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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Five Best Books I Read in 2013

Also getting this post in under the deadline. Fortunately I've blogged about these books,so I don't have to say too much here. Follow the links! Once again in alphabetical order...

Behind the Beautiful Forevers was the first book I read this year, and as 2013 comes to an end it remains one of the best. It is a stunning, heartbreaking work of the sort that only true journalism can bring us. In presenting its powerful story of poverty and injustice and endurance and hope, Katherine Boo teaches us fundamental truths about community, family, and the human condition. See more here.

The Education of Henry Adams is a challenging book to read, and not just because the elliptical way in which Adams constructed his autobiography, using the third-person throughout; it is also difficult because, as he sees his life, he has spent it learning and learning, but never truly becoming educated. Ultimately, though, Adams account of himself becomes compelling, and I can understand why the books is considered a class. Among its many rewards is a portrait of a unique kind of anarchist sensibility, about which I talk some here (scroll to the bottom).

Gilead is a fantastic book, the most beautiful and careful and demanding novel that I've ever read. It is a story whose language is so entwined with the landscape and history and voice of the character--John Ames--who narrates it that learning to read Marilynne Robinson's story actually brings you into it, in a manner that I've never experienced before. It's a book that lead me to rethink my favorite book of the year, so consider them both here.

I wrote a lot about The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Rod Dreher's wonderful memoir of his sister's life and tragic passing, this year; it was my favorite read of the year, and it gave me a great deal to think about, including the connection which occurred to me with Gilead above. As I hope to visit with Rod Dreher when he visits Friends University a few months from now, maybe I'll write even more about it then.

Thinking the Twentieth Century, which is the edited transcription of an months-long collection of discussions between Tony Judt--who was dying of Lou Gehrig's Disease in 2010--and Timothy Snyder, taught me stuff I never dreamed I wanted to know, about history and philosophy and politics and academia and more. While much of it was so discursive as to be almost infuriating, it revealed new ideas and arguments on every page, and that is what got it on my top five list. Read a long collection of quotes from the book here.

The Five Best Movies I Saw in 2013

Getting this post in under the deadline. And, in case it isn't obvious, read the post title carefully: these are the best films which I saw this past year--and as we don't get out to the theater nearly as often as we once did, not one of these were 2013 releases which we caught in the theater. Still, they all rocked. So, in alphabetical order:

Beasts of the Southern Wild, which tell the story of six-year-old Hushpuppy as she and her poor family and neighbors in Louisiana face a natural catastrophe, was a tremendous film, gorgeously shot, bravely acted, and expertly put together. But there are always a few films in any basket of movies who manage those feats; what really set this movie apart was the fact that my understanding of it developed organically along with the widening perspective of Hushpuppy, the holy innocent and heroine at its center. At first, I thought it was a movie about some individuals; then I thought it was about the community they were part of; then I thought it was about the landscape and moment in time they inhabited; by the end, I knew that it was a myth, a parable of the kind of decency and determination that allows human beings, as we move through a world far older and more powerful than we will ever know, to actually make something that lasts. Just an awesome bit of cinematic story-telling.

City of God was a thrilling coming-of-age story, a furious and fantastic tale of violence and escape, taking place in a vicious slum of Rio de Janeiro. I wish I'd seen it when it first came out a decade ago, because if I had, I likely would have viewed the wonderfully Dickensian movie, Slumdog Millionaire, which was also a tale of a young man escaping violence and poverty through his own luck and pluck. City of God is far less sentimental, and far more realistic, even hyper-realistic, in the way it tells its story. But it is never impersonal, and every scene helps you know the characters as individuals making choices every step of the way. A first-rate urban adventure story.

Margin Call called to my mind another great film, the movie adaptation of David Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross, which also told a story which revealed the dark thoughts and the limits of knowledge within the human heart via the machinations of capitalism. Some of the parallels between the two--the fact that both feature Kevin Spacey, or tell a story that takes place in a very constricted time frame--are obvious. But whereas GGR placed its story in a sleazy and fictional sales environment, Margin Call tells its story by fictionalizing, with as much attention to detail as possible, the circumstances and motivations and confusions which attended the spectacular collapse of major financial institutions on Wall Street in 2008. The blogger Noah Millman, who spent years trading derivatives on Wall Street, said Margin Call was the best story about the perverse (yet internally logical) mechanics of high finance that he's ever seen, and if you watch and listen carefully, you'll believe him: while much of financial jargon is way over the head of the great majority of viewers, anyone who seriously attends to the film will pick up how it makes sense. Which means, in short, the movie taught me something, without going the dishonest route of turning any of these people into conventional heroes or villains. Add to that a mostly subtle but nonetheless vicious presentation of the sexism on Wall Street, and you've got a great film.

Memories of Murder is a tightly presented police procedural, examining the hunt for a serial killer in a rural part of South Korea in the late 1980s and its effect on the people who know there is a murderer in their midst and on the detectives called to find the criminal, all of which it does very well. But none of that is why this movie is in my top five for the year. The reason I put it here is because every detail of this film rang true to me, taking me back to my two years of missionary service in South Korea from 1988 to 1990 with every scene. The rough, abusive, and defiant village people and their cops, as contrasted against the wealthy and professional disdain visible in Seoul. The cheap linoleum on the floors. The rampant and condescending sexism. The divided anti-Americanism. The tight association between masculinity and alcohol consumption. The street-corner churches. The office girls serving tea. Memories of Murder is a compelling and gripping crime thriller, but for me, it was a superb anthropological document as well.

Moonrise Kingdom is probably my third favorite Wes Anderson movie, after The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore--though admittedly, deciding between Moonrise and The Life Aquatic is pretty damn hard. I'll confess--call me a hipster, but I've seen everything he's made, and I adore his cleverness, his stylized off-kilterness, his insistence upon drawing authentic feeling out of self-ironizing kitsch. In my view, all his movies are worth attention, and only one so far has been a failure (Fantastic Mr. Fox--which I realize many people consider Anderson's absolute best, because it was a perfect playground for his desire to exercise completely stylistic control over his films' mise-en-scène, but in my view that much control was bad for Anderson has a story-teller; he needs to shape his cameras around actual people, methinks). Anyway, Moonrise Kingdom was a delight, a campy story of first-love that walks right up to creepy territory but absolutely refuses to acknowledge that the innocence of its characters are in any way compromised by placing them in proximity to such almost-sexual weirdness--and he pulls it off. Plus, it has Bob Balaban as the quasi-omniscient narrator, and if that isn't the best bit of casting I saw all year, I don't know what is.

Three Takes On Anarchism

[Cross-posted to Political Context]

I've developed some relatively new intellectual interests over the past year. The most important--at least in terms of its likely long-term impact on the research work I'm doing--is an increased engagement with urban communities, and how questions about governance play out differently depending on the scale of the community in question, with particular relevance to urban entities that seem to fall in between our usually unexamined models of what constitutes a "big city"and a "small town." The other major development at first appears to have only a tangential relationship to the first one--but as I've dived into the literature and tried to give the subject more thought, I wonder if the connection between the two might not actually be quite important. The literature I'm talking about is anarchism, which has become increasingly fascinating to me.

My fascination isn't, as I said, entirely new; I've been thinking about how anarchist ideas can be an important contributor to left-leaning politics at least ever since I was exposed to the arguments for "interstitialism" in the work of Erik Olin Wright, and obviously the Occupy Movement from two years ago was a big part of my interest as well. But my realization--through both broad political events and things my students are teaching me close to home--that I need to wrestle more productively with the libertarian position (which, popularly anyway, overlaps with the anarchist in so many ways) was part of it as well. In any case, while I've been working on and off on anarchist ideas for a while now, it's been this year that I really dove into the scholarship and literature...and am learning, slowly, how it is that anarchist insights will have to be, I think a major element in any construction of alternative forms of governance.

