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Thursday, May 28, 2015

A Presidential Proposal Worthy of the Porch

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

The blogger, pundit, screenwriter, and all-around mensch Noah Millman has come up with a brilliant idea--Bernie Sanders, U.S. Senator from Vermont, and Jim Webb, former U.S. Senator from Virginia, both of whom (the first officially, the second unofficially) are part of that small mix of people who at least theoretically stand between Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party's presidential nomination, ought to meet together for some debates. Whether or not Clinton participates. Whether or not it connects either candidate to the actual caucus and primary machinery which will be slowly creaking to life over the next several months. Whether or not it makes a difference to Clinton's almost inevitable coronation in Philadelphia 14 months from now. They should debate, Noah says, because it would "educational and politically important" for people to see just how often these two men from supposedly opposite wings of the Democratic party--the first a self-proclaimed democratic socialist and progressive, the second a populist defender of the party's blue-collar base--actually agree. This is the sort of idea which any Porcher--that is, anyone who cares about local places, local traditions, and local democracy, whether they do so for radical or reactionary reasons or both--ought to wildly applaud.

Why? Let's lay out the obvious caveats. Yes, it's true that anyone who really takes the cultural and communitarian work of building up localism seriously can't care too much about who resides in the White House--a little, of course (the actions or inactions of the person at the top of our ever-more-dysfunctional national government can nonetheless enable or squelch any number of locally-experienced blessings or harms), but not much more than that. And yes, it's also true that, given the role of big money, big media, and other establishment forces in the presidential selection process, urging a couple of probably easily marginalized voices in a mainstream political party to spend their campaign time arguing with each other could seem the very definition of a boutique political program. But despite those good reasons to set Noah's suggestion aside, I think there is--particularly for those who, like me, find the find America's increasingly oligarchic and imperial corporate state deeply threatening to the kind of humane and empowering governance that democracy really ought to be all about--a much more important reason to use whatever tiny influence we have to urge his proposal forward: because there is, buried under mainstream state liberalism, a left conservative stream in American thought, and it would be delightful to bring together two spokesmen who, however imperfectly, can point to it.

What is that "left conservatism"? I've written plenty about it before; suffice to say that Norman Mailer got it mostly right: it is the idea that achieving Burkean ends (protecting and promoting the families and communities that are the repositories of those traditions which give richness to civic life) will require a Marxist perspective (particularly regarding the alienating and exploitative social power of concentrated wealth which capitalism fundamentally accepts as legitimate). Why might Sanders and Webb have something to contribute to that possibility? Because, as Jack Ross and Damon Linker have pointed out, Sanders's embrace of policies like a single-payer health care system, or the public financing of elections, or more government regulation and spending to combat burgeoning inequality, serves Jeffersonian purposes, one which points not towards today's economically centrist and culturally radical Democratic party, but rather towards "the original middle American radical Eugene V. Debs and the quintessential progressive isolationist Norman Thomas." (Sanders is hardly a Marxist revolutionary, but he does give voice to economic complaints which America's gospel of growth considers utterly heretical. When he harshly criticized economic priorities which celebrate "23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers" but do almost nothing to prevent environmental destruction and the concentration of wealth, the libertarian/free-market/rational-choice punditocracy went completely apoplectic, assuming that only a drooling moron could possibly fail to recognize that it is exactly consumer maximization which supposedly fuels the engines of self-interest and thus economic development...leaving completely aside, of course, the small point--pun intended!--that perhaps consumer efficiency isn't all it's cracked up to be.)

