observed in his essay maybe angry about the world of "bigness" into which they have been thrust, but unless they (or we) remake the big so that it provides a platform and a context for the local and small, no one is going to be building anything that lasts. You may be exercising food and farming independence, but you're not exercising any sovereignty over your local world of growing and consuming--you'll just be working out your own particular "don't tread on me"-type of compromise with the agriculture powers that be. Hence do the "fuzzy-headed Marxists" that John's essay starts out with aim to get their produce and their ideas about sustainable and local agriculture into the public schools, to start reworking the connections and assumptions and practices which dominate our food economy from within. That's the right way to go--maybe not the way all of us want to go or can go, but the sort of way which, collectively, we need to go. I agree with John (and, again, with Pollan) that "libertarian politics [sometimes] makes for crunchy results," but occasional crunchy results to not a crunchy community (locality, polity, whatever--take your pick) make.

This is not an indiscriminate defense of, as Caleb frames it, "state intervention" over "laissez faire." It is, rather, an acknowledgment that the modern state was not simply or entirely thrust upon the sort of self-provisioning citizens he wants to see recreated, but was also accepted and contributed to in its development by many of those same citizens, because (in some no doubt inchoate way) they wanted a chance for their children or grandchildren to become the beneficiaries of specialization, and thus become, well, academics like John and myself. This is not to apologize or excuse the damage that large-scale, high-yield, government-sustained, commerce-driven agriculture has done to the planet's land and our diets (this delightful take-down of the myth of the Green Revolution which John points to, a myth sustained by corporate entities who insist that transforming the world of farming to make it more about monocultural and exportable cash crops than about diverse, locally traded foodstuffs, is a must-read). But it is, however, to note that, for examples, modern cities with modern workforces would for the most part be unimaginable without it. Is that an argument to abandon efforts to rethink all this as impossible? No, but it does mean that we have to deal with the arguments and opinions we have inherited. Six years ago, the wonderful Catholic (and conservative) blogger Eve Tushnet, as part of a wide-ranging and angry attack on the work of Wendell Berry--an attack which praised international trade and the corporations which gave us "butter and disco" (a silly line, I know, but she has a point)--argued forcefully that "cities are among the most beautiful things on earth" and that "[w]hatever the benefits of an agrarian life, I have never yet seen a defense of agrarianism that did not require socialism in order to sustain itself. And socialism spells the end of the very independence and loyalties that agrarians so eloquently praise." I don't think she's right (for the record, in the order she makes these claims, my answers are: no, cities are nice but they aren't the most beautiful thing; sort of yes, a successful agrarian politics does usually involve certain socialist or social democratic socio-economic assumptions; and no, socialism needn't be the death of independence and loyalty). But she is speaking in context of the late capitalist world we have, and that is the world that--unless we wish to endorse Rod's (and before him Alasdair MacIntyre's) "St. Benedict" solution--we have to struggle to exercise, if only in one small place at a time, some sovereignty over...and that will mean government. To quote Patrick Deneen:

Many if not most policy debates today take place within the context of a broad and general agreement that economic growth is the ultimate end of policy. If we began to bring in other human goods that could be considered legitimate--ones that might at times lead to less economic growth--it would be possible to debate some actual policy alternatives. It would be possible to consider policies that would encourage and defend local economic and communal forms of life, rather than what occurs in our current political arrangement, which is almost always to their detriment. Nor is it simply a matter of arguing that we can achieve more robust local forms by reducing the size of Guvment (particularly Federal government). While I would dearly love for this to happen in some nearly unimaginable future, in the meantime one of the main challenges for such local forms are the immense concentrations of power among private entities, corporations in particular. Government had much to do with their ascent; it will have to be involved in their restraint.

What are the policies which "defend local economic and communal forms of life"? Well, populist ones, like the Conservation Security Program which my family's farm makes use of, or the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association which Wendell Berry and others have praised, or any others which have the broad public good in mind. Basically, anything that truly takes seriously the socio-economic context of modern life--diversification, specialization, urbanization, etc.--and attempts to productive engage and discipline it. To me, this suggest looking in particular at those producers who are falling through the cracks--not the small CSA farmers (as important as they are) who survive by tending to mostly upscale and urban markets, and not the owners of huge corporate giants (who suck up far too many subsidies and just need to be weaned out of existence anyway), but those who are working mid-sized farms (perhaps 200 acres, 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. 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, and it they who are most at risk. We shouldn't just give up on them, and nor should we tell them that they just need to hold on until a hundred million libertarian successions from the modern capitalist order transform their world. Such a response is, in the end, an unwillingness to take on responsibility. And responsibility is one of those Jeffersonian virtues that a close and thoughtful engagement with the world of food and farming is supposed to teach us in the first place.

Obviously, there's much to think and argue about here, and I thank John and Caleb for giving me reason to do so. I've gone on at great length because I always do, and because these are important issues, not necessarily because my disagreements with them are so extensive as to deserve such. As I've said before, if they'll have a traditionalist-socialist like me in their coalition, I'm game.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Special Independence Day PSTSS: "America, My Truck"

One day early, and continuing with our current vaguely Canadian theme, here's a Friday PSTSS for July 4th, a tribute to America from Authentic Canadian Treasure, Rick Moranis. Click on his website, hit the "new song" link, and sing along with "America, My Truck." (And enjoy the fireworks, everybody.)

America she got muscle
She tough and strong like steel
America can climb so high
She never lose her feel.

America pull more than her weight
Plow through anything get in the way
America the workhorse of the world
And the very, very best at play.

But America can spin her wheels
And sometimes she get stuck
I love America--
America's my truck.