Anarchism and governance? Yes, they can go together--because what an-archy calls for is an absence of, or a rejection of, an imposed and uniform ruling order, not, or at least not necessarily (or so I would insist, anyway), a mutually realized organic and adaptable one. Those who find it easy and reasonable to appropriate anarchist insights for libertarian ends--that is, ends which revolve around the fundamental premise that the individual, thanks to her rights, should stand independent from any non-chosen order--might find this insistence of mine a matter of sneaking some kind of socialist or communitarian concern through the mutualist backdoor, and therefore not really "anarchist" at all. From that perspective it would be, at best, a utopian claim for "government without government", at worst just another re-introduction of the possibility of tyranny. But what I'm working towards is the argument--not an original one, to be sure, but still, one that needs to be made and re-made regularly--that the "governance" of individuals (which I continue to believe is a social, civic, and egalitarian necessity) does not have to, or doesn't necessarily always have to, involve "government" insofar as social contractarian, constitutional, or state-based models are concerned. And if I want to understand what theoretical and practical options are available for thinking about living arrangements which do not really fit either our well-worn big-city bureaucratic or small-town democratic tropes, getting away from "government," and thinking differently about how community order arises may well be a big asset.

I read three anarchist works this year which really stood out. Only one of them--Scott's--approached anarchism in a manner which could be easily related to the issues I've just mentioned. Graeber's looked at anarchism entirely as a revolutionary method, a praxis which only required occasional theoretical consideration, and Adams's--a truly great book--wasn't formally about anarchism at all, but rather told his own life story in an elliptical way that reveals, almost as an afterthought, a kind of anarchic sensibility as the key to understanding his own (and, perhaps, everyone else's as well) "education." Still, I learned something from all of them, so let me say something about each, in reverse alphabetical order.

I meant to read James C. Scott's Two Cheers for Anarchism soon after it came out--but the paper I was working on at the time ended up making much more use of Scott's earlier anthropological and sociological studies, Seeing Like a State and The Art of Not Being Governed. Those are detailed, exactly books, working out the basic foundations for the position that Scott takes in this text more broadly: specifically, a "process-oriented view" which celebrates cooperation against "hierarchy and state rule," and "involves a defense of politics, conflict, and debate, and the perpetual uncertainty and learning they entail" (pp. xii-xiii). That might sound like a robust defense of particular non-hierarchical democratic arrangements, but in fact the six somewhat disconnected essays which Scott included in this book range over a host of personal as well as political matters, and take a distinctly academic and agrarian tone. He makes it clear early on that his anarchism is non-doctrinaire: he is not opposed to the state, just realistic--on the basis of his study of early human history, he concludes that "of the roughly five-thousand-year history of states, only in the past two centuries of so has even the possibility arisen that states might occasionally enlarge the realm of human freedom" (p. xiv). With that conviction to guide him, he develops an argument for "vernacular" rather than statist approaches to social problems, characterized by searching and insubordinate  strategies where the proper response to collective difficulties is more a matter of happenstance and "charisma" than some principled (and thus available for hierarchical and homogenizing implementation) solution. Roving over a variety of disparate contexts, he highlights the importance of adaptability, and how the greatest pathology of institutionalized systems of measurement, scholarship, or just living is the systematic way in which it undermines such mutual--and, he thinks, ultimately egalitarian--adaptation.

What kind of economic or social context is necessary to keep alive adaptivity? Interestingly, Scott argues it is, most likely, "petty bourgeois" one:

[S]ince the Industrial Revolution and headlong urbanization, a vastly increasing share of the population has become propertyless and dependent on large, hierarchical organizations for their livelihood. The household economy of the small farmer-peasant or shopkeeper may have been just as poverty-stricken and insecure as that of the proletarian. it was, however, decidedly less subject to the quotidian, direct discipline of managers, bosses, and foremen. Even the tenant farmer, subject to the caprice of his landlord, or the small-holder, deeply in debt to the bank or moneylenders, was in control of his working day: when to plant, how to cultivate, when to harvest and sell, and so forth. Compare this to the factory worker tied to the clock from 8am to 5pm, tied to the rhythm of the machine, and closely monitored personally or electronically. Even in the service industries the pace, regulation, and monitoring of work are far beyon what the independent shopkeeper experienced in terms of minute supervision....

Why take of the cudgels for a class that remains relatively anonymous and is surely not, in the Marxist parlance, a class für sich? There are several reasons. I believe that the petite bourgeoisie and small property in general represent a precious zone of autonomy and freedom in state systems increasingly dominated by large public and private bureaucracies. Autonomy and freedom are, along with mutuality, at the center of an anarchist sensibility. Second, I am convinced that the petite bourgeoisie performs vital social and economic services under any political system....It is surely the case that "big box" stores can, owing again to their clout as buyers, deliver a host of manufactured goods to consumers at a cheaper price than the petty bourgeoisie. What is not so clear, however, is whether, once one has factored in all the public goods (the positive externalities) the petty bourgeoisie provides--informal social work, public safety, the aesthetic pleasure so of an animated and interesting streetscape, a large variety of social experiences and personalized services, acquaintance networks, informal neighborhood news and gossip, a building block of social solidarity and public action, and (in the case of the smallholding peasantry) good stewardship of the land--the petty bourgeoisie might not be, in a full accounting, a far better bargain, in the long run, than the large impersonal capitalist firm. And, although they might not quite measure up to the Jeffersonian democratic ideal of the self-confident, independent, land-owning yeoman farmer, they approach it far more closely than the clerk at Wal-Mart or Home Depot (pp. 77, 85, 99-100).

There is much to think about in these claims--most particularly, perhaps the idea that the best way to make possible anarchic mutualism and adaptability in terms of providing order to communities is to encourage everyone to become stakeholders in the community, in the sense of being a home-owner, a business-owner, a land-owner. Certainly that is an easier and less utopian future to imagine than returning everyone back to that level of existence available in the Jeffersonian agrarian world of the 18th-century. But wouldn't that depend very much on the sort of private and public bureaucracies that Scott is wary of--the providing of loans, the building of infrastructure, the distributing of land, and much more? Very possibly! Scott is, I think, pushing us to think about the very thing that every serious student of localism and agrarianism must consider: what, if anything, of the habitus of the non-governed peoples who historically (and, in a few very limited cases, up until this very day) constructed communities outside the stifling standardization of state-scale organizations--via migratory labor practices, swidden agriculture, and more--be adopted today, given the complexity and interconnectedness of our already existing industrial and post-industrial market societies? There are no obvious answers to that question, but Scott warns against simply throwing up our hands and claiming that systemization is unavoidable in the technological world we have today, especially since our knowledge of "the world we have today" is itself a frame which gets us looking for top-down responses, ignoring the plurality, spontaneity, and particularity of actual mutualist moments. By refusing to suggest any kind of anarchist system, but instead preferring an anarchist "squint," Scott here throws out a host of philosophical and sociological ideas to chew over.

While David Graeber would likely deny it, his The Democracy Project, a partly theoretical and partly practical documentary reflection on the Occupy Movement of 2011, which he was major figure in, does very much what Scott's book does not: propose a profoundly political and revolutionary method of anarchic governance. To be fair, his "method" does not involve any particularly imposing ideological structure, consisting as it does primarily of multiple interconnected reflections on the history, development, and potential of various participatory meeting and consensus-building strategies: calling for votes, speaking publicly, expressing dissent, and so forth. But for Graeber, reflecting upon such procedures is the heart of anarchism. He defines anarchism as "a political movement that aims to bring about a genuinely free society," which he in turn defines as "one where humans only enter those kinds of relations with one another hat would not have to be enforced by the constant threat of violence"--which means, in his view, that anarchist-inspired movements like Occupy Wall Street, with all those meetings in Zuccotti Park, was nothing less than "taking...core democratic principles to their logical conclusion" (pp. 187, 154). Thus, for him, democracy properly understood is anarchsim, because putting the power to rule in the hands of all the people--not, he emphasizes, merely property-owners, or the "rational," or other more restricted definitions of the people--points us in the direction of "the kind of reasoning that goes on...between equals" (p. 199). Graeber is highly critical of much political theory, particularly that of the Hobbseian or Humeian or Rawlsian variety, because he sees those arguments as all essentially treating citizens like self-interested children, incapable of reasonableness or collective problem-solving. He thinks that the democratic procedures which make for a real anarchic methodology--or, as he calls it, the "Anarchist Process" (p. 195)--owes more to various spiritual (particularly Native American and Quaker) traditions and feminism: in short, "the intellectual tradition of those who have, historically, tended not to be vested with the power of command" (p. 202). By eschewing the usual range of political theoretical concerns, Graeber's arguments can come off--as they often did to me, coming at these issues as I do with a training in political philosophy--as often oblivious and naive. But his conviction that, given the opportunity--that is, the assuming the absence of restrictions and regimes (including market ones) which create an artificial inequality amongst all mentally capable persons--general human reasonableness is a real possibility gives his revolutionary fervor a deeply humane sensibility:

If you propose the idea of anarchism to a roomful of ordinary people, someone will almost inevitably object: but of course we can't eliminate the state, prisons, and police. If we do, people will start killing one another....The odd thing about this prediction is that it can be empirically tested....And it turns out to be false....When I was living in the town of Arivonimamo [in Madagascar] in 1990, and wandering about the surrounding countryside, even I had no idea at first that I was living in an area where state control had effectively disappeared (I think part of the reason for my impression was that everyone talked and acted as if state institutions were still functioning, hoping no one would notice). When I returned in 2010, the police had returned, taxes were once again being collected, but everyone also felt that violent crime had increased dramatically.

So the real question we have to ask becomes: what is it about the experience of living under a state, that is, in a society where rules are enforced by the threat of prisons and police, and all the forms in inequality and alienation that makes possible, that makes it seem obvious to us that people, under such conditions, would behave in a way that it turns out they don't actually behave? The anarchist answer is simple. If you treat people like children, they will tend to act like children. The only successful method anyone has ever devised to encourage others to act like adults is to treat them as if they already are....[T]he historical experience of what actually does happen in crisis situations demonstrates that even those who have not grown up in a culture of participatory democracy, if you take away their guns or ability to call their lawyers, can suddenly become extremely reasonable. This is all that anarchists are really proposing to do (pp. 206-207).

I found Graeber's voice throughout this book often annoyingly smug (I've heard the same about his celebrated book Debt: The First 5000 Years, which I've yet to read), and regularly found myself frustrated with the blithe way in which he seemed to assume the emergence of crises capable of overcoming or eliminating structural realities like "guns or [the] ability to call [one's] lawyers," without much by way of supporting socio-economic argument (while he lays out in persuasive detail the legitimacy of the economic grievances which motivated OWS at the beginning, he doesn't spend much time considering what kind of economic arrangements would enable the people to democratically do anything about those grievances). He at one point claims that he is "less interested in working out what the detailed architecture of what a free society would be like than in creating the conditions that would enable us to find out" (p. 193), but in actuality this books is focused on the tools of that finding, not the conditions of enabling. I value Graeber's extensive experience with and often sharp assessments of those tools themselves (this is a man who definitely was not frightened off by Oscar Wilde's warning that the real obstacle posed by socialism is that it would require "too many meetings"), but I wish he'd be able to see that his methodological claims could be both strengthened and qualified with a greater familiarity with many other non-anarchists and non-democrats those who have thought about governance in nonetheless similarly non-state ways (his dismissal of the term "subsidiarity," even while he strongly defends the very idea it describes is just one example of his borderline contemptuous of other ways of framing the same concerns which motivate him). Still, it's a take on anarchism worth considering.

In contrast to Scott's academic and agrarian anarchist reflections, and to Graber's highly political and revolutionary methodological ones, Henry Adam's classic semi-autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams (he wrote of himself in the third-person throughout, and after meticulously and introspectively detailing his first thirty-three years of life, he skips the next twenty, without explanation to the reader, taking up the story again when he was in his early 50s in the 1890s) isn't any kind of primer on anarchism at all. Yet it is, I think, a rather revealing enacting of a certain kind of anarchist sentiment: a highly aristocratic, deeply apolitical one. Repeatedly through the book, Adams presents himself as a man born profoundly out of his own time, a person with longings and sensibilities which more properly belong to the 18th century (or earlier!) who, thanks to his family connections and wealth and the general sweep of history, finds himself reluctantly obliged to attempt to make sense of 19th century--which was, in his view, the moment where truly global systems, where patterns of exchange and governance and information become, through their size and reach, genuinely controlling, first emerged. Adams's tone is a mournful one, but a rueful one too: every stage of his life, in his telling, is the story of an attempt at mastery--by himself, by political parties, by banks, by corporations, by armies, by whole countries--over some issue or idea or project or public good, and always finding in the end that either 1) the effort was a failure, or 2) the matter took care of itself anyway, or 3) both.

This repetitiveness can actually make the book a difficult one to read, and there were times when I found it a slog...but eventually I found the very obdurance of Adams's tone somewhat appealing. It is the perspective of a Bostonian aristocrat--the grandson and great-grandson of Presidents of the United States, the son of a diplomat and vice-presidential candidate, a Harvard-educated scholar of history, a journalist and writer who, over the years, traveled around the word and met with hundreds of its movers and shakers--whose education convinces him, through constant trial and error, that there is no political effort that can possibly interfere with the grand historical forces that will always reach their end....thus suggesting that it is far better to simply, always, leave things alone. For example, at the age of 30, while everyone around him seems convulsed with arguments over Charles Darwin, he "turned resolutely to business, and attacked the burning question of specie payments." After wading through thousands of documents, he concludes, to his surprise, that currency restrictions--the commonly accepted logical approach to being able to continue redeeming paper money with gold--was a "fatal mistake, and that the best treatment of a debased currency was to let it alone....Time and patience were the remedies" (p. 233). This detached, observational, mildly bemused attitude is proved, in Adams's writings, to be the only healthy one, again and again and again.

You'd be forgiven, I think, for reading the above--or any number of other passages from Adams's Education--and thinking that he sounds more like Stoic fatalist than an anarchist; in what way does his lack of faith in any orchestrated human political or economic system necessarily mean that he opposes such? I think that has to be discerned through his own association with men like George Cabot Lodge, who took upon themselves the label "conservative Christian anarchist," a label which Adams seemed to find thoughtful and worth being aligned with--if only because it suggested, in line with Adams's understanding of Hegel and Schopenhauer, that there is a spirit in history, which makes itself manifest through natural processes. The modern, 19th-century world--the world "ruled by one great emperor: Coal" (p. 415)--looked in vain for some unity or synthesis with that natural spirit, but could not find it, because its own dynamism was directly opposed to it....though that opposition itself was an antithesis which would, eventually, be resolved. In the meantime the unities of medieval Christendom--which Adams envied, though he had no religious faith whatsoever, a fact which bothered him mildly--haunted the modern world, and reminded those both blessed and doomed to endure their ever-imposing, expanding, industrial moment that there were other orders, ones which are revealed through the inertia of nature. Anarchy thus becomes a conservative posture, protecting simple and local pleasures, an apolitical position which, in its resistance to the enlisting ideologies of modernity, holds onto a proper aristocratic distance from those who would try, in Adams's view, to use the state to change the economic and natural laws of the world. And this, by the way, would include the more revolutionary styles of anarchism itself:

By rights, he should have been also a Marxist, but some narrow trait of the New England nature seemed to blight socialism, and he tried in vain to make himself a convert....He too had played with anarchy; thought not with socialism, which, to young men who nourished artistic emotions under the dome of the Pantheon, seemed hopelessly bourgeois, and lowest middle-class....To the conservative Christian anarchist, the amicable doctrines of Kropotkin were sentimental ideas of Russian mental inertia covered with the names of anarchy merely to disguise their innocence; and the outpourings of Élisée Reclus were ideals of the French ouvrier, diluted with absinthe, resulting in a bourgeois dream of order and inertia. Neither made a pretence of anarchy except as a momentary stage towards order and unity....With them, as with the socialist, communist, or collectivist, the mind that followed nature had no relation; if anarchists needed order, they must go back to the twelfth century where their thought had enjoyed its thousand years of reign. The conservative Christian anarchist could have no associate, no object, no faith except the nature of nature itself; and his "larger synthesis" had only the fault of being so supremely true that even the highest obligation of duty could scarcely oblige Bay Lodge [playing the "antithesis" role] to deny it in order to prove it. Only the self-evident truth that no philosophy of order--except the Church--had ever satisfied the philosopher reconciled the conservative Christian anarchist to prove his own....He admitted that, for the moment, the darkness was dense. He could affirm with confidence, even to himself, that his "largest synthesis" would certainly turn out to be chaos....The play of thought for thought's sake had mostly ceased. The throb of fifty or a hundred million horse-power, doubling every ten years, and already more despotic than all the horses that ever lived, and all the riders they ever carried, drowned rhyme and reason. No one was to blame, for all were equally servants of the power, and worked merely to increase it; but the conservative Christian anarchist saw light (pp. 225, 405, 407-408).