And as for Webb? Some elements of his populist positions are arguably even more radical than Sanders's, because--as a comparison of their voting records and official statements makes clear--Webb is even a stronger opponent of the surveillance state, imperial overreach, unnecessary military action, and all the other elements of America's superpower costuming than just about anyone else on the Democratic side of the aisle. (In fact, Webb is perhaps even stronger on this point than libertarian Republican hopeful Rand Paul.) Perhaps this is because he isn't approaching such matters primarily from an intellectual or ideological perspective, but rather one born of his commitment to attending to that which is most local to him: those aspects of the American experience--its people, its places, its institutions--that are not well served or defended by constantly identifying distant threats to globalized commitments, whether military or economic. Does that make Webb parochial, perhaps even defensive, in a country so thoroughly pluralistic? Perhaps. But as admitted Jim Webb fan-boy Millman put it, imagining Webb's response to the culture way questions which would invariably haunt anyone seeking the Democratic party's nomination (Webb has been critical of affirmative action and other race-based civil rights proposals), "I am not running to make the Democratic Party more appealing to people who look like me, or who have my cultural background. I became a Democrat because I realized that the Democratic Party already held the best promise of standing for ordinary Americans, and for rejecting the kinds of policies, foreign and domestic, that have done them so much harm. And I’m running for President to make sure the Democratic nominee keeps that promise."

Principled localists can be forgiven for reading that comment and dismissing it--as well as all the intriguing ideas being tossed around by Sanders's people--as just words. For certain, taking too seriously the claims and proposals of people whose passion and ambition and connections lead them to believe they can throw their hat into America's largest political ring of all is a sure route to disappointment--and for people who want to keep our eyes on local threats and local possibilities, it threatens to be a distraction too. But distracting as it may be, the presidency really does matter. And that means, at the very minimum, that calling for those determined to win that prize to fact genuinely challenging conversations and arguments along their way matters as well. Millman is, I think, not much of a friend to the whole Porcher idea, but he's suggesting a development here which anyone who is attracted to the notion of conserving and empowering lives lived in part on one's front porch, with one's family, in one's neighborhood, ought to support. Good for him--and good for Sanders and Webb doing what they can, however indirectly or unintentionally, for the left conservative cause as well.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "I Like to Live the Love"

I saw B.B. King once, at Snowbird Resort in Utah, in 1992 I think. He was the concluding act of a big blues tour, and the penultimate performer was Buddy Guy, who utterly tore the place to pieces, walking among the audience with his electric guitar, wailing away like nobody’s business. Compared to him, King, who came on with his own big band, seemed staid and unexciting. I didn’t stay through his whole set—-and really, I probably should have. Who knows what musical memories I missed being able to make that night? Ah well, time wears us all down, eventually. R.I.P., Mr. King.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Hanging Out with, and Learning from, Some Thoroughly Material Benedictines

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

A few weeks ago I was able to, once again, do something that I enjoy doing immensely--take a group of students out on a local food tour, so they can learn firsthand about more sustainable approaches to building well-fed, healthy communities. Our hosts were the Elder family, and from them--or at least a portion of them: mother Becky, father Philip, son George, and daughter Alexis, to be specific--we were taught about the seasonal economics of blackberries, about some of the latest technological innovations in organic vegetable gardening, about the necessity of horses, about the political importance of small farms, and much more. Through it all, though, as we inquired about different types of lettuce, did some comparison tasting of goat's milk, and helped rescue a 4-month-old colt who'd gotten herself trapped under a fence, I kept thinking about something entirely different: Rod Dreher's "Benedict Option."

Amongst certain localist and conservative bloggers, Rod's arguments about the importance (sometimes he presents it as the necessity) of those who hold to traditional understandings of the Christian message to find ways to organize themselves separate from the usual--and what was at least for a long time nominally Christian--forms of civic and commercial and church life in America have sparked a great deal of debate in recent months. What would be involved in such separation, and what's the reason for it, and how will we know it when (or if) we ever see it? Rod, to his credit, hasn't presented himself as possessing any comprehensive answers to those questions--but it is pretty clear that his ideas are tending in a direction that Ken Myers described in an old lecture (which Rod extensively quoted from) as "moral and metaphysical." Or, to put in a slightly lengthier format, Rod seems to be coming around to seeing the argument for communities to root themselves in traditions and practices that keep them at least somewhat separate from the secular, commercial world as eschewing any kind of aspiration to a material permanence. As he wrote in response to Bruce Frohnen, who thoughtfully challenged Rod for relying, in his view, too much a kind of agrarian sentimentality, "I realize now that the best we can hope for in the world of America 2015 is to settle among people who love us, and whom we can love, and where we can worship God and do good work." Which is a beautiful vision, to be sure! But I wonder if in putting it that way, the argument for separateness is being undermined, however slightly.

