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Monday, June 29, 2009

What's Modernity Marx Got to Do With It?

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic.]

Blogger though I am, I can't deny that there is a major advantage to arguments conducted through the slower media of paper (to say nothing of peer-reviewed publishing): because the length of time between claims and counter-claims is longer, it is somewhat more possible to step back and get clear on just what it is that everyone is claiming. I'm not Luddite (or, as Susan McWilliams would perhaps put it, hypocritical) enough to wish the internet away and resolve to restrict myself to the discipline of the palimpsest, but I confess to somewhat wishing for those kind of belabored traces and delays to help me make it through the mutlifaceted argument which has erupted between my colleagues at Front Porch Republic and the writers at the Postmodern Conservative blog over the past few days. Still, let me try to explain the argument as I understand it.

[Obligatory pop reference] No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

It started with a couple of brief comments made by Pomocons Peter Lawler and Ivan Kenneally, expressing serious disagreement with what they see as the "polis envy" expressed by Patrick Deneen, the localists of FPR, and other "true deep communitarians" who worry too much about the "material conditions" necessary for community and tradition to flourish. Those comments were noticed by Jason Joseph, who saw in them a harbinger of a major conflict over the direction of American conservatism: should conservatives "embrace democratic capitalism while rejecting its Enlightenment presuppositions," or should they "reject modernity outright"? (Jason here is perhaps unintentionally echoing Damon Linker, who labels those who congregate around FPR and similar sites as "reactionaries," which is mildly disconcerting for leftists like myself who write over there.) A few weeks later, Patrick threw down the gauntlet on the FPR website and, well, the debate rolled onward (and continues) from there.

The possibility that this argument really comes down how one responds to modernity in general (and modern liberal democracy and democratic capitalism in particular) is clearly true in some important way or another. It's a possibility which appears to me to be essentially reflected in Patrick's framing of the dispute around "nature’s laws and limits." Under this reading, Pomocons affirm that the modern individual, understood as a being in possession of natural rights, obviously still longs for virtue and a context within which to realize and practice such, but is also confident that there are opportunities for virtue concomitant with all the social transformations which modernity has brought with it, as nature still abides. Hence, the "restlessness and alienation" which thinking conservatives of all stripes note about the modern world is best supplemented with an "easy-going quiescence." In contrast to this, the FPR position is presumably a more radical one, whereby modern life's obsession with technology and growth (of economic possibility and personal individuation and choice) is seen as possibly resulting in "a potentially catastrophic confrontation with natural limits and attendant human suffering." Hence, the need for a "reactionary" response, one which Lawler humorously characterized as an "it takes a medieval village" attitude, and which Kenneally, most seriously, indicts as an attitude which "embrace[s] certain conditions that make free moral life optimally possible but then reduce[s] the possibility of that freedom to the historical circumstances within which it emerges." Lawler's and Kennally's view may not be entirely fair to the distinction which Patrick introduces--and which he moderates in several comments--but it is not, I think, fundamentally untrue to it, as Patrick ultimately sets up the FPR position as one which posits nature and the virtues associated with such in opposition to modernity, claiming that, as admirable the benefits of modern life may be to the development of the human person, "modern goods are only worthy of being embraced because we are not living wholly in modernity." This all perhaps coincides with James Poulos's assessment of the debate, which suggests again that the real issue is what we think of modernity: "Front Porchers seem inclined to treat liberalism as the false consciousness inculcated to justify modernity, or some such, while Pomocons, I think, are inclined to recognize that liberalism is not simply a symptom of modernity."

All well and good, I suppose....except that it can't quite explain why on earth I'm here. Why would a paleoconservative blog have invited an Obama-voter and member of the Democratic Socialists of America, a person who is ambivalent about and even occasionally willing to defend public schooling and Obama's economic plans, to contribute here? For that matter, why would they do the same for FPR's whole "left wing" camp, as Bob Cheeks put it, what with our attacks on capitalism, our defenses of government-funded family-leave policies, our praise of steady-state green and social democratic economies, our affirmations of positive freedom and land distribution and a government capable of carrying such out? I suppose that any one of such points of view, depending on how they are expressed, might well be acceptable to some conservatives of the old school, but for all their variety and for all their distinct philosophical grounds and justifications, overall such positions are, I believe, simply too close to the egalitarian ideas advocated by modern progressives and liberals to sit well with those who reject modernity root and branch. As I see it, the reactionary/paleoconservative stream of American conservatism has always been generally unwilling to take seriously "equality," however defined, as a virtue relevant to the good life. This means that, whatever suspicions FPR localists and communitarians share about modern life alongside traditional conservatives, traditional conservatism doesn't like populism, and has an ambiguous relationship with democracy at best, and while you may be able to find some echoes of that here and there on FPR, I think you're much more likely to find the opposite (even when we debate Lincoln, the issue is basically over how he wielded power, not the ends for which he wielded it).

It seems to me that the truth is that, as FPR has developed, its primary theme has thus not been a resistance to the trends of democracy and equality in modern history, with attendant conceptualizations of the nature of the individual and their rights and how all of may relate to the foregoing. Not to say that such isn't an important intellectual debate, nor to deny that there are writers at FPR who very clearly adopt such an approach, but it is not, I think, what primarily motivates those who worry about the fate of the front porch. You can accommodate on said porch a variety of understandings of, and recommendations for, individual persons seeking virtue in the midst of modernity's engagement with (conquest of?) the natural world. What brings us to the porch, first and foremost, I think, is the first of the three words in our subhead--not "liberty" (whether individual or otherwise), not "limits" (of nature or of something else), but "place." Which is why, as I said in my first contribution to this argument, and which I still believe a few days of comment-tracking later, the back-and-forth snarking about Marx--with attendant commentary from many others--is actually pretty important to what we're actually all about.

Lawler's insight into the Rousseauian and romantic commonalities between agrarian/localist diagnoses of the modern condition and Marxist/socialist ones is actually pretty trenchant and accurate, I think most especially because--and, given the way the liberationist left so often misunderstood and abused social democratic understandings of solidarity in the past, perhaps it is not surprising that this should come as a surprise to many people--it unintentionally underscores the relevance of authority (the authority of tradition, of community, of a people joined together in a common project of respect and participation) to what agrarians, localists, and, yes, Front Porchers, insist is crucial to a proper understanding of the meaning of "place." I'll draw here upon something I've written before about Normal Mailer's on-first-glance-weird-but-in-fact-quite-profound claim that he wished to "think in the style of Marx in order to attain certain values suggested by Edmund Burke":

[Mailer] wants to be an egalitarian, but he doesn't want to be a liberal, because liberalism simply isn't compatible, in his thinking, with "family, home, faith, hard work, duty, allegiance" and other "dependable human virtues"....[His belief was] that the modern world has been fundamentally conditioned by...abstractions and transformations[;]...traditions and communities cannot exercise the same authority they once did in a world in which individual subjectivity has conditioned our very understanding of the self (at least in the West--but increasingly, most everywhere else as well)....Marx...recognized the truth of the Burkean (though for him it was really more Hegelian, and therefore Rousseauian) insight into the connection between consciousness and communal, historical, material reality. Repairing the human consciousness did not mean a continuing project of subjective liberation, with the aim of making the burdens of modernity privately manageable, but rather addressing issues of power and and place and production that make the transformations of modernity--and most particularly the spaital ones, with solid traditions and properties and roles and locales evaporating into the thin air of free trade and the cash economy--into alienating burdens in the first place....[T]he Rousseauian perspective says, okay, our original, grounded nature has been lost, we're in chains....Rousseau's response [to this problem, and thus Marx's too] preserves true conservative seriousness...it respects the need for embeddedness and connection by suggesting that we remake our chains--that we remake modernity, and resist those who would portray our restless condition as a fait accompli, the emergence of which was inherent to our natures. Why can we do that? Because within and through modernity the deep structure abides; we're just having difficulties actualizing it, because we've been so intent in fighting internecine battles within liberalism that we've ignored all the other ways in which we could be responding to the world.