There are many reasons why Education was one of the best books I read this year: among them, Adams's unceremonial--yet therefore all the more marvelous--invocation of the distant world of early American elites, his insightful (and trenchant) reflections on technology and academia, and his grasp of a world which, in his lifetime, truly began to be globalized. But also, I include his take here along with Scott's and Graeber's because Adams's anarchism, while only very distantly relevant to the intellectual projects I mentioned at the beginning of this post, is a distinct and important one. It presents us with anarchism--as opposed to libertarianism, as traditionally understood; Adams seemed to have little interest in the matter of individual liberty, viewing "anti-slavery politics" as mainly a component of his own Puritan inheritance and an opportunity for youthful mischief rather than intellectually important in itself--as a conservative, laissez-faire force. Since the spirit of the world is ineluctable, why attempt to master it? Leave it alone instead.

The very nature of the overwhelmingly majority human communities throughout history, whether large or small, is, I think, inherently incompatible with that call. It may be the case that some human associations will form solely for the purpose of sharing information or solace, but I strongly suspect there is no enduring example of any such which doesn't, sooner or later, in ways large or small (or both), attempt to organize, distribute, cultivate, and provide some good which was simply unavailable to those living alone. In other words, the problem of seeking to master something--a plot of land, a religious question, an enemy tribe, a health care demand, a moral fear--cannot be simply walked away from. For that reason, if anarchism is to help us (particularly those of us on the left), I think it has to point us towards various agrarian or democratic or other possibilities; it has to give us, in other words, some insight into governance. Adams's conservative Christian anarchism doesn't do that--but perhaps it is also helpful to know where anarchism cannot help us, by always reminding us of those who, given their druthers, would rather take no part whatsoever in the whole game of who imposes upon whom, whether done democratically or tyrannically. So this year, though these three books as well as others, I've developed a sense of both anarchic contributions, and of anarchic limits. Not a bad result, or so I hope.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Saturday Night Live Music: "My Death (La Mort)"

The best new music I heard in 2013 came from David Bowie's tremendous surprise album, The Next Day. Unfortunately--though, perhaps also appropriately--there was no tour in support of the album, and hence, no live music to accompany it. So let me, instead, close out the year with some live music from David Bowie from exactly 40 years ago, when he first starting challenging us with some of the best pop music of the whole recording era.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Contentious Christmas Arguments in Utah, and Elsewhere

Mathew Parke expresses his hopes for his people (and mine) in Utah, in the wake of last week's same-sex marriage ruling:

[T]he thing that strikes me as hopeful about the last few days is that everyone, for or against state-sanctioned gay marriage, is talking about it. Because so many people in Utah are related and connected by our Mormon heritage, and because we go to church every Sunday and sit together for three hours, and because this week is Christmas and families are gathering anyway, we are, for or against, talking about gay marriage together. The last few days have felt exactly like a family argument where feelings run high but you know your love for one another will remain no matter how crazy you make each other.

The place gay people should have in our society and the legal rights accorded them are among the great issues of our time. It is good for the populace to have a conversation about them. It is even better when the conversation is had not just in magazines and newspapers or among like-minded people, but among a divided citizenry, preferably face to face in churches and family rooms where you are reminded of the ties that bind. Mormonism’s unique demography and social structure with an assist from the calendar have resulted in a largely civil discourse on an important civic matter. The last few days have made me hopeful that wherever we end up as a church, we will arrive as a people.”

I am, as usual, of course, of at least two minds about this statement. On the one hand, I see it as overly optimistic, maybe even to the point of outright naiveté. Sure, people in the state of Utah are talking about “the place gay people should have in our society and the legal rights accorded to them”--but very likely not because the large majority of them actually wanted to talk about such. Rather, they are talking about it because one kind of conversation about such matters--the presumably normative and preferred, more democratic and discursive one--has been denied to them through judicial action. In other words, to whatever extent the conversations that the author mentions are actually taking place among people who wouldn’t be having such conversations anyway in the first place, they are taking place primarily because the issue has been forced upon them by an outright restructuring of their environment, or at least a--thus far--relatively successful judicial imposition of such a restructuring. The kind of arguments which such presumption generates have, historically, been, shall we say, less than ideal (consider the wonderfully productive conversations about race which took place in the American South following the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision).

But then, on the other hand, I can see some good reasons to qualify my above concerns. First, obviously, if you accept that there is a least a possibility that Judge Shelby’s reasoning is correct in claiming that there is a constitutional right to marriage for all citizens, and if you have at least some streak of liberal egalitarianism in you (as I do), then the democratic losses have to at least be balanced against the rights-based gains with follow this decision. Regarding Brown v. Board of Education, for all the understandable--not defensible, but still, yes, understandable--uproar it caused in southern communities, I think the answer is a no-brainer. I wouldn’t say the same about this decision, but I’m not willing to agree with that good-hearted ideological moron in the Utah state legislature who spoke of Judge Shelby’s “massacre” of local autonomy and religious freedom either.

Second, maybe the above comparison isn’t even fair, for reasons of the context involved. After all, this isn’t a widespread intrusion into the sorts of preferences which guided the decisions of millions of families in a thousand school districts in a dozen different states; this is a decision about marriage that cannot be rationally seen as significantly and directly affecting the lives of those who oppose it, but which also is present through family connections in a way that overwhelmingly wasn’t the case in the American South. Moreover, this was a decision which governs a single state, one wherein a majority of the populations shares the same religious faith. That suggests that there is a far greater likelihood that there really will be shared conversations that gets ideas exchanged in ways that opens minds and engenders sympathy.

Third, and perhaps most importantly: maybe issues like this actually never get talked about unless it they forced upon the people in question. On a particular philosophical level, one could make a strong argument, I think, to the effect that the most democratic thing that a minority can do is to try to leverage whatever tools available to them--judicial intervention, public protest, boycotts, revolutionary violence, whatever--in order to jump-start conversations which wouldn’t happen otherwise. The glory of a liberal and law-abiding democratic society, from a communitarian point of view, is not that issues never get forced beyond the reach of democratic conversations--because that may always happen anyway--but that out of the above options for minorities, the first three are available and productive enough to make the last (hopefully) unnecessary. And the good news is that, however they start, conversations, once they begin, are civically empowering and expanding; they bring into public spaces views and agents that previously couldn’t be fully seen or heard (for most Utahns, for example, until last Friday, the quality of same-sex marriages was a matter which they had no reason to expect to ever observe or learn about first-hand; but now they can). And when you’re talking about basic civic respect, more conversations is probably always a good thing, especially over the long haul. I mean, for all the bitterness and the (I think) often terrible electoral side-effects partly caused by the Supreme Court’s and Congress’s actions regarding school segregation, etc., and even acknowledging all the cultural and social virtues which have arguably been lost through the nationalizing of the South’s locality (though I would argue that was mostly due to global capitalism and the TVA, not desegregation), only an absolute Confederacy/Lost Cause dead-ender who hasn’t read a book written in the past 50 years could actually believe that racial relations haven't gotten better in the South, significantly because people have been forced to talk with each other.