Rod has visited the Elder's homestead--dubbed "Elderslie"--with me before. When he was here last year, Becky (who has been greatly impressed with Rod's work on behalf of explaining the importance of being rooted in one's place) showed off what she and her family have managed to build over the decades--farming properties, an independent school, a small milling business, a shared congregation, a sustainable network of local commercial producers of fruit, flowers, and more--and exclaimed "This is the Benedict Option!" I've no doubt he would still agree. But Elderslie is not centrally a congregational endeavor; their church life is a big part of what they have built, but the Elders and those who work with them and teach with them see themselves as attached to a much larger classical intellectual tradition, one that is clearly Christian but which is also just as clearly aimed at responding to matters of physical and environmental health, economic and educational independence, and fulfilling, socially contributing work. It is, in short, an act of resistance to that individualism which has, I would agree, warped our economic and environmental and social existence. To describe that kind of separateness as something which is motivated primarily by a congregational desire (to worship among like-minded folk, and preserve the attachments which make such worship meaningful!) would be reductive, I think.

Alan Jacobs refers to the Benedict Option as putting its priority on Christian "culture-making" and enabling those concerned about the values of the Christian tradition to be "fully shaped....by the Christian account of things." Again, for people like myself who care about tradition, that's a vital and inspiring point. But is thinking hard about how to build and preserve the roots of--and the socio-economic and legal space for--a culture mostly a (as Rod sometimes seems to suggest) liturgical phenomenon? Perhaps you could argue that Elderslie and other family and community operations like it really are "liturgical" in some sense, because their direct engagement in the practices that keep them going really do result in a kind of discipline and ritual to their lives. If so, then I suspect that the Benedict Option which has struck me as a needful way of helping to shape how we think about community in the 21st century will only grow more convincing in my mind. But if not--if Rod's Benedict Option really is, essentially, about protecting the "church of Jesus Christ," as Alan put it--then I think, at least right now, that it's allowing current arguments about religious liberty to narrow its focus too much (though Rod is, clearly, still thinking about this stuff, writing recently that "the Benedict Option is far more a response to pervasive consumerism, individualism, and atomism than anything to do with gay rights," which I think puts things right).

Rod has insisted, in response to Frohnen, that he's not an agrarian--and of course, that's true. But Frohnen has a point, I think--whether or not Rod's thinking about the Benedict Option currently points him this directly, I suspect (and I have written before) that it is very difficult to get to the kind lasting, sustainable separateness which he thinks (and I at least partly agree) is needed if those traditions supportive Christian virtues are to be fully lived and inculcated into one's children without at least some kind of anti-capitalist, agrarian mentality. Becky Elder took the time to preach to my students for a short time about Andrew Lytle, one of the Southern Agrarians, and his important essay "The Small Farm Secures the State"--one of the essential 20th-century Jeffersonian declarations against an economy based on distant specialization, monopolistic centralization, and all things big. If we don't, in our innumerable and diverse ways, seek to enable our families and communities and co-ops to become more capable of feeding themselves, then a pattern of dependency inevitably follows. Honestly, just how far could any church group go in building for itself a genuinely separate cultural track if the individuals who make up that group ultimately, fundamentally, have no real independence in their livelihood, in making the money to put food in their own and their children's mouths? Will liturgy suffice if your boss changes your shift to Sunday, religious liberty be damned? Will a strong pastor be enough to provide an education which reflects Christian priorities when all the families in the congregation are too busy to volunteer to help out in classes, because food costs and health care costs and mortgages require every family send both spouse out into the work force full-time?