The position I articulate here is heavily influenced by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, who argues for an alternative understanding of modernity, one in which the ecology of modern life itself reveals a consciousness of, and need for, traditionally and communally realized moral instincts and epiphanies. Modern liberal and egalitarian goods are real, this position says, but they must not be allowed to interfere with or supplant--as opposed to being articulated so as to complement--the authority of more necessary, traditional, local, communal goods. Moreover, this position follows Hegel and the romantic tradition (which itself drew upon older, mystical ones) in acknowledging that there is a subjective, constructed, generally willed aspect to our deep structure, and those traditional and communal goods which reflect it; it sees that structure as something which emerges and thus must be regularly re-articulated and contextually realized. In Rousseau's philosophy, this willed engagement with and the movement to preserve communal grounds in the midst of history had a tragic character to it. Marx, to his eternal discredit, dismissed with that sense of tragedy, embracing instead a historical materialism and a determinism which ultimately justified thousands in seeing themselves (and the states they would take control of) as vanguards to bring Marxist solidarity or death to the millions of people. Nothing remotely admirable about any of that, to be sure. But Marx's diagnosis of modern liberal life, and in particular of the weight and the alienating cost of our the loss of structures and traditions and thoroughly material connection with the work of our hands and with our fellow man, rings absolutely true.

Clearly, what I'm laying out here doesn't represent the common self-understanding of the FPR community (some of whom would reject even labeling it a community); I don't know if there are any other Taylor fans there besides myself, though there is at least one Norman Mailer fan. As for Marx, more than a few FPRers are willing to acknowledge the significance of his approach to the question of modern liberalism, but is that acknowledgment any different from that which is offered by Pomocons, such as in the post from Lawler I cited above, or that which they confessed to on their site way back at the beginning? Perhaps not on the level of theory, but on the level of practice, I think so. Of the great many "practical" posts that have appeared on FPR, the percentage that have any sort of connection with Marx's analysis of alienation, commodification, and forms of production is very nearly zero...except, of course, for their deep communitarian willingness to talk about different forms of association, organization, distribution, and expression which would allow--and, different political and cultural and socio-economic reforms, both high and low, which would enable and extent--the doing of things differently with one's occupations and talents and property and education and land and position in life.

It perhaps reveals something important that Ralph Hancock, on the Pomocon website, acknowledges that Pomocons are more "politically realistic," being "regime-thinkers" who see the need to "making friends with real political forces," so as to influence the public, political realm and thereby protect and preserve virtues which flourish privately. Which, again, might well seem to be exactly the sort of thing mentioned up above (supporting--and paying for--certain activies for the sake of empowering people on their porches), save for the fact that Marxist/Rousseauian/socialist/localist/republican/populist/agrarian/what-have-you critiques put the division of public and private into question, asking whether or not it isn't the emergence of a "regime"--particularly a liberal one--in the first place that necessarily marks off that which the people, as defenders of their places, ought to be able to exercise some real sovereignty over. I can certainly be criticized for being an Obama-voter (hey, I can criticize myself for it!), but at least I don't think I've ever made the mistake of thinking that the partisan and electoral system which produced him and his agenda ever were or could be tools for setting the inherently discursive, dialogic, and thus political nature of our moral and communal lives right, which the theoconservative and First Things crowds in general have been occasionally tempted to believe the Republican party could and should do. To be sure, the platform of the Democratic party--particularly in its more progressive bureaucratic or judicial incarnations--does the same. Which only goes to show, I think, the need to constantly search for alternatives, to happily (if perhaps only partially) embrace the stupid accusation which Jonah Goldberg threw at Rod Dreher long ago (that the Crunchy Con movement, and all those sympathetic to it, are implicated in "Christian Marxism" and Fabian socialism, posing like "Jean-Jacques Rousseau in a Russell Kirk mask"), and, most importantly, to--as Mailer put it--think like Marx (and Chrisopher Lasch, and Wendell Berry, and Ivan Illich, and Dorothy Day, and Juliet Schor, and...). Doing so, I think at least, gives us our best chance to get out from under the regimented regime supports--the parties and profitability margins--which, as Sheldon Wolin put it while speaking of John Locke, turn around the traditional question of "what type of political order is required if society is to be maintain?" (a properly conservative question if there every was one), replacing it instead with the question "what social arrangements will insure the continuity of government?" I know, from my own association with them, that the Pomocons certainly don't believe that just so long as society and culture and the manufacture of profits follow the meritocracy, we have no truly fundamental problem. It is interesting, though, to see them raise eyebrows and doubts and sniggers at those who figure, as radicals of all sorts always have, that since that isn't true, something ought to be done about it.

This turned into another one of my long navel-gazing posts, which is likely to be of interest to about eight people tops. So let me finish it off my pointing at this fine contribution by James Poulos, in which he asks questions that are more humble, and as such admit to no easy theoretical demarcations: how does one balance loves for embedded communities versus perhaps "superficial" but nonetheless just as authentically affections for contemporary life? Can individuals through their own ethical choices really ever resolve such dilemmas, or must people operate in solidarity and community with one another to do so? And if the latter, which community, on what level of abstraction, if any? I have my answers to some of those, and no doubt he has his, as does probably everyone who has gotten tangled up in this argument one way or another. All our answers are, to be sure, tentative. Which I guess makes me glad that I'm just writing a blog post here after all.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Additional In Memoriam Friday Morning Videos: "Billie Jean"

I'd already scheduled my entry for Friday Morning Videos for this morning, and I'll stick with it; Michael Penn deserves the attention. But on the bike ride into work this morning, I realized it was idiotic not to mention the passing of Michael Jackson somehow. So for all of you who had--or, like me, who had older sisters who had--posters of Jackson all over the bedroom (my favorite: the close-up of his shoes, balanced precariously on their tips, the bejeweled socks glittering from the spotlights in the distant background), here's the video that changed everything. Not Jackson's biggest hit or video, not his most outrageous, not his most creepy and disturbing, but very simply, the one that changed all the rules, and made MTV and the 80s Michael Jackson's playground.

Oh, wait, you wanted to see it live? John Buass has it for you, right here.

Update: Damon Linker calls my attention to this fine comment from Andrew Sullivan:

There are two things to say about him. He was a musical genius; and he was an abused child. By abuse, I do not mean sexual abuse; I mean he was used brutally and callously for money, and clearly imprisoned by a tyrannical father. He had no real childhood and spent much of his later life struggling to get one. He was spiritually and psychologically raped at a very early age - and never recovered. Watching him change his race, his age, and almost his gender, you saw a tortured soul seeking what the rest of us take for granted: a normal life.

But he had no compass to find one; no real friends to support and advise him; and money and fame imprisoned him in the delusions of narcissism and self-indulgence. Of course, he bears responsibility for his bizarre life. But the damage done to him by his own family and then by all those motivated more by money and power than by faith and love was irreparable in the end. He died a while ago. He remained for so long a walking human shell.

I loved his music. His young voice was almost a miracle, his poise in retrospect eery, his joy, tempered by pain, often unbearably uplifting. He made the greatest music video of all time; and he made some of the greatest records of all time. He was everything our culture worships; and yet he was obviously desperately unhappy, tortured, afraid and alone.