So what do I say to Mathew Parke? I hope he’s right--in fact, the spirit of the season, I truly wish it. And maybe, for all the reasons mentioned in my last paragraph, it's even reasonable to wish for such a conversational development. But please don't fault me for lacking faith if I don't hold my breath.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Special Christmas Night Live Music Edition: "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town"

Always the Boss, in Spain or anywhere else. (And with Clarence Clemons, RIP.) Merry Christmas, everyone!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Surprising Nativity: A Chrismas Homily

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

The passage from the New Testament which always hear this time of year includes these important, well-known lines:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field , keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo , the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold , I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

The phrase "sore afraid" is a translation of the Greek word phobeō; it communicates the idea of, not just fear, but of taking alarm, and of sudden surprise. The shepherds, in other words, were terrified--not because, or at least not solely because, the appearance of the angel was a terrifying vision, but also because it was unexpected, and shocking. This was not something they ever could have been prepared for.

So much of the Christmas story can be described--and should be described--in those terms, I think. We were speaking with some friends a few days ago, discussing the religious rituals and devotional practices that our daughter Megan has seen in India--including, for example, the symbolic marriage of two basil plants--and how strange they seem to us. But of course, the things we Christians affirm this time of year are pretty strange as well.That God Almighty could become one of us, and be born humbly among us, to a poor couple in a small town in a nondescript manger for farm animals--that's pretty surprising too. To draw upon a story from Mormon scripture, we can and should be properly conscious of what Nephi was told about Mary and the "condescension of God"--and yet, like Nephi, we very likely will not be able to understand the meaning of the whole mysterious, unexpected thing. We can only receive it, like the wonderful gift it is.

C.S. Lewis is well-known and much loved for his ability to put in layman's terms the fundamental claims of the Christian faith; perhaps the most important part of his ability of his was the fact that he never denied the strangeness of what he was doing. As he put it once:

[R]eality, in my experience, is usually odd. It is not neat, not obvious, not what you expect. For instance, when you have grasped that the earth and the other planets all go round the sun, you would naturally expect that all the planets were made to match--all at equal distances from each other, say, or distances that regularly increased, or all the same size, or else getting bigger or smaller as you go further from the sun. In fact, you find no rhyme or reason (that we can see) about either the sizes or the distances; and some of them have one moon, one has four, one has two, some have none, and one has a ring. Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity [Macmillan Publishing Company, 1952], pp. 47-48)

One of the truest lessons of this queerness is the fact that God, in providing us with this great gift, a divine Savior who is born as, and would go one to live as, and the die as, an ordinary man, prompts us to think about how it may be that our own ordinariness can be, in its own small way, also very much a surprise, also always something new, something which could not have been anticipated or made up. We can, in fact, repent and learn and become someone unexpected and better and new. There is, for all of us, as Jesus taught, the promise of being born again.

Decades ago the philosopher Hannah Arendt, a brilliant non-believer who had fled Nazi Germany and came to the United States, found herself thinking carefully about the human condition, and about just what makes our ability to make choices possible. Her conclusion, surprisingly enough, was that it finds its root in the fact of our beginnings--the way we all are, in so many ways, always unexpected arrivals. Let me quote two passages from her work:

God created man in order to introduce into the world the faculty of beginning....[T]he human capacity which corresponds to this power, which, in the words of the Gospel, is capable of removing mountains, is not will but faith. The work of faith, actually its product, is what the gospels called "miracles".... (Arendt, "What is Freedom," Between Past and Future, 1993, p. 167)....The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, "natural" ruin, is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted....Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs the faith and hope....that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in those few words which the Gospels announced their "glad tidings": "A child has been born unto us." (Arendt, The Human Condition, p.247)

In a couple of days, it will be Christmas morning, and a time for being surprised by presents--and of course, this whole season invites us to surprise one another, and be surprised by, the kindness and generosity of others. The birth of our Lord and Savior, so long ago, so thoroughly wrapped in centuries of story-telling and song, remains not just the greatest and most unexpected gift that humankind has ever experienced, but a model to us all--a model of birth and rebirth, of unanticipated change and surprising charity, and of renewed (and renewing) action, each and every day. That this thought--the constant possibility that God may work through beautiful, terrifying, life-changing, and utterly ordinary and thereby unexpected surprises--can be with us this Christmas is my prayer.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Saturday Night Live Music: "In the Bleak Midwinter"

A spare and haunting rendition of this carol, by the wonderful Scottish folk singer Bert Jansch. This old recording isn't the best, but it's all we have, so be patient as Bert fiddles with his guitar for a couple of minutes, before playing a brief and beautiful version of the song. (You can listen to his whole recording here.)

Some Random Thoughts on the Utah Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

So Robert Shelby, a federal district court judge in Utah, handed down Kitchen v. Herbert yesterday afternoon, declaring Utah's refusal to permit or recognize same-sex marriages unconstitutional. Following on last week's decision which decriminalized polygamous cohabitation in Utah, it makes the state that I lived in for five years, and which I have old and deep family and religious connections to, a somewhat happening place, at least when it comes to the law, marriage, and sex. But unlike Brown v. Buhman, which prompted some rather wide-ranging speculations on my part, this decision got me thinking in a much more personal manner. To wit:

1) Utah's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage--"Amendment 3"--reads very much like "Constitutional Amendment 3" which was passed by referendum in Arkansas in 2004 (the same year Utah's Amendment 3 was passed, not coincidentally) by 75% of voters, one of whom was me. I wouldn't have voted for that amendment today, and I'm happy to see Utah's constitutional amendment rebuked by a district court judge. So what has changed in the past 10 years?

2) Primarily, I've changed my mind about same-sex marriage. I've explained why I changed my mind before; to sum up my reasoning again as briefly as possible, let's just say that, over time, I came to realize that the only reasons that really seemed persuasive to me regarding the privileging of traditional heterosexual marriage--given that I simply couldn't accept the notion that homosexuality was a divine error or a crime against our natural teleology, though I don't find either of those (I think incorrect) claims necessarily irrational--were inextricably tied up with accepting a model of the sexual roles and relationships with marriage which depended upon a certain inequality in its intergenerationality. And once I realized that my construct in favor legally favoring heterosexual unions over homosexual ones was rooted in an acceptance of sexual inegalitarianism, I couldn't stick with it--because I couldn't stand the idea that was arguing for a position which presumed a role for my daughters which, despite all the talk of complementarianism which suffuses the sexually enlightened socially conservative position, put obligations upon them in a manner and to a degree unlike it could ever put upon men.

3) So for that reason I wouldn't vote for Arkansas's same-sex marriage ban today, nor Utah's--nor Kansas's Amendment 1, if it'll ever come up for a vote again. But of course, the change in Utah (which will last until the state appeals to the circuit court, which I'm sure it may do as soon as the end of the day today. And, as I've written before, I'm a fan enough of democracy and suspicious enough of judicial review to dislike the law being determined--or overturned--by judges, rather than by legislators or the people, including a law regarding the rights of gays and lesbians to marry each other. Or at least, I have been such a fan. Now, in the wake of this decision, I wonder if my principles are changing.

4) I'm not abandoning my hope--which is a vain one, I know, but as a democratic communitarian in a liberal juridical legal one, contrary hopes are par for the course--that broad religious exceptions and exemption will be built into whatever norms emerge as the same-sex marriage revolutions moves slowly but surely through our country, ones that will provide as much room as possible not merely for the right of religious dissent in an individual sense, but for the civic value of treating collective religious expressions as deserving of respectable, rational consideration. However, saying that confronts one with various constitutional trumps. If, as Judge Shelby argues, in the wake of both Lawrence v. Texas and U.S. v. Windsor an "individual’s right to marry as an essential part of the right to liberty" cannot be denied simply because of the "moral disapprobation of homosexual conduct," then same-sex marriage is a fundamental constitutional right. Do I really want to say otherwise?