I don't throw these out as gotcha questions, suggesting that there is something essential and obvious being overlooked here. On the contrary, smart conservatives and localists and radicals have looked exhaustively into these questions, struggling to find ways to respond to them as part of their pursuit of, or defense of, an at least partially Christian culture. The answers have ran the gamut, touching on all manner of technological, economic, ecclesiastical, and political constructs. Mediating institutions of various scales all potentially play a role in allowing this aim to be achieved, as are any number of different sorts of progressive compromises. (For the Elders, it's striking how sophisticated they've become in judging the ability of various markets to support their agricultural or material products so as to give them the resources they need, recognizing that there are some things that can be done very well organically--and profitably--here in south-central Kansas, and quickly seeking out alternative approaches, even international or high-end technological ones, when that isn't the case.) To the extent the Benedict Option is yet another engagement with these questions, perhaps one more particular to a time when traditional Christian cultural assumptions are fading away, it's a necessary addition to the communitarian and localist toolkit. But to rush past all this vital, practical, material work, and cast the Benedict Option as an imperative act of moral or metaphysical sanctuary in the face of the collapse of Christianity itself...that, I think, just misses the trees for the forest, if you know what I mean. (I should note that it's possible I can speak this way, wanting to push the particular and local mechanics rather than clutching at the biggest themes, because I simply don't see the "collapse of Christianity" happening at all, not one bit. Yes, strong protections of religious liberty and certain tax and legal privileges enjoyed by Christian institutions have been, I think, of tremendous civic benefit in American history, and deserve to be fought for--but it's not like their loss in a more secular America would equal some kind of Christian Armageddon, unless one happens to believe, as I presume the Francophile Rod does not, that France with its laïcité is a formally oppressive and persecuting anti-Christian society. As in many things, I agree with Damon Linker here.)

If it's not obvious, I need to say explicitly: this is a disagreement over how one formulates priorities, not about the end goal. So I'll continue to read Rod, because he's one of the best and most important public voices dealing with these matters. Who knows what he--or I--will decide as time and arguments continue? Perhaps he'll come to recognize what I see as the foremost need to explore specific and sustainable material and economic arrangements as part of following lead of St. Benedict, or perhaps I'll come to agree with him that, ultimately, building up liturgical defenses of various metaphysical truths is only separateness that really, fundamentally matters. Or maybe we'll both change our minds somewhat. It's not as though any of the long lines of discussion and social organization which have kept alive humane concerns with community and culture-building in the midst of modern, secular liberalism--and here we can think of the Catholic Worker movement, Amish congregations, classically-oriented independent schools, and many more--have ever come to an end, saying that they've worked out the One True Way to attend to permanent things. And of course, in the midst of all this intellectual debate, folks like the Elders keep on experimenting and working, building their own Benedictine path. I'm grateful that they're around so that I can learn from them, and share with those I teach their ideas....and, last but not least, enjoy the delicious material bounties that they produce as well.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Top Ten Reasons I Have to Say, as of Next Wednesday: Thanks, Dave.

Next week, David Letterman will host his final show. And so, of course, there are numerous tributes to be found all over the internet. Do I have one? Well, I'm a 46-year-old white American male who was raised in (despite milking the cows and hauling the hay bales) essentially middle- and upper-middle class suburban surroundings. So, really, how could I not have one? So here it is, in appropriately Dave Lettermanish fashion:

1) The attached image here says it all: my David Letterman, as with so many others of my age, was the cynical--but usually not surly--and mocking--but usually not mean-spirited--Letterman of the 1980s. I've told the story before, how Late Night with David Letterman was my close of the day, my dose of perspective, my way to learning, night after night, how to take up the news and catastrophes and confusions of the day and see them in a skewed, ridiculous, and in that way a somewhat more truthful light. Dave was never political, not really, but his goofball, borderline-but-never-entirely bitter, always-winking, smart-ass sensibility was probably as important to my whole sense of the forces and structures which shape our social world(s) as any philosophy or theory I've ever read. Others made jokes about the news; Dave showed the joke that was in the news. And that mattered.

2) Was Dave an ironist? I'm not sure. I suppose, if smirking sarcastically and cracking wise about the affairs of the day passes for a poor definition of "irony," then I guess the label fits. But I see huge differences between the liberal or progressive court jesters of the past decade or two--the Jon Stewarts, the Stephen Colberts, the Bill Mahers, the John Olivers--and Dave, because Dave (as this magazine cover from 1990 brilliantly, snarkily conveyed) never even pretended to be engaged in critique: there was no authentic sincerity about his program at all, no structural seriousness, and thus no reason to see his nightly goofing on the televised world around us as in any way attempting to poach the sort of earnestness which a different, more critical kind of irony might involve (which has been one of the running debates about Jon Stewart for years, of course).