I grieve for him; but I also grieve for the culture that created and destroyed him. That culture is ours' and it is a lethal and brutal one: with fame and celebrity as its core values, with money as its sole motive, it chewed this child up and spat him out.

I hope he has the peace now he never had in his life. And I pray that such genius will not be so abused again.

Friday Morning Videos: "No Myth"

Here's a neglected gem by Michael Penn. After the Cars with their post-New Wave sound, some simple singer-songwriter guitar work is to be appreciated.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Biking in the Heat

Or, more specifically, bicycle commuting in the heat, because that's what I've been doing lately.

So, when I used, a few weeks ago, my perch at Front Porch Republic to praise David Byrne's review/celebration of Jeff Mapes's new book, Pedaling Revolution, I summed it all up by simply writing: "David Bryne tells us to Ride our Bikes". Having done so, an old friend of mine demurred. He lives in Dallas, and he pointed out that Mapes, who lives and bikes to and from work in Portland, and Bryne, who speaks of tooling around New York City on his bike, have to deal with median July temperatures in the 70s and 80s, not the upper 90s which he has to confront. Isn't it likely that their enthusiasm for a bicycling revolution is a function of where they live?

Very likely--it's undeniable that having mild temperatures and well-tended bike paths and well-placed bike racks and local traffic norms which support bicyclists on the road can make all the difference in the world. However, I refuse to concede that such differences necessarily control the option of bike commuting in the first place. Not to blow my own horn, but I will present myself as evidence for the other side: I live in Wichita, which is not a bike-friendly town (though, thanks to people like John Buass, it's getting better), I commute six miles into work (and then home again) along sidewalks and city streets, and lately, I've been doing it while a heat advisory has been in place for central Kansas. And to tell the truth, I kind of like it--it's sweaty, thirst-inducing, and sometimes more than a little uncomfortable (especially when the regular temps go over a hundred, and with the humidity the heat index starts topping 105 or more), but it's my kind of work-out. You're outside, you've got the sunshine and the blue skies, and you're in control of where you're going, rather than just exhaustively testing yourself against a red digital display on the front of your bicycling machine. What's not to like? Does the fact that I can make it work for me mean that anyone, in any work situation, anywhere in the country could do the same? Not at all. But it does mean, maybe, that I might be able to make some suggestions which could prevent people from giving up on the bike commuting option for the summer (or year-around, for that matter) too soon.

First off, let me make this clear: I'm hardly a physical Adonis, and I'm not saying anything here that should be used as the basis for some doctor-approved physical regimen, or as an excuse to get out of such. I'm not a competitive cyclist; I just ride into work and home again, pretty much all the time, because I like it. If you're in the same camp, or at least are open to giving such a try, here are some recommendations:

Pick your battles. Just because you're looking to ride your bike in the summer sun doesn't mean you should necessarily take it on at its worst. If you can commute into work early, before the real heat hits, do so; if you can stay late, and not leave until the heat begins to wear off around 7pm or later, try that also. Pick your routes too. If you can, make use of bike paths, even if they may add some distance to your ride. If paths aren't available, try to avoid main thoroughfares, as they'll always radiate greater heat as the day wheres on. If you have a route which takes you alongside or near bodies of water, or even some sprinklers that you know will be going off, that's worth considering too.

Slow but steady. Unless you just can't manage to pedal your bike at more than 2mph, or happen to live somewhere with 100% humidity and temps over 110 degrees--in either case of which, you almost certainly shouldn't attempt to bike commute at all--then you'll be generating your own breeze as you move along. That breeze will evaporate your sweat, and keep your body cool, fighting off the baking heat. The problem comes when you have to stop, particularly at intersections with heavy traffic; that's when you're really going to feel the sun pressing down. So, following with the above recommendation, try to plot a route with as few stops as possible. Set your bicycle on the lowest gear you can comfortably maintain, and develop a slow and consistent pace. Racing from on stop to the next, or up and down hills, will wear you out, and increase the likelihood of heat exhaustion. If, instead, you can move along steadily, without pushing yourself and with minimal stops along the way, your body will probably be able to maintain a safe temperature throughout the ride.

Check the bike over before you leave. If you're a seriously cyclist, then your probably have check-over routines that you follow by heart, and regularly get your bike tuned up anyway. But if you are, like me, just a commuter and pleasure rider, then sometimes you forget to double-check your tire pressure or gears before you're on the road. This is always a bad idea, but it's doubly bad when the outside heat is in the upper 90s or more, because a flat tire or whatnot is going to require you to stop and squat and patch and pump right there along the street. Maybe you'll be able to find some shade or shelter to do your fix-up routine in, but in any case you will have lost your momentum, and you're going to have to start up again, while the sun burns you up. You're not always going to be able to prevent this, obviously, but extremes of weather, heat or cold, make the pre-ride check-overs all the more important.

Water, water, water. You're probably going to sweat like a pig on the ride, and that's a good thing; that's your body regulating the punishment which your muscles and the sun is putting it through. So make sure you can replenish that perspiration: drink deep before you leave, make sure your water bottle is filled up, and drink often (small drinks, but frequent) as you go. Do not go biking in serious heat without water available to you. The sickest I've ever been from commuting on my bike came a couple of years ago, when I forgot to fill my bottle with water before I hit the road when it was 103 degrees out. By the time I got home, my body was shaking and I had a miserable headache. So don't forget, okay?

There you go: Russell's Advice on Bicycle Commuting During Kansas Summers, hopefully applicable to your own situation, wherever you may be. Now tune that bike up and hit the road, and don't let the heat get you down!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Special Monday Morning Videos: "Magic"

So I survived Girls Camp. And, plus, summer is now officially here. To make up for missing last Friday, here's something from the Cars. This was, years ago, one of my absolute favorite summertime songs. Roll down the windows of the pick-up truck, blast the music loud, drive fast out of the high school parking lot. Summer turns you upside down, indeed.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Two Articles Worth Reading this Week

Early tomorrow morning I'm off with my oldest daughter to a Girls Camp sponsored by our church. The camp is organized and run entirely by female volunteers, so I'll be playing resident adult male, aka pack mule, for the next five days. I'm looking forward to it, actually; since I have nothing but daughters, I figured familiarizing myself with the rituals of Girls Camp is something I ought to start in on at the first available opportunity, since there's a decent chance I'll be asked to do it every year until our youngest leaves home. This year our oldest is 12, the first year she's able to attend, and so I'm off to the wilds of Oklahoma. Say a prayer that the tornadoes miss us.

Until next week, a couple of pieces worth reading. Both are talking about the same thing, ultimately, and both share far more in common than they disagree upon, though I suspect their authors would be a little nonplussed to find themselves in each others' company. The first is a recent essay in The New Republic by Amitai Etzioni, on consumerism. Here's an excerpt:

What needs to be eradicated, or at least greatly tempered [in our culture], is consumerism: the obsession with acquisition that has become the organizing principle of American life. This is not the same thing as capitalism, nor is it the same thing as consumption. To explain the difference, it is useful to draw on Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs. At the bottom of this hierarchy are basic creature comforts; once these are sated, more satisfaction is drawn from affection, self-esteem, and, finally, self-actualization. As long as consumption is focused on satisfying basic human needs--safety, shelter, food, clothing, health care, education--it is not consumerism. But, when the acquisition of goods and services is used to satisfy the higher needs, consumption turns into consumerism--and consumerism becomes a social disease....The kind of culture that would best serve a Maslowian hierarchy of needs is hardly one that would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs--the economy that can provide the goods needed for basic creature comforts. Nor one that merely mocks the use of consumer goods to respond to higher needs. It must be a culture that extols sources of human flourishing besides acquisition. The two most obvious candidates to fill this role are communitarian pursuits and transcendental ones.