5) In an earlier post of mine, I wrote that "I'm unconvinced that the restriction of marriage to heterosexuals constitutes a grievous constitutional harm put in place solely with the aim of burdening a specific, disliked minority population." On the one hand, if I stand by that position, and continue to insist that this push for marriage equality has to happen through democratic politics, and not through defining how the people may govern themselves via the imposition of judicial may-not-cross lines, then I can tell myself that I am continuing to invite me and my fellow citizens to struggle discursively over the real moral meaning of marriage, and thus save myself from the taint of Planned Parenthood v. Casey's banal and nonsensical invocation of the "right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life" (which Judge Shelby does himself no favors by citing). But on the other hand--well, on the other hand, there's my friend Christian's fellow gays and lesbians, people like Michael Ferguson and Seth Anderson, the couple celebrating in the photo above, all of whom, in an important civic sense, weren't allowed to partake in that aforementioned discursive process regarding the moral meaning of marriage because their access to the institution was eliminated by prior (and, practically speaking in today's political environment, mostly unreachable for discussion) judgments, thus robbing the larger community of the example and education which their experience as a couple could provide. And that, of course, is just one slice of the larger civic pie--the argument could also be made that, through the interventionary judicial expansion of the range and number of those who can contribute to various civic goods, such as those provided by stable married gay couples, society benefits far beyond simply the contribution to a more diverse and rich discursivity. I think about all that, and I wonder: maybe my resistance to those tools which often generally (if indirectly) tend to support an empty individualism in American society (the hypothetical solo sexual dissenter, determined to exercise her right to marry or not marry however she pleases, for whatever reason she pleases) can go too far, and thus take me away from noticing that, whatever the costs of judicial fiats (and I believe they are many!), they don't stop conversations from continuing. And maybe even continuing in a more rich and rewarding way than before.

6) In the end, I'm undecided. Ideally, I still would rather see democratic debate and compromise do its slow but satisfying work than see political fights turn into constitutional ones. But I don't think I could write what I did before, at least not as confidently; even if I don't particularly like the idea of marriage being defined solely as (in Shelby's words) "the right to make a public commitment to form an exclusive relationship and create a family with a partner with whom the person share s an intimate and sustaining emotional bond," I have to recognize that as an appropriately interpersonal description....and since, as I said above, I care enough about equality to accept that interpersonal thinking is better, when it comes to marriage anyway, than intergenerationality, I suppose I ought to focus on what civic resources such a definition makes available to us. And if those resources come our way through a constitutional edict...well, even if it's not my preference, that doesn't mean I'll support an appeal!

In the meantime, to Christian and other Utah friends: hurrah!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

"They'll Probably Think They're a New Kind of Dagger"

A favorite Peter O'Toole moment of mine (this one from Becket), from hundreds of such moments. RIP.

Monday, December 16, 2013

"Will Henry Potter's Common Sense Reforms Win the Day?"

I have to give him credit: Jimmy Kimmel has gotten a lot better at his job.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Why Decriminalizing Polygamy Will Hurt the Affordable Care Act (or Possibly Help It, if Someone Plays Their Cards Right)

I'm not lawyer, so feel free to dismiss the following speculations as completely groundless. But they seems at least plausible to me, nonetheless.

First, the federal district court of Utah has ruled, in Brown v. Buhman, a case that arose from the attempt to prosecute the polygamous Brown family (of TLC's "Sister Wives") under Utah's very strict anti-bigamy and anti-cohabitation statute, a law's whose convoluted history dates directly back to the Utah Territory's early attempt to prove to Congress that it was serious about the Mormon church's historical practice of plural marriage, is unconstitutional. So polygamous cohabitation is now decriminalized in the state of Utah, and given the precedent of Lawrence v. Texas, it seems likely that such decriminalization is likely to spread. Chris Henrichsen has a good rundown of the discussion which this decision has sparked, but let's focus on just one part of it.

Second, the part that makes me curious is that a key component Judge Clark Waddoups decision is that Reynolds v. United States, the famous decision which rejected the Mormon church's attempt to defend itself constitutionally, under the Free Exercise Clause, against the federal government's efforts to destroy its practice of plural marriage, is a reflection of "Orientalist" assumptions rather than a thoughtful consideration of the problems of religious pluralism, and should, therefore, "no longer be considered good law," and ought to recognized "as binding [only] on the limited question of any potential free exercise right to the actual practice of polygamy."

Third, it so happens that Reynolds v. United States was prominently cited by Justice Scalia in one of my most disliked Supreme Court decisions of the modern era, Employment Division v. Smith, a case which, for all intents and purposes, undermined the Sherbert Test, a judicial principle which had developed over decades of decisions which held that, broadly speaking, any generally applicable government action which arguably infringed upon the religious practices had to demonstrate a "compelling state interest" for doing so. As has been widely noted in the scholarly literature, Scalia's opinion essentially read the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause as a "Free Belief Clause"--that is, following Employment Division v. Smith, you had a constitutional right to believe whatever you wanted, but no constitutional guarantee whatsoever of ever being therefore allowed to do or not do something in accordance with that belief.

Fourth, Waddoups claims that, in attacking Reynolds as bad law, his opinion nonetheless does not have any negative implications for Employment Division's limiting of religious exceptions, because one can see in Scalia's use of the notion of "hybrid rights" sufficient cause to support his original opinion, completely aside from his use of Reynolds as a controlling precedent. Count me as dubious of that claim. Waddoups himself makes use of the Supreme Court's Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah decision to get around Employment Division and emphasize the importance of demonstrating a "compelling state interest" if the criminalizing of cohabitation under Utah's particular statute was to be defended, and while he sees the plaintiffs in this case as being able to make use of the "hybrid rights" doctrine in making their argument (that is, they aren't just invoking the Free Exercise Clause, but multiple other constitutionally protected liberties as well), he admits that it's not a very useful or clear doctrine, requiring separate judgments about what liberties, beyond the free exercise of one's religious beliefs, constitute a "colorable claim." I suspect that there is at least a moderately good case that this decision will give opponents of Employment Division the leeway to push back in the direction of the Sherbert Test when it comes to religious exercises which run counter to generally applicable laws. And good for them!

But what does that have to do the Affordable Care Act? Only that, fifth, there is--I think, anyway--a better than even chance that, should the above reading of Judge Waddoups's decision be taken seriously, if could have significant consequences for the legal arguments likely to come before the Supreme Court when it hears Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores next year. That case is entirely tied up with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a piece of legislation designed explicitly to re-instate the religious privileges which Employment Division, following Reynolds, put a big question mark beside. I've no sympathy whatsoever for the idea that for-profit corporations should be able to collectively claim the same sort of First Amendment religious freedoms and rights which individual citizens can, but unfortunately, for reasons I've explained before, I continue to believe (like dozens of decidedly non-paranoid religious organizations and universities across the country) that the contraception mandate needs some further qualifying and pushing back. For all the arguments, in the name of equal coverage, which can be made in its defense, the arguments for preserving the power of religious bodies, however constituted, to be able to fully define themselves, up to the limit of "compelling state interests" to the contrary, are in my view stronger. I'm fully aware that, in light of the near unanimity of the practices in question, and in light of the large number already existing state laws which mandate the same thing of insurance providers which operate in their borders, this debate can seem terribly narrow-minded, to say nothing of misogynist. But so long as we have--stupidly!--employer-provided medical insurance, the standardization of insurance policies will entangle those employers, even if only symbolically, with agendas not necessarily of their own choosing--and I tend to feel that doing damage to a religious organization's ability to define itself, in the name of something relatively non-compelling (given the affordability and accessibility of means of contraception) just isn't worth it.

And so, sixth, this makes for situation that provides some potentially dramatic outcomes for the Affordable Care Act, one way or another. Should the Supreme Court be persuaded even marginally by post-Brown v. Buhman arguments of the sort that I mention above (which can't be guaranteed, since Scalia, as an obvious and unapologetic opponent of the law, would find himself in a position of being able to attack the ACA only by agreeing with an attack upon an opinion which he wrote!), the result could be spun politically as a major defeat for the law as a whole. But an equally plausible possible outcome, and one I would greatly prefer, would be the administration to recognize the changing legal landscape regarding religious exceptions, spin their battle before the Supreme Court as a necessary step to get some "clarity" in the law, and then promptly--with a show of politically well-timed back-handed gratitude--recognize that the mandate would have to be significantly altered if it is to be made compatible with what some shadowy return to Sherbert Test standards would necessitate for insurance-providers with some religious entanglement, thus significantly minimizing certain (particularly Catholic) organizations' frustration with the law. This would allow its defenders to go into the election season of 2014 talking about the law's actual progress and genuine complications, and not about a bitter fight which the administration should have never opened the door to in the first place.