3) Of course, for all of the above reasons, those very, very rare occasions when Dave got actually serious were (despite the manifest artificiality of a freaking television show) moving and believable in a way that few things I've ever seen through the television screen could be. The most obvious example here is what I called "the greatest video text of 9/11"--but there have been other examples as well.

4) Speaking of the fact that Dave was hosting a "freaking television show," let's not forget that, long before internet virality became the measure of a late night comedian's success, Dave and his crew expertly mocked the whole gestalt of television. Let's put a tv show "in convenient book form!" (And, I can testify, an astonishingly cheap and shoddily produced book form at that; whole pages started to fall out only days after I bought my copy.) But that, of course, only scratches the surface. Let's do the show from an airplane! Let's rotate the camera! The possibilities were endless--and during Dave's nutty, borderline-UHF, 80s-phase, that's pretty much what the results turned out to be.

5) As best as I could tell from my read-the-New-York-Times-at-the-library-and-watch-Peter-Jennings-on-the-news-and-the-McLaughlin-Group-on-Fridays environment growing up in Spokane, Washington, most of those who entertained us and spoke to us with authority through the major media organs of the 1980s aspired to non-specificity, a kind of cosmopolitan condescension. Dave, on the other hand, or at least as he appeared to me in the mid- to late-1980s, was definitely, resolutely a creature of New York City, taking the camera to Grand Central Station and Central Park and seeming very much a part of a distant, mysterious, cool world, one that I was sure, at that age, that I wanted to be a part of. (One of the Top Ten lists from back then, involving cheap entertainment in New York City, included the suggestion "Throw rocks at Chrysler building and wait for old man Chrysler to come out and chase you away"--which was so farcically nuts that it has stayed with me and still sometimes cracks me up decades later.) So, given all this, why wouldn't the Avengers want to visit with David Letterman? I mean, they're all New Yorkers, right? (Though I think this issue was probably my introduction to Dave, since I think I didn't start actually watching the show until 1984 or so.)

6) I forgot to mention: I didn't just read the New York Times at the library and watch all those news and commentary shows--I also never missed 60 Minutes. Which meant the fact that those reporters could get in on Dave's jokes was just geeky delight to me.

7) Let's not forget, though: he was actually very good at the primary job talk show hosts have: setting up his celebrity guests so they can tell their funny stories to maximum effect. ("YOU'RE BENDIN' THE SHAFTS!! STOP BENDIN' THE SHAFTS!!")

8) He was also endless grateful to those who made his career possible, and the heroes of comedy who had come before him. His honoring of Johnny Carson bordered on hagiography at times...but it was deserved.

9) And as for making horrible (or at least unrehearsed and lame) material presented on bad nights pretty ridiculously hilarious nonetheless, the man was shameless master.

10) And...I can't think of anything else. Which means, I suppose, that the whole Top Ten format was a silly idea, don't you think? But Dave and his writers, of course, already knew that:

Top 10 Reasons to Discontinue the Top 10 Lists

10. Snide remarks overheard on elevator
9. Pressure from the big money boys
8. Movie deal not materializing
7. Provides grist for Soviet propaganda mill
6. Affiliates near mutiny
5. Pits brother against brother
4. Looks shabby next to "Soup of the Day"
3. Moving plea from Council of Bishops
2. Complaints of drowsiness
1. Angry letter from Lou Rawls

So thanks, Dave. I haven't regularly watched you in years, but you had me from the mid-80s until the early 90s, and that was more than enough.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Broken Soil, Broken Hearts

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

This week, I prepared our small garden space, as I do every year, for the tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cucumbers, and more than we'll plant in the coming days. It starts with layering on top of the ground wheelbarrows full of freshly composted soil (filled this year, thankfully, with earthworms and grubs), then working it into the dirt, breaking apart the soil and mixing it in with a rototiller. It's a violent process, but with the heavy clay content of our native dirt, it almost always needs to be done.