The other is a shorter, but in some ways wiser, essay by Mark Mitchell, talking about gratitude in Front Porch Republic. Here's the best passage:

Our commercial society, exemplified by but not limited to commercial television, plays an important role in [our] frantic lifestyle dedicated to getting more. We may watch television for the programs, but the programs exist to induce us to watch the commercials. And the commercials, if they are successful, create in us a profound sense of dissatisfaction. They remind us of all the things we don’t yet have. They seek to convince us that what we have is inadequate, outdated, and ill-equipped to make us as happy as we deserve to be. Commercialism creates dissatisfaction--that, after all, is its purpose--and dissatisfaction is right next door to ingratitude. When we are unsatisfied with what we have, we are constantly thinking about how to acquire those things we think we need. When we are thus consumed, it is difficult to be grateful for the very things we wish so desperately to replace or supplement....When our lives are oriented primarily toward acquiring new things, we will be less concerned with securing wealth to pass on to our children when we die. We will be less willing to give more than a token of our money and time to the poor among us. The ability to do without will diminish and our lack will chafe us, occupy us, and set the direction for our thoughts, our energies, and our purposes. Ultimately, ingratitude leads us to forget God from whom all good things come.

Etzioni, though by all accounts a pious man, would almost certainly never tie his condemnation of our culture of disposability and commodification into the concern that such a mentality takes us away from God, as Mitchell does; by the same (or at least a similar) token, Mitchell, though an able critic of the modern scene, would almost certainly never allow for the kind of communitarian response that Etzioni recommends, allowing that consumer goods, when properly oriented, are part of the solution to keeping consumerism under control in a free society. In the end, what I see in these two think-pieces are mutually supportive arguments about spending habits and living environments and the role of the media and so forth, with one placing most of the burden of reform upon a recommitment to the traditional discipline of faith, and the other clearly most interested in dialogues which will result in changes in social structures and priorities, with both only casually--perhaps even reluctantly--allowing that the other also plays a role.

I don't post these because I have some fine idea about how to merge them together or resolve their differences, nor do I feel comfortable in simply standing back and declaring them both to be correct. (Though I do, generally speaking, think they're both on the right path.) As a couple of lengthy comment threads at FPR that I've been involved in of late demonstrate, there are real faultlines amidst us "reactionaries," as Damon Linker not all that inaccurately labeled us all together (though I would still insist that my kind of populist "conservatism" is actually more left than right), and there's no easy or obvious reconciliation between our views. But for now I say, so what? These kind of deep disagreements are signs of serious engagement, which is a lot more than what the Republican party, at least, can offer the body politic today. So read Mitchell, and read Etzioni, and learn from them both.

Have a good week; assuming I survive without any electricity for five days, I'll see you when I get back.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "How Will I Know?"

As if more proof was necessary, here's aditional evidence that the video world of 1980s was a groovy, multicolored, multiracial, upbeat, happy, big-haired paradise. Clearly, Reagan and the Huxtables must have been doing something right.

I rest my case.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Communitarianism, Conservatism, Populism and Localism: An Updated Survey

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Michael Sandel's giving of the prestigious Reith Lectures for the BBC (hat tip: the ever-watchful Harry Brighouse at Crooked Timber) has prompted me to return to an old post of mine on communitarianism, and perhaps do some updating of what I wrote then, so as to incorporate the populist and localist ideas that I have since become more familiar with and committed to, and which I see as closely entwined with any serious attempt to think about politics in light of the well-being of families, neighborhoods, and communities. Front Porch Republic, in recent weeks, has seen much discussion of community, along with thorough considerations of such arguably communitarian forms of political economy and government as autarchy and distributism and Christian social democracy. Given all that, perhaps a review of the broad sweep of communitarian thought could provide some helpful, orienting perspective.

Sandel is not my favorite communitarian thinker (that would be Charles Taylor), but he has done as much to advance various civic republican and "common good"-style arguments in the context of political theory as probably anyone currently living, and so his thoughts deserve some consideration. In his first lecture (available for downloading here), Sandel makes the argument that the common, and easy, anti-capitalist response to our nation's present economic woes--namely, the idea that our economic elites have behaved in an irresponsible and greedy manner--is, as he puts it, a "flawed or, at best, partial [critique]." He continues:

Looking back over three decades of market triumphalism, the most fateful change was not an increase in the incidence of greed. It was the expansion of markets and of market values into spheres of life traditionally governed by non-market norms....[M]arkets are not mere mechanisms. They embody certain norms. They presuppose, and also promote, certain ways of valuing the goods being exchanged. Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not touch or taint the goods they regulate. But this is a mistake. Markets leave their mark. Often market incentives erode or crowd out non-market incentives....Some of the good things in life are corrupted or degraded if turned into commodities, so to decide when to use markets, it’s not enough to think about efficiency; we have also to decide how to value the goods in question. Health, education, national defence, criminal justice, environmental protection and so on--these are moral and political questions, not merely economic ones. To decide them democratically, we have to debate case by case the moral meaning of these goods in the proper way of valuing. This is the debate we didn’t have during the age of market triumphalism. As a result, without quite realising it, without ever deciding to do so, we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.

It is easy, of course, to be cynical about such state; one could snark, as one on-line commenter did, that Sandel isn't saying anything was wasn't being said in the ninth century A.D., and even then it wasn't new. But so what--so what if communitarian reflections tend to question methods of individual liberation, and emphasize the irreducibility of goods which are created and appreciated collectively and historically, and thus end up being, well, "conservative"? Old-fashioned, even. Stodgy, perhaps. It doesn't seem to me that such stodginess prevents one from being able to recognize and take action on behalf of social concerns, both local and otherwise. Indeed, community-minded conservatives can be, and often are, the most radical of thinkers, in the sense of their ability to look past the obvious material benefits of consumer economies which separate out, meritocratically train, and enable individuals to specialize along their own preferred lines, and instead to insist upon the enduring quality of those things and relationships which are concomitant to groups, spread out over a particular place or a span of time, acting on behalf of something larger than themselves. But perhaps we need to get clear on our terms first.

Like "liberalism," "communitarianism" can refer to both an ideology--a set of more or less organized set of claims or ideas about political positions and actions--and a philosophy. The range of arguments and proposals that can be plausibly identified as "philosophically communitarian" is, I think, much greater, culturally and historically, than is the case with liberalism. Practically all core liberal ideas are associated with the growth of personal and social liberation from the modern history of Europe: the rise of entrepreneurial capitalism and dogma-debunking science in the context of an increasingly rambunctious public sphere, with a skepticism of royal, church, and ultimately government authority which followed. Of course "liberty" (though Lew Daly would probably prefer to say "freedom" here) has its positive connotations, with economic and moral empowerment and equality being treated as a necessary requirements to the realization of liberal rights; T.H. Green made that argument in the 19th century, and John Rawls did the same in the 20th. But by and large, notions of rights (whether natural--John Locke--or categorical--Immanuel Kant) operate in a negative way, asserting what should not be done to a person or be imposed upon her interests or preferences in the name of a religious truth, a local tradition, a community norm, or a political goal. Liberalism--as a philosophy and ideology--is thus to a great degree a carrier of the individual liberation and social deconstruction achieved in the modern West to the rest of the world.

