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Thursday, December 30, 2021

The Ten Best Movies I Saw in 2021

As always, these are my choices among all the movies I saw in 2021, not my choices among the all movies released in 2021.

Three of the films I'm ranking as among my ten best for this year are music documentaries constructed out of re-discovered and re-worked existing footage, and of those three, the purest example, the only that works best as a movie, is without a doubt Amazing Grace. Filmed by Sydney Pollack, this movie captured the live recording of Aretha Franklin's famed gospel album of the same name, January 13 and 14, 1972, at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The audio couldn't be synchronized with the visuals, so the tapes were left in a studio vault for 35 years, after which began a 10-year legal battle to get the finished film actually shown. The results are worth the wait. The movie has tremendous music; that's to be expected. Even greater is the fact that it ends up being a tremendous cultural and anthropological and historical document as well, capturing the intense, even pentecostal, spirituality which attended the heady alchemy of spirituals, soul music, and rhythm and blues which could be heard in Black churches throughout the early 1970s. The penultimate number from the second night, "Never Grow Old," shows a Franklin caught up in the spirit, one of the most moving visuals I've ever seen. A great, important film.

Attack the Block is a straight-up fight-the-aliens flick, and it's fabulous. Like all the best genre films of movies sort, it gives us short but persuasive introductions to all the main characters, then throws us directly into the action, which adheres to all sorts of predictable tropes--though giving them all sorts of new life while so doing--but also surprising us with a couple of clever (but not too clever) twists. By the time--less than 80 minutes in!--John Boyega's Moses makes his triumphant, death-risking dash into the aliens' den, you're cheering just like the crowds outside do. I hope the sequel they're talking about actually happens.

One of these years I'll have to break apart this list, and start distinguishing between "best movies" and "best multi-episode visual production," or some such thing (since calling them "television shows" or "miniseries" obviously doesn't work any more). But until then, I have to call The Beatles: Get Back, all nearly 8-hours of it, a movie, and it's an incredible one. No, I won't deny that it probably didn't need to be that long--but what would I have cut? It's hard to say; clearly the 60 hours of footage which Peter Jackson had to work with from the Beatles' original Let it Be sessions included a lot of dross, just random noodling around the studio, and yet