I always feel a sense of satisfaction and peace when I can look back upon this labor after it's done, even though it's a small and not particularly impressive bit of work. Still, in its little way, it makes me think about the necessary disruptions in any productive life. Sometimes the good that is natural to a thing is best revealed by attending upon its own rhythms and time--but other times, it has to be drawn out, with work. And sometimes, of course, that work is thrust upon us, without our choosing.

I thought about my rototilling in church today. All our regular meetings were cancelled, so we could instead attend a special stake meeting to hear from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland (a leader whom faithful Mormons consider to be one of God's chosen apostles), who ended up--in the midst of mission conferences and other responsibilities--here in Wichita, KS, this Sunday. Holland asked several people to bear their testimony of Christ before him, and then he spoke for a half-hour, picking up on what he felt was an unspoken theme in the others' comments. Launching into a litany of the thousand ways in which we can all feel burdened and broken up by life--haunted by the deaths of loved ones, handicapped by disease, struggling with finances, in despair over the challenges our children face, and so much more--Elder Holland plaintively insisted, again and again: "God loves broken things."

Speaking both theologically and agriculturally, Holland riffed on the great Baptist preacher Vance Havner, and talked about how brokenness was both tragic and essential to our mortal life. How can God not love broken things?, he asked. So much of His creation is broken. It is only from broken clouds that we are able to receive rain for our soil. It is only from broken soil that grain may be grown. It is only from broken grain that bread may be milled. And that bread, once broken, becomes the essential symbol through which we may partake of the Savior's own brokenness upon the cross, reminding ourselves of the broken heart and contrite spirit which we are commanded to seek. That heart, and that spirit, was exemplified by Jesus's own brokenness--what Holland called the Savior's own "contrition," the sorrow He felt, the hurt that God Himself feels, at the inevitable and terrible and fundamental pain and disappointment and disruption of this fallen world.

Opening his scriptures, Holland turned to an old and beloved story, one that fits in well with stories of fallen natures and elemental struggles:

And the same day, when the even was come, he saith unto them, Let us pass over unto the other side.

And when they had sent away the multitude, they took him even as he was in the ship. And there were also with him other little ships.

And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full.

And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish?

And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.

And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?

And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?
(Mark 4: 35-41)

Storms are frightening, for certain, as are traffic accidents, sudden deaths, tragic realizations, disappointing news, economic downturns, unintended catastrophes, unlooked-for diagnoses, and so many other daily instances of brokenness. It would be easy to fall into a simplistic providentialism here, and wait on the healing which God promises to us all--and Elder Holland didn't entirely escape that tendency. But more important was his insistence, as I understood him, that it is not experiencing doubt or anguish or pain which shows a failure to do that work which our own brokenness and the brokenness which we confront in all our friends and families and congregations calls us to perform. It is fear, above all else, that we must seek the faith to overcome. Yes, there is an ultimate healing which awaits those who endure...but more important, I think, is the fact that there is that peace of mind, that solace of feeling--"the peace of God, which passeth all understanding"--which attends those who trust that there is an empathetic, loving God, weeping for and with us through and in the midst of all our storms.

Recently, a young person has come into our family from a background that is commonly referred to--fairly or not--as "broken." She needed a home, we provided one, and now we all find ourselves engaged, without have known what exactly any of us were choosing, in a good deal of sometimes painful and difficult and disruptive work. Perhaps something good and nourishing will grow from this breaking up of our family soil; perhaps we'll find our selves refreshed by the rain which the broken clouds are bringing into our home. Or maybe we'll all just end up muddy and wet. Either way, I took inspiration from Elder Holland's words: to not be fearful, and go about the work we cannot avoid doing, and look for the grace of peace along the way. It is a grace that will be there, in the tilled soil, and in the clearing which follows after every storm. I'm grateful to have been able to learn such things for myself, as I've broken up clods of dirt by hand...but, like everyone else, I need every reminder I can get.