Communitarianism, by contrast, can be applied to any of a great number of philosophical presumptions that do not aim to justify individual liberation from tradition, authority, religion, society, necessity, and so forth, but rather to positively assert the embeddedness of the self in a community. The "liberty of the ancients" as described by Benjamin Constant--in which the existence of slavery made possible the regular participation of citizens in the collective formation of civic life--is basically communitarian, and rightly so; Aristotle and others like him are complicated thinkers that don't easily fit into any one (especially modern) category, but only a seriously misinterpretation could discover in their writings a condemnation of the cultural and hierarchical claims of one's community and the affects it has on individual lives. Similarly, one can discover communitarian ideas in classical Confucianism, medieval Christendom, or in almost any other premodern worldview. Practically any theology or ontology or epistemology which criticizes or undermines individuated, critical, unprejudiced (and therefore alienated) action or cognition, and considers to be natural or good or necessary its opposite (a dependence upon revelation, an emphasis on group-ordained roles, the prioritizing of mutual benefit and progress, etc.) is communitarian. Still, such broad descriptions--which could presumably equally fit Han dynasty China or ancient Sparta or 16th-century Swiss villages, to say nothing of their modern incarnations--leave much unexplained. Thus, figuring out exactly how any person or policy identified as communitarian comes to that label is at least as important as identifying it as such in the first place.

This is where things become particular interesting (or difficult, if you prefer) for populists and localists, or those sympathetic to such: do they insist upon a restrictive definition of community (as Jason Peters and Katherine Dalton do) as a specifically localized and peopled place, and deny the kind of thinking which suggests the applicability of orienting oneself towards an attendance upon cultural and collective norms which emerge from contexts other than extended families and small towns as having anything to do with "real" communities at all? Or do they (as I suggested in connection with public schooling) acknowledge there can be spheres of collective action and feeling that include broader, more "public" groups than those aforementioned, intimate ones, which would mean that the communitarian critique can be made use of in a diversity of settings--include, perhaps, even national ones? If the former approach is taken, then the very idea of communitarianism as anything other than an ontological category, much less as something sufficiently grounded as to be able to suggest moral and political possibilities at our present moment, seems ludicrous: Christopher Lasch's old (I think somewhat unfair, but not entirely inaccurate) condemnation of communitarianism as too broad, too concerned in a sociological sense with "humanity" to be able to provide the specific judgments needed to revive the virtues that political freedom and economic security depend upon, would seem to be conclusive. But I suspect the latter approach can work as well--assuming that one can recognize and distinguish between the types of communitarian thinking one engages in.

Michael Walzer suggests in an old essay of his that contemporary communitarian perspectives can be sorted into two fundamental camps. The first perspective "holds that liberal political theory accurately represents liberal social practice." That is, it affirms that the doctrines of liberalism--the notions of self, rationality, and nature which emphasize economic, social, moral and political liberation--have in fact resulted in the fragmentation of civilization: we have lost our ability to connect with one another, lost even the ability to coherently explain that loss, and consequently live materialist, egotistical, self-interested, isolated lives, with no sense of a common good, no moral standards for judgment, no solidarity, no traditions, no hope for transformation or better ends. The second perspective, by contrast, "holds that liberal theory radically misrepresents real life"--that the "deep structure of even liberal society is in fact communitarian." Being born into a state of sovereign and independent nature, outside of embedded relationships of power and meaning, is of course impossible; the way we work through our families and languages and cultures to evaluate and make sense our lives proves that. Hence, according to this perspective, liberal theory is not so much destructive as it is confusing (though that confusion could do a fair amount of destruction along the way).

There are problems with both types, as Walzer notes; they struggle when they try to turn themselves into productive critiques of our undeniably liberated world. In regards to the first, if it is true that the modern flight from norms of obligation and belonging has destroyed our ability to articulate and attend to community, why exactly would we want to subject ourselves to communitarian policies which presumably would be in vain? In regards to the second, there is the fact that, as Walzer concludes, "if we are all to some degree communitarians under the skin...the portrait of social incoherence loses its critical force." Still, Walzer believes--and I agree--that there is a lot of wisdom and truth in both types: if nothing else, recognizing them can help us humbly consider how much communal sensibility and appreciation for the public good the modern West has lost--even in its current nation-state (or post-nation-state!) contexts--and it is valuable to see how much of that sensibility nonetheless still haunts our moral and political thinking.

Assuming we can use communitarian labels in this broader way, who amongst philosophers and writers would fit with which perspective? On the basis of my own reading of them, I would describe Wendell Berry, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Robert Nisbet as communitarians of the former sort. (The residents of Front Porch Republic might insist that Berry would have no part of this, preferring instead to see his arguments as operating solely within the explicitly restrictive understanding of community mentioned above; however, if that were the case, then one might be a little hard-pressed to explain his not unoccasional willingness to recommend clearly "communitarian" command reforms of the national economy, and his wistfulness for ambitious New Deal-era efforts to preserve collective control over regional economies, such as through the Burley Tobacco Program.) On the other hand, Charles Taylor, Robert Bellah, and Walzer himself would be in the second camp--though it should be noted that, in any case, almost none of these people would use ever the word "communitarian" to describes themselves politically or economically.

And "conservatism"? Well, the ontological supports that advocates of these various communitarian critiques have philosophically drawn upon range across the above divide, and of course plenty of agitators for one or more of the above theories of government and society don't feel a necessary connection to any particular sustaining philosophy at all. However, generally speaking, it seems to me that the more a person's criticism of liberal modernity is based on conceptions of the natural world or revealed religion, the more likely it is to be "conservative" in the political sense, and thus tending towards the first type of generally applicable communitarian thought. This is the sort of communitarian ideology most Americans are used to, even though it's rarely called by that name: this is where you find many advocates of traditional marriage and gender roles, opponents of artistic expressions and media that ignore local values, supporters of protectionism and small-town agricultural economies, and people critical of the language of rights and grievances. With them usually also comes both a sense of nostalgia or lamentation and, until the most recent election, perhaps, Republicans trawling all too successfully for votes. Of course, many of those who are persuaded by elements of this critique are not truly critical of philosophical liberalism at all; so long as the government stays small or they are able to keep a few socially conservative regulations on the books, they are content with the liberating, "creative destruction" of capitalism and individual rights.

On the other hand, if one's critique of modern liberalism is based on social observations, such as about the importance of civic trust, national service, or class equity, whether derived from Karl Marx or Alexis de Tocqueville, then one's communitarianism is, I think, likely to be more inclined to the second perspective. This is the kind of communitarianism that, in contrast to the former and more politically common type, more political theorists will be familiar with: Sandel, of course, but also Philip Pettit, William Galston, and Richard Dagger have been key figures in a small but significant "neo-Tocquevillian" revival, in which a re-attachment to the virtues that the liberal order presupposes, and a recommitment to its participatory demands and possibilities, are seen as crucial to restoring legitimacy to the modern democratic welfare state. Most of these individuals, strongly influenced by the social democratic left, see themselves as liberals or civic republicans rather than communitarians, a word which they (probably rightly, I think) associate with conservatism and (probably wrongly, I think) religious and political authoritarianism. Sometimes those in this group are categorized as "left" communitarians, as opposed to the previous, more "right"-leaning kind, and there is a certain logic to that usage (though I think both "left" and "right" can be used to explore conservatism, and thereby separate the pure traditionalists from those of a more explicitly communitarian focus as well). More usually they have eschewed such labels altogether, and defined themselves instead as representing a "Third Way" or a "Radical Center," and in so doing have blurred to the point of indistinguishability the difference between themselves and scholars like Will Kymlicka who take community and culture seriously, but only on explicitly liberal terms. Nonetheless, even these left-leaning communitarians, by opening themselves up to necessity of tradition and attachment, usually find themselves less than instinctively supportive of modernity's project of liberation, and in that sense, they are probably friends to the Front Porch Republic project.