 Likely? Probably not--I mean, like I really know anything about the law at all. But still, I can see this decision coming out of Utah upsetting the chess board a little bit--and who knows where other players, given the already ongoing high-stakes game over religious exemptions, will move their pieces now?

Saturday Night Live Music: "Love Came Down at Christmas"

A great, short-and-sweet recording of Jars of Clay playing this wonderful Christmas tune:

A Semester of Teaching Sustainability

[Cross-Posted to Front Porch Republic]

The semester has come to an end here at Friends University, and students are leaving campus for their holiday break. Right now I'm grading, and while I have many tests to grade, none interest me quite as much as the exams turned in for "Simplicity and Sustainability" course which I taught for the second time this semester. I gave my students questions on the readings we've discussed--the writings of E.F. Schumacher, Herman Daly and John Cobb, and many others--but more importantly, I asked them to go beyond the questions, and use the essay portions of the exam to reflect upon alternative forms of social and economic organization. That was the focus on the course, after all--to consider, criticize, and comment upon the range of possibilities available to those who truly wish to make their livelihoods, their lifestyles, and their neighborhoods both simpler (meaning, most essentially, more readily available to and responsive to their own collective efforts, rather being dependent upon inaccessible systems beyond their reach) and more sustainable (that is, less exploitative of the resources, both human and natural, upon which all communities are built). That such possibilities are available is the primary reason why I teach this course, as well as try to bring similar insights into as many different classes I teach as possible. While I love taking students out to visit local farmers and producers (as the above sign, kindly provided by Phil and Lucy Nisly, one of the great localists I've gotten to know here in south-central Kansas, plainly shows)--some alternatives are much closer (both in distance, and in terms of social and economic change) than that.

Early in the semester, I stopped by the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and spent a while familiarizing myself with some of the work which this decade-old organization--a non-profit corporation which works with local businesses, developers, and government agencies, using money raised through a mutual improvement district which all the downtown business pay into--thinks about making a mid-sized city like Wichita more sustainable. There's actually been a fair amount of activity on this front; Wichita, KS, was chosen as one of the cities which the Urban Sustainability Accelerator, a program at Portland State University, would focus on turning 2013-2014, with plans to bring together various actors to get ideas (and funds) generated to push forward more green and more localized development in some key parts of our city. This led, in turn, to city planners and transportation experts from various local organizations and government agencies to visit the class, and lay out what concerns them most. Some major worries: include that cities like Wichita--like too many other mid-sized cities--suffer from an inferiority complex of sorts, such that home developers can almost always count on city officials to throw in "special assessments" to lure home developers to expand their footprint and keep housing costs relatively low; that the expansive footprint of the city contributes to an overemphasis on continually develop and expand our primarily roadways, assuming that such suburbanization is the only viable model for holding on to our labor pool, thus making it ever harder to push the city itself in the direction of bicycling, walkability, or mass transit; and that, for all these reasons (not to mention several that are probably somewhat particular to the political culture of this part of Kansas), the very word "sustainability" moves even non-Tea Party types to immediately think in hysterical terms of socialist government planning, rampaging secularism, and the United Nations taking over the country. So some other term is necessary to clear the air (I'm told that folks down in Waco, TX, dealing with similar paranoid resistance to citizens organizing themselves to promote local goods through planning, have come to speak solely of "stewardship" or "creation care." Whatever works, I guess.)

When looking at moving such a large entity--and of course, the largeness of even a city like Wichita depends upon one's frame of reference--as Wichita in a "simplifying" direction, you need to begin from below, as well as above. And so we also continued the on-again, off-again conversation which we've had here at Friends for a while about a community garden. Rebecca McMahon--whose expertise as a county extension agent is hardly elitist, but rather very much part of the effort to get all of us more engaged in our own food supply--made two visits to Friends University, to talk with us about various strategies. With the input of the nearby Northfield School, and the example of some other local gardeners, with any luck a few of us, students and staff and faculty, are moving towards adding a small but sustainable contributor to Friends University's local ecosystem--and giving our local community greater opportunity to get back to the earth at the same time.

If there was any single overriding theme to our class this semester, it was the question of scale--whether working from the bottom or the top, we have to be able to think clearly about what is about the social and economic organizations that we focused upon which we wanted to simplify, or make more sustainable. When is tending to the local the proper route to take, and when is taking broad and radical stands? And can you do both at once? Bill McKibben, the famed environmentalist, author, and challenger of our all-growth-all-the-time economy, argues in his latest book that you can. As for myself, I'm not sure--though it may be that, in out globalized world, you can't effectively choose not to. Certainly that was the point McKibben made when he visited Watermark Books here in Wichita this semester--the local (in his case, learning to keep bees) has been utterly changed by national and international forces rampaging across the planet, and so nothing less than equally broad and radical actions--which McKibben, a retiring and bookish person at heart, has found himself spearheading through his 350.Org campaign--are called for. I and several of my students went to hear him speak, and I can't deny: he's a persuasive man, who wants people to understand that we need to simplify and scale back the entire global oil economy, if we want to keep our communities sustainable in the long run.

McKibben probably isn't wrong--but neither is his radicalism particularly hopeful, or joyful. And what is the point of living a life that is more local and more truly one's own, if such simplification doesn't bring any more joy and contentment into your life? Which is why I was grateful, once again, to be able to make use of the wisdom and generosity of multiple farmers and producers near Wichita, most especially the Hershberger family, Leroy and his parents, who have opened up their home multiple times to these "Local Food Tours" that I organize. The comfort, pride, and love that they have for their particular place--the farmland of Reno County, and the Amish, Mennonite, and other Christian folk that have grown up in (or have left and then later returned) to that place to work the land and trade with and teach one another--is reflected in their language, their families, the attachments, and not least their food. (Who knew that butternut squash pie could taste so fine? I certainly didn't.) Repeatedly through our tour that day, we were taught, by word and by example, that the quest for greater personal and collective responsibility over those things which are most properly one's own--food, shelter, family, livelihood, community, and so forth--is one which requires constant "tendance," to use a term which the political theorist Sheldon Wolin developed long ago: one must become deeply familiar with, and committed to, ones limits, and think about what needs to be done in accordance with them. How to make use of this land? How best to raise these chickens? How can I adapt to specializing in a different crop? How can I pass this down to my children, and their children after them? How can I prevent myself, as I make decisions about schooling and budgeting and my faith life, from being "encumbered" by this world? This requires time, memory, and affection. Wendell Berry calls it "local knowledge," and the people who we visited, particularly the Hershbergers, clearly had it in spades. It is unlikely that anyone who takes seriously a more or less agrarian way of life can truly be without such. And yet, for all the legitimate reasons we might have to be suspicious of ever-expanding and ever-complicating logic of urban life, it would be wrong to say that city planners and gardening experts and transportation designers that visited my class were without such knowledge as well. True, they may not have been deeply focused on building an alternative form of social and economic organization, but they surely did have an often quite intimate grasp of the urban and environmental issue which face Wichita's residents, one that can only come from tending to a place--and as such, they may well be capable of asking the sorts of questions about sustainability and scale that, I think at least (and hopefully at least some of my class thinks as well), need to be asked.