America she got power
Never let her ever run right outta gas
Headlights shine to the future
Burnin' tracks, leavin' dust in the past.

America she love football
She drops her tail so sweet
It's the Fourth of July, there's fire in the sky
So save me a power seat.

But America can stall and spin
On patches of bad luck
I love America--
America's my truck.

No, Lincoln didn't drive no Lincoln
And Rosa just rode a bus
And Martin had a dream
Nixon liked to scheme
Try to make the country a better place for us.

Now Jack and brother Bobby, they had a vision
So Neil took a walk on the moon
And Louis still wails
Right through Louisiana gales
You can't stop no Dixieland tune.

But America needs a tune-up
All those shocks and brakes, the way she steers
Some tender loving care, cleaner water, fresher air
Keep on course for a couple more years.

But America, needs more than an overhaul
Ain't been the same since that day she was struck
I love American--
But with this much wear and tear I can--
And an interest rate that's fair I can--
Only in America--
Can I get me a brand new truck.

I love America--
My brand new truck.

And if you don't care for this Canuck's snarky but ultimately kind opinion of America (either because it's not mean enough to satisfy your anger, or because it's not quite mean enough for you get all defensive and angry about), then maybe a bit of Fry and Laurie's hammy bitter satire will do it for you...

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Listen to Me Live! (Or Just Download Me Whenever...)

This Saturday, roughly 1:30 to 2:30pm, CST, I'll be appearing as a guest on Shared Sacrifice, a left-leaning online talk radio show. The hosts are Gary Barkley and Matt Stannard, Matt being an old and good friend, whose invitation to participate on the show I was delighted to accept. We'll be talking philosophically and practically about the 2008 presidential campaign, religion in the public sphere, conservatism and populism, the future of the Christian Right, the political world which the Iraq War has made, and more. Just think: if you call in at (347) 327-9615 during showtime, you'll be able to call me all your favorite names! (Of course, you can still do that if you catch the program later, but then I won't be able to hear you.)

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Ten Things I Like About Canada (In Honor of Canada Day)

Herewith, a partly serious, partly humorous, entirely personal tribute to our fine neighbors in Great White North:

10) Rush, Barenaked Ladies, The Guess Who, and Gordon Lightfoot. I have no idea if one could make a cultural argument that there is anything particularly Canadian that all of them share, but anyway, my life would be worse without them.

9) Red Tories. A historical label which not only reflected pretty much exactly the sort of democratic political ideology (economically agrarian and egalitarian, politically communitarian, culturally traditionalist, religiously Christian) that I like, but which also describes a variety of relatively successful real-world political movements and politicians that--had I been a Canadian voter 50 years ago--would have had very close to my complete support, maybe even more than America's own Populists from a century or more ago would have gotten from me. (Forget about Harper's Conservatives and the New Democratic Party, everyone: let's bring the old Progressive Conservatives and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation!)

8) Point Peele National Park. A small peninsula jutting southward from the Canadian mainland into Lake Erie, it's a beautiful stretch of forest and beach where my wife's family--she grew up in Michigan--used to spend their July 4th holidays (a smart way to avoid the crowds and get some good swimming in).

7) Relative avoidance of sugar processed from high fructose corn syrup. Once when we were visiting the Ontario Science Centre, we saw a display--in some sort of health exhibit--on the manufacturing of sugar and the relative amounts consumed by residents of the U.S. and residents of Canada. Our sugar consumption towered over theirs...primarily because most of our sugar intake comes from corn syrup, which we put into everything. It was an early part of our determination to change what we eat.

6) Speaking of food...Shreddies. Enough said.

5) Toronto. Yes, it's too big, and too expensive, and it dominates English-speaking Canada's economic, cultural, political and intellectual life to an unjustifiable degree. But a cleaner, more multicultural, more fun big city you're not likely ever to find.

4) Socialized medicine. Of course, it's not really socialized medicine; various levels of government only cover a little over two-thirds of all heath care costs in the country, and the providers are a patchwork of government-run, for-profit, and non-profit organizations. But it's universal care, and your basic medical needs don't cost you an arm and a leg (sometimes literally), and besides, my oldest friend from graduate school, James Meloche, helps run one of the Local Health Integration Networks in Ontario. That's good enough for me.

3) The intellectual problem of Canada. Why do I find Canada's perpetual crises over language rights, sovereignty, religious freedom and more, as embodied in questions about constitutionality, Quebec's unique cultural and political status, and the future of the Canadian federation itself--and reflected in documents from the Constitution Act to the Meech Lake Accord to today's Commission on Accommodation--so engaging and admirable? Because they actually exist: it's political theory made real. Unlike other nations that ponder in the abstract about nationality and identity, in Canada you find all these issues, which are usually just fodder for pretentious intellectuals like myself, being treated with great seriousness by actual politicians and parties and voters. The fact that our divided neighbors to the north have been able to survive intact--as a distinct nation with the smaller nation of Quebec still a part of it, despite all the conflicts and all the talk of separation for so long--is due to the hard work and aspirations of millions of ordinary Canadians who have taken the time to think and talk about sort of difficult matters which most citizens in most democratic societies would prefer to leave alone, so all credit to them. (Though, to give pretentious intellectuals a nod, it's probably not a coincidence that Canada has produced some of truly profound political thinkers, none more so than Charles Taylor, the--in my opinion--greatest political and moral philosopher of the 20th century.)

2) SCTV. Better than Monty Python? Um...no, not really. But better than any of the many incarnations of Saturday Night Live over the years? Oh yes, definitely.

1) The loonie. Why have a one-dollar coin? For luck, of course.