(For those inclined to ponder things in light of the whole history of philosophy, one more philosophical note, having to do with the association between what has been come to be called "Continental" philosophy (as distinguished from the predominantly liberal, Anglo-American tradition from Locke on down) and communitarianism. It is true that the German romantic tradition, including but not limited to G.W.F. Hegel, gave rise to a phenomenological argument which asserted that knowledge, ethics and action depend upon already-existing historical and cultural horizons and materiality; this, in time, contributed to the writings of hermeneutical thinkers like Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Hannah Arendt, all of whom emphasized such communal realities as language, participation, and the Volk. While there is no real sense that any of these thinkers were communitarians in the manner I have discussed them here, it is nonetheless true that, under the influence of Arendt social and participatory democratic thinkers like Sheldon Wolin and others have advanced arguments that link political action with community, thus providing a good antidote to overly sociological constructions of belonging.)

Where does this survey leave me? Well, I'm most fundamentally a populist, one whose communitarianism has enough of a religious grounding to take many forms of cultural and social conservatism seriously, but also one who is attached enough to romantic and socialist traditions to see virtue and equality as mutually compatible, if the playing field is democratic enough, and moreover one who is convinced that if any of the above gets too far away from the local it is bound to fail. But figuring out how to make it that way is something else entirely.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

On Abortion, Authority, and Civic Religion (Again)

In the wake of the murder of George Tiller last week, two news items seem worthy of particular note: first, the statement made earlier this week by Tiller's accused killer, Scott Roeder, that "there are many other similar events planned around the country as long as abortion remains legal"; and second, the news this morning that Tiller's clinic, Women's Health Care Services, will not re-open--news that was both "hailed and mourned" by all the usual figures on both sides of the argument. Those who opposed Tiller and the practice of late-term abortion called it a "bittersweet announcement," while those who supported him in his work pointed that that the closest abortion provider to Wichita, Kansas's largest city, is now a three-hour drive away, in Overland Park. If nothing else, this may mean that, for the time being anyway, Wichita may longer be the red-hot center of the abortion wars.

Which may be going away, anyway, certainly if President Obama has anything to do with it. No, I'm not saying he's changed his mind about abortion rights; his position is still the same, and so my doubts still remain. Still, what to make of his appointment of Alexia Kelley to oversee faith-based initiatives for the Department of Health and Human Services (initiatives which, it must be noted, Obama is on record for having praised, and wanting to expand)? It's an appointment that's being attacked by liberal defenders of abortion rights, of course, even though her opposition to the practice is solidly grounded in the "common good" rhetoric of compromise that anyone who listens to Obama carefully is bound to hear again and again. And, of course, cynics could argue that it's just a bone being thrown to opponents of abortion rights. But I wonder if something larger is going on.

My old friend Matt Stannard, as many socialist beliefs as we may share, is much more broadly progressive than I, and as such he has far fewer traditionalist or religious reservations about abortion rights that I do. But that being said, he still recognizes the validity of qualms about the practice, and is mildly optimistic that today, in the wake of Tiller's murder, and with the Republican party's over-reliance upon white, Protestant anti-abortion rights voters having resulted in arguably a near-complete marginalization of their party, the time is right for a new "progressive pro-life" movement to emerge. He writes:

[T]here is a pluralistic religious basis for finding abortion morally objectionable and regrettable, but not worthy of a murder charge, and not worthy of preventative assassination. That alternative is the view that most people "on the fence," and quite a few people on both sides, hold whether they're explicitly aware of it or not. This type of belief requires empathy....It requires a commitment to religious pluralism. It requires a sense of interconnectedness and mutual submission. It requires humility. It does not require the abandonment of core Christian beliefs, though it might demand of its adherents a skeptical attitude towards the pronouncements of purported Christian authorities. Such skepticism won't scare off those who are drifting towards progressivism, though, since they are probably a corollary to the increasing number of Americans professing agnosticism and atheism. We are slowly drifting towards the liberalization and democratization of religion, and progressive Christians would rather work with nonbelievers than potential Pat Robertsons or, to be sure, Scott Roeders....

Since the only solution that would satisfy all parties in the abortion debate is one which renders unwanted pregnancy either impossible to begin with (a question of technological possibility) or completely without material inconvenience (a question of political economy), these are the directions we should take our debates. Progressives now control all sides of the abortion debate. Pro-life consciousness is the consciousness of the interconnectedness of all life and death....Tied to an emerging group of fair-minded, socially-committed activists, it has the potential to take the national debate about abortion to an entirely new level: a progressive level. Economic justice is pro-life. Anti-war is pro-life. Anti-death penalty is pro-life. Universal health care is pro-life. Punishing women for sexuality is pro-death. Insisting on abstinence education programs that undoubtedly fail is pro-death....

In other words, pro-life and pro-choice progressives can continue to debate about abortion, but within a larger frame of agreement about the world we're working toward. Eventually, that debate will become very different, much more beautiful, complex, and educational, than it is today. I'm declaring the relevant part of the abortion debate to be post-violence, post-restriction, and post-conservative. I imagine fair-minded people may find exceptions to this declaration, but my guess is that an increasing number of pro-lifers will move in that threefold direction in the months and years to come.

Read the whole thing; it was of the strongest expressions of left-leaning idealism that I've read in the blogosphere for a long time. And it is, in every way, a progressive idealism, in ways that I like and ways that I don't. I'd like to hope that I'm one of hose "fair-minded people" he talks about, and so hopefully, if his projected movement does become a reality, we will be able to talk fairly about the degree to which we can, in the midst of "the liberalization and democratization of religion" (moralistic therapeutic deism, perhaps?), nonetheless see a way as a community or nation to respect, or at least grant as worthy of some legitimate balancing, the concerns of those of us whose approach to abortion (to say nothing of other issues) is informed by "the pronouncements of purported Christian authorities." I think this is important, because I strongly suspect that some of the strongest voices for the social justice principles which undergird Matt's progressive ideals are going to bound up in exactly that kind of traditionalism and respect for community and authority (as some strong leftists troubled by abortion have admitted in the past) even if the context for that respect is inevitably going to involve greater pluralism than in the past.

What does that mean? It means holding on to, and finding ways of articulating, "these things [that] are old" (as Obama put it in his Inauguration Address) in the midst of change, and that will mean attempting to find new ways of expressing peoples' beliefs and concerns. It will mean changing debates, perhaps by bringing surprising voices into the conversation, as Obama's appointment of Kelley has possibly done. It means, for example, insisting that abortion is an evil, while admitting that the best way to deter people from choosing it or reduce the number who do so is to work on supporting mothers and parents and neighborhoods and jobs and all those things that surround the decisions people make. If Matt's progressive pro-life movement would allow for language like that, then more power to him (and to it). I would definitely sign up.

Some will never be satisfied, of course, and not just terrorists like Scott Roeder. The Obama administration supports abortion rights vigorously, but it also supports legislation designed to support pregnant women in their choices, and such action is often seen by opponents as a distraction from the "real" issue. "You don't have to have a lot of social programs to cut down on abortions," some say. Ross Douthat might well agree with them--I suspect because, ultimately, his opposition to abortion is grounded in his religious convictions about the status of the fetus, which means that as interesting as various regulations and conditions and support structures may be to him, he probably wants to be able to talk about (as Scott Lemieux I think correctly notes) those times and situations where abortion simply should simply be forbidden, save for some extremely rare and desperate exceptions. So perhaps we can't avoid coming back around the issue of religious authority, and the possibility that the progressive pro-life position that Matt's--and perhaps Obama's too--efforts point towards will necessarily involve some sort of show-down between those who want their civic religion to include some kind naturally grounded absolutes, and those who are willing to ground it more subjectively. I'm not comfortable on either side of that show-down (I'm a hermeuntist who thinks truth comes through subjectivity, after all!), though I'm clearly more on the former than the latter. In the end, I hope that the Roeders of the world won't force me to take a side...or rather, will allow me to work in my own small way with the one (progressive) side towards the goal of reducing abortions, while still keeping one respectful foot on the other (traditionalist) side, with its willingness to acknowledge the occasional appropriateness of laying down the law. And maybe, if I'm lucky, Obama's common good rhetoric will work it's magic as the time goes by, and straddling that particular divide eventually won't be such a pain. If I'm lucky, that is.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Clearly Superior to the Original Version

Thank goodness for the geniuses who came up with this masterpiece; otherwise, I would have felt obligated to spend a Friday Morning Video segment trying to decide between this and "She Bop" as the Most Bizarre Music Video Somehow Related to Female Sexual Longing Ever. But now that "Total Eclipse" has been properly mocked, Cyndi Lauper's claim on the title is secure.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Modern Love"

Since we're talking about it, the last couple of entries beg the question: just which male pop star had the best looking hair of the 80s video era anyway? Answer: obviously, the same one who had the best looking hair in the 70s and the 90s, and probably still today for all I know.

After all, if the Zoolander can acknowledge the authority of Mr. Bowie, who are we to question him?

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Every Jar a Victory

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

We feared that we'd missed out on fresh strawberries this year, both because there was an early April freeze and snowstorm that killed off the (admittedly meager) supply of strawberries that our own bushes supply us with, and because we were gone to visit family at a reunion in Ohio over Memorial Day weekend, which has been the traditional date for our pilgrimage to the local strawberry patch. Fortunately, after a couple of phone calls to check up on farmers that have been a reliable source to us in the past, this past Friday my wife and I grabbed the kids, and headed a few miles south, to Haysville, Kansas, and Sargeant's Berry Farm. It was time to stock up for the year.

They're good people, the Sargeants. Though they've opened their farm up to city-slickers like myself, who arrive from Wichita and elsewhere in our cars and minivans, parking all over their driveway, and have allowed us--for a reasonable fee, of course--the pleasure of picking our own strawberries, blackberries, peaches, and much more from the land they've done the hard work to tend for a couple of generations, they've always been supportive and polite as they've answered our (no doubt often ignorant) questions about what was in season or the best way to transport and preserve this or that fruit or vegetable. They have dogs and cats, which my daughters love to play around with, and Mr. Sargeant drives customers in a modified trailer out the to fields to do the picking, which my girls chase after. I'm glad they have so much fun out there, because I want them to grow up thinking that what we do every spring and summer in making these trips is important. Which, of course, it is, but you know how it is teaching children to do something on behalf of the future...even something as initially entertaining but as quickly tiring as getting down on your knees and picking strawberries off the bush.

My wife was trained well in the value of fresh fruit, in canning it and preserving it, in making plans year after year for stocking up. I, to my regret, was not. I was blessed with a youth that put me in close proximity to much that was agricultural--bailing hay in the alfalfa fields, milking cows in summer heat and winter cold, and so forth--but I fear that many of the basic virtues and practices of gardening eluded my parents. We grew potatoes and corn and onions, and that was about it; we did our occasional service harvesting raspberries and asparagus on a church farms, but we never did anything with them ourselves. And our daily diet--supplemented by the ready supply of protein available in conjunction with my father's work with ranchers at the feed store his own father had started back in 1938--was classical postwar middle-class American...which meant, garden or no garden, just about everything we ate came from a can. We weren't very open-minded or exploratory in our eating; I'm fairly certain that I hadn't ever so much as taken a bite out of a fresh strawberry, much less ever picked one, until Melissa and I had been married for a couple of years.

Well, she trained me, and while she still runs the yearly Fox Family Canning Operation, I've learned the food value of the strawberry. Jam, of course, but also ice cream, fruit salads, smoothies, strawberry pie, and more. For years, it's just been Melissa and I at the sink, cutting the tops off the fresh berries, washing them, mashing them and boiling them down, filling the jars (not forgetting to add the right amount of pectin; we did one year, and that was a catastrophe) then processing them in a big steaming pot. This year, though, we not only had the occasional assistance of our oldest three girls in the actual picking (Kristen, who is only three, had to be stopped from occasionally popping an unripe or rotten strawberry into her mouth), but the assistance of our oldest daughter, now 12, at the stove as well. With her help, the whole hot and messy process went much smoother than we'd expected that morning.

We usually aim to preserve 20 to 30 jars of strawberries a year--I think we had 21, this time; the Sargeants confessed that, thanks to the early spring snowstorm and all the cool, rainy days, they didn't think this had been a very good year, but it's not like suburbanites like ourselves have much to complain about. Besides, half of the fun is simply going out to the farm, and seeing the crops grow, and talking with others who are looking to add to their diet and support a better way of eating and using land the same way we are. This year, we ended up picking alongside a woman from Augusta, who told us all about she chickens she keeps, and how much better her garden is doing with the chicken manure she's able to till into the soil. Something to keep in mind, as our efforts to plant ourselves--not just literally, but also economically and socially and environmentally--ever more deeply into the local Kansas soil continue.

Strawberries are only the first of several waves of canning that we'll be doing over the summer and early fall; there will be peaches, pears (if we can find them; fewer and fewer orchards have pear trees available for the picking these days, especially in our region of the country), apples (Melissa has just about sworn off using butter in her baking entirely, preferring to use applesauce, though processing apples is definitely not an easy job), cucumbers (those will come from our own garden--we think we've come up with a good dill pickle recipe, to go along with our regular bread-and-butter ones) and my favorite, salsa--it's a mess, I know, but cutting up the peppers and onions, and estimating the thickness of the tomato puree, experimenting with one or another ingredient to throw into this years batch (extra cilantro? a touch of cumin?)...well, it's fun.

Of course, the best kind of fun is when you know that the pleasure you're getting from the work you're doing and the company you're keeping is connected to doing something right, and canning is exactly that. It's a way to be right--or, at least, to get oneself more right--with the world around you, the natural and the socio-economic world. This planet, assuming we do our jobs as stewards of it well (or, at the very minimum, give appropriate praise and support to those like the Sargeants who do it even better), will provide us with a bounty, a bounty that we can delight in but also set aside, to keep us nourished in the cold months to come....and, more broadly, to keep us aware of the fragility of, and transitory condition of, and promise of renewal of, all forms of bounty, which is lesson difficult to learn (and even harder to children!) when one's food mostly comes from cans bought at the same store, year in and year out. The old slogan from World Wars I and II referred to the small garden plots that people developed to lessen their dependence upon the national food supply as "victory gardens"; that's a locution worth keeping in mind today. And not just for gardens. Amongst many of my co-religionists, Melissa and I are small-timers, dilettantes really, in the business of canning and food storage, but as far as I'm concerned, as good as I sometimes feel about my arguments and writings in regards to political and philosophical matters local and communal here and elsewhere, I never feel more of a "victory" than come the days of autumn, when I can go down in the basement laundry room, and see jars and jars of preserves, providing my family some shelter from the storm. Strawberry fields forever, indeed.

Monday, June 01, 2009

These Things Happen in Kansas (on John Brown and Abortion)

I'm a Wichita, KS, blogger, and the big, horrible news of the weekend was the murder of George Tiller, the notorious, beloved-by-some, hated-by-others, late-term abortion provider, here in Wichita yesterday. So surely, I have an opinion to share, right?

I suppose--but what would anything I have to say really add? I'm not a particularly passionate voice on this matter. I mean, my views are pretty clear: I consider the act of abortion (both performing one and obtaining one) to be basically--if not in every circumstance or situation--wicked, for a variety of reasons, and I think it ought to be deterred; at the same time, I'm clearly not a strong "pro-life" thinker or voter--my disagreements with his views on abortion policy weren't enough to get me to vote against Obama, for example. There are far more determined voices out there than mine, even amongst the mainstream ones who recognize Tiller's murder for what it is: a heinous and ugly crime. Rod Dreher, while condemning the murder, forthrightly calls George Tiller an "evil man"; Hugo Schwyzer, by contrast, praises his work amongst women and calls him a martyr. You can find plenty more on both sides...and, if you're looking for rapid, wanna-be terrorists praising Miller's death, or paranoids suspecting an Obama-orchestrated pro-abortion plot, Steve Waldman and my old friend Matt Stannard have the evidence. I can't--and don't want to--touch any of that.

But a question Damon Linker asks leads Rod into making a further comment, and here I might have something to add. Damon wants to know:

If abortion truly is what the pro-life movement says it is--if it is the infliction of deadly violence against an innocent and defenseless human being--then doesn't morality demand that pro-lifers act in any way they can to stop this violence?

Leaving aside the caveats that "the pro-life movement" is a pretty broad phenomenon (indeed, depending on how you look and the numbers and define your terms, it may well include a slight majority of the entire American population), and that not all opponents of abortion even use "pro-life" language (that's me raising my hand), in general his point is a strong one--not a new one, to be sure, but a strong one nonetheless. And Rod responds:

We live in a society and a culture in which there is wide disagreement about the moral personhood of the unborn child (or, if you prefer, "fetus"). Taking another human life is the gravest crime imaginable. If one is prepared to do that, one had better believe that one has no other choice, and that the stakes are radically high. The consequences for introducing lawless violence into a society, even in a righteous cause, are unpredictable, and stands to bring about a worse evil than the evil the violence is designed to fight. Think of the anti-slavery radical John Brown. He grew weary of the peaceful tactics of abolitionists, and engaged in revolutionary violence. His cause, obviously, was just. But he helped lead the country to civil war, and mass slaughter....We need more MLKs, and fewer John Browns.

John Brown...ah, now there's a Kansas angle!

A little while ago, my oldest daughter, while working on a book report for school, asked me if John Brown was a terrorist. I had to think about my answer. Obviously, he was if we want to use the term as it is commonly employed: anyone who, without formal and presumably legitimizing (if not justifying) state backing engages in acts of violence against civilians is committing "terrorism." So by that perfectly sensible line of reasoning, those who throughout the 1990s (though not so much recently) engaged in violence at abortion clinics or who attempted (and few times, succeeded) to murder abortion provided were involved in terrorism, and the same presumably covers Tiller's murderer. Except that...shouldn't an act of terror being aiming to, well, "terrorize"? That is, a terrorist is presumably trying to accomplish his or her aims through generating an overreaction: if you murder and hack to pieces pro-slavery sympathizers, as John Brown did in Pottawotomie, KS, in 1856, then presumably other pro-slavery sympathizers will flee in fear, and others (people on the edge about slavery, perhaps?) will be too intimidated to support slavery, right? Same thing with Tiller's murder: kill a well-known abortion provider, and others, out of fear, will close their clinics and flee. So John Brown was a terrorist, and so is Scott Roeder, the man accused of the murder of George Tiller. Certainly his reputed beliefs and allegiances seem to demonstrate such.

The thing is, I ultimately told my daughter I didn't think John Brown was a terrorist, because I don't think he was trying to terrorize some select group of people into moving away or changing their ways. No, I think he believed he was on a holy war, and that holy war was to kill those who own slaves and those who supported slavery. Maybe, if you were to use Wolverine's (what, you have a problem with a comic book reference here?) classic Jim-Shooter-penned definition of terrorists--"That's what the big army calls the little army"--then this question of Brown's motivation wouldn't matter, but I think it does, nonetheless. I would put it this way--John Brown's actions in Kansas in the 1850s may have been terrorism, but he himself wasn't a terrorist; he was a crazy prophet (and aren't those sometimes the best kind?), a radical in all sorts of ways (he was a feminist and egalitarian, whose relations with blacks and Native Americans were remarkably free of 19th-century moral condescension), a man of romantic intensity and passionate ideals who wasn't so much concerned with the finer political or socio-economic points of the evil of slavery as he was with being counted as one who would follow his God's will in opposing it. This is how Adam Gopnik put it, in a brilliant essay of his on Brown:

John Brown’s insight, from the beginning, was that slavery would end only if someone ended it....Brown differed from the mainstream of Northern abolitionism in his peculiar affinity with the South—-both with the blacks he wanted to help liberate and with the slaveholders he wanted to destroy. Where [the abolitionist William Lloyd] Garrison, though utterly passionate and courageous in his denunciations, was a thorough man of the North, with lawyerly-journalistic gifts of argument and irony, Brown was a man of romantic feeling....Brown did not claim particular glory for the Pottawatomie massacre but he did not cover it up, either. What makes him a typically American idealist is not his lust for killing—-he was eager to avoid murder if he could--but his indifference to human life lost on the way toward his ideal. Like our current idealists in power, he didn’t want to kill, but he didn’t want to count the dead he did kill, either. He shrugged off the dead men in the dirt, even as one of his sons went mad at the memory.

Maybe Kansas is, for whatever reason, a generator of terrorists, of men and women who are so infuriated with the political process that they impatiently and wickedly decide to commit murder and violence to express their hatred and contempt--not to win any kind of point, or achieve any kind of real change, but just to terrorize and spit upon those who disagree with them, those who they feel like they've lost out to, in the weird (but too often validated) hope that others will be terrified of them, and will overreact and do their will for them. If so, so much the worse for my adopted state. Kansas is also, however, identified--accurately or not, fairly or not--with extremists and populists and radicals who have a different vision of things, and who are willing to take on the powers that be to see their point be made. Is that what we have here; another John Brown? I sincerely doubt it--though I'm not sure how much difference it would make if we did.

I have no sympathy for a murderer, including a murderer of a man who did things that I think to be wrong--as if anyone's life is ever to be summed up and judged one the basis of one element of it; the man was a husband and father and grandfather and church-goer and a doctor and counselor and who knows what else, all of which was taken away by one coward's bullet. And yes, I do use the word "coward" there carefully; his killer (who did the deed in the foyer of Tiller's church, which is about as despicable as it gets) did not stand there waiting to be arrested, making his case (prophetic or otherwise) against Tiller for all to hear; nor is there any indication that he was fleeing to re-unite with some dedicated anti-abortion army he'd spent that past ten years organizing out in the countryside. And even if he was, that wouldn't change my preference for the man's fate: I would have wanted to see Brown hung for his crimes too. (I confess to being an at least occasional fan of Lincoln's call for a political religion of the laws and our Constitution, in preference to the violence of the frontier.) I hope Roeder is found guilty and punished to the full extent of the law. I hope that the struggle over abortion in America doesn't descend into bitter acts of terrorist violence and government reprisals, which is really what Roeder's actions gesture towards. And if, heaven help us, a John Brown-type does appear someday to thrown down a gauntlet far more profound than anything this killer seems capable of managing, then...well, to be brutally honest, I'd likely hope that he would be arrest and convicted too, because I'd rather just be left witnessing to my family about what I believe regarding abortion than to see them caught up in another civil war. Which, I suppose, just goes to show I'm not truly part of the hard core of what Damon calls the pro-life movement after all. But then, I've admitted that already, haven't I?