The great problem which always faces any attempt to talk about--much less teach a class about!--how recognizing psychological, economic, and environmental limits may enable us to think less technologically, and more holistically, about slowing down and simplifying and making ours a more sustainable way of life, is the tendency to want more than "tendance" as a support for our efforts. More than "merely" tending to one's garden, we wish to deal with the larger threats to said garden. And we need to! But of course, any departure from our place to addressing larger issues is inevitably reductive of the place we've left--and reductivity is exactly the wrong kind of simplicity that we should seek. Real local, sustainable knowledge is diverse and changing, like the natural world: its simplicity comes in our structuring our lives and vocations to be near it, not in methodological homogenizing of it from afar. There is no simple answer here--real simplicity, the kind that can make for a more secure and joyful life, remains a pretty complicated affair. I'm grateful, though, that some continue to seek it--and by so doing, help me and my student learn more about the choices that we face, in an ever-more pressing fashion, each and every day.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Why I Like Popes (Some of Them, Sometimes)

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2001. I didn't take any notice--but then, I'm neither Catholic, nor from Argentina. (Of the tens of millions of people who do fit that description, the word is quite a few of them noticed it very much.) Perhaps I should have, though, because one of the most important things John Paul II did during his 26+ years as the Bishop of Rome (the second-longest period of service in all of Catholic history) was bring into the College of Cardinals large numbers of bishops whom he trusted to carry forward the church in a manner that he understood to be where the Holy Spirit was calling it. And Francis, the current Roman Pontiff and now Time Magazine's Person of the Year, is certainly a servant of God very much after the pattern of John Paul the Great.

The popular acclaim which Francis has received (particularly in social media) would seem to suggest otherwise. JPII--and Benedict XVI after him--were, so the story goes, "conservatives," Christian leaders obsessed with sexual sins and papal authority. By contrast Francis, the "people's pope," the Jesuit, the man who worked in the slums of Buenos Aires, is different--he's leaving private matters alone, and taking the fight for righteousness directly to those political and economic Powers That Be, the Masters of Capitalism, who are most responsible for the injustice in the modern world. Yee-haw!

Of course, anyone even minimally familiar with how these sorts of news stories are enabled and kicked around in the mass media recognizes that what we're seeing here is the usual cycle of celebratory over-reaction, followed by hysterical over-denunciation. Damon Linker, among others, has noted that Francis is hardly a revolutionary, and that the real significance of his papacy will be whether he can rhetorically and organizationally plant seeds that might sprout in unexpected doctrinal and ecclesiastical ways decades and centuries hence. In the short term, then, all we have really before us is Francis's public words, and the tone by which he utters them. And, as best as I can tell, what he's saying sounds a lot like the man who made him a cardinal over a decade ago.

Nearly two decades ago, in 1994, Time Magazine declared John Paul II as their "Man of the Year" (gender awareness in the office's of Time was still a few years away). I remember buying the magazine, clipping the front cover, and framing it; it hung in our apartment (Melissa and I had been married just over a year at that point) for years. Why did I do that? Because John Paul II was a hero of mine. It was a long time before I could articulate as well as I perhaps can today why I felt that way (graduate school--at Catholic University of America, as it happened--was still in my future), but if I was asked, I probably would have said something like this: because he insists that Christian morality has a place at the civil table. And not just a "place" as a private scold or a convenient party member or an outsider calling us to our better natures whom we can safely ignore, but as a participant, with a public agenda that connected the teachings of Jesus to the present moment. Under John Paul II the Vatican was a major player in the final death-throws of Soviet communism--and yet, for all the ways the National Review fell all over the man, he looked every bit askance at Western and capitalist triumphalism as Francis does today. Don't believe me? So I assume you've forgotten "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis" ("On Social Concern"), which JPII penned to commemorate the 20th anniversary of "Populorum Progressio," Pope Paul IV's classic document of Catholic social justice teachings? Here's JPII, lowering the boom:

It is necessary to state once more the characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine: the goods of this world are meant for all. The right to private property is valid and necessary, but it does not nullify the value of this principle. Private property, in fact, is under a "social mortgage," which means that it has an intrinsically social function, based upon and justified precisely by the principle of the universal destination of goods....The motivating concern for the poor--who are, in the very meaningful term, "the Lord's poor"--must be translated at all levels into concrete actions, until it decisively attains a series of necessary reforms. Each local situation will show what reforms are most urgent and how they can be achieved. But those demanded by the situation of international imbalance, as already described, must not be forgotten. (SRS 6.42-43)

Which really, isn't very different from what Francis has written in "Evangelii Gaudium" ("The Joy of the Gospel"):

The word "solidarity" is a little worn and at times poorly understood, but it refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity. It presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few....Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them. These convictions and habits of solidarity, when they are put into practice, open the way to other structural transformations and make them possible. Changing structures without generating new convictions and attitudes will only ensure that those same structures will become, sooner or later, corrupt, oppressive and ineffectual. (EG 4.2.188-189)

In short, the message of both men is the same thing that had made me, twenty years ago, a fan of the papacy, or at least of some of the inhabitants of that office, and of some of the things they say. Because Catholicsm--or at least Catholic Social Justice teachings as they have developed in modern times, to be precise--insists that Christianity brings with it to the table of civil discussion a moral platform, one with explicit political and economic dimensions. The American Christian (and Mormon) conservatism I grew up surrounded by had no problem claiming to itself the prerogative to speak out in the first of those dimensions, at least in a limited way: you know, abortion, homosexuality, feminism, the whole culture war/Moral Majority rigamarole. The message of the popes is, or at least can be, different--it can be a message which insists that Christianity charity does not simply mean individual generosity, but rather is a call to structure whole economies so that the welfare of the poor takes priority. Christian righteousness includes the unborn and the unemployed, sexual fidelity to one's spouse and solidarity with those who labor, equality in the eyes of God and in terms of education and economic empowerment. Jesus's message, in short, is one that demands justice and dignity for all from the whole culture, since it is, ultimately, one "seamless garment." That phrase has come in for much abuse over the years, and remains contentious today, in Catholic circles and beyond, even as it has continued to be affirmed by the Vatican. I don't agree with every aspect of that teaching; like any other platform, it can become an excuse for idolatry. But overall, as I became aware of it years ago through the example and work and teachings of JPII, I came to realize that there was a platform out there upon which someone like myself--a pro-life socialist, a left communitarian, a populist egalitarian who is also something of a cultural conservative--could stand. And for that, I was grateful.

So now Francis I is Pope, and also Time Magazine's Person of the Year (apparently, the problem with gender exclusiveness finally dawned on them at some point in the past two decades), and I'm delighted. Francis has shown himself to be a profound and dedicated man, whose uncompromising social justice rhetoric--perhaps more pointed now, coming as it does from the mind and lips of a man from the southern hemisphere, and man who has grown into his present stature as an archbishop and cardinal without the Cold War looming over his every word--is something that in a world which still hasn't recovered from the appalling financial criminality and stupidity of 2008 needs to hear. And keep in mind that, as he reminds us again and again, to put the poor front and center in our Christian thinking is nothing more or less than to proclaim the Good News--indeed, the greatest Good News of all. As Time reported:

The script falls to his lap and he leans forward, looks out over the crowd and just starts talking, his hands in the air, his voice stronger now, doing his own call and response. Jesus is risen, and so shall we be one day, he tells them. And as though they might not quite grasp the implication, he pushes them: “But this is not a lie! This is true!” he says. “Do you believe that Jesus is alive? Voi credete?” “Yes!” the crowd calls back, and he asks again, “Don’t you believe?” “Yes,” they cry. And now he has them. They have become part of the message. He talks about Christ’s love like a man who has found something wondrous and wants nothing more than to share it. “He is waiting for us,” Francis says. And when he comes to the end of his homily, the script drops once more. “This thought gives us hope! We are on the way to the Resurrection. And this is our joy: one day find Jesus, meet Jesus and all together, all together--not here in the square, the other way--but joyful with Jesus. This is our destiny.”

I'm a Mormon (though, truth be told, doctrinally probably more Lutheran than LDS) who rejects as plain unscriptural a large amount of Catholic dogma. (Infant baptism, the intercession of saints, transubstantiation, etc.) But the Catholic tradition presents an understanding of Christian ethics and economic and political concern which has an intellectual comprehensiveness and--I think, anyway--a moral persuasiveness that dwarfs anything that Mormonism (particularly in light of the unfortunate cultural influence of western American libertarian attitudes over the past half-century) has yet managed to articulate. And that part of the tradition, as laid out by the popes, I believe. Maybe someday us Mormons will have Dorothy Days and Sargent Shrivers of our own (we've come close at least once or twice), but in the meantime, as a Christian, I have Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Francis, carrying a torch, passed down to him by his papal predecessors, that illuminates, on Jesus's behalf, much that I see. And thank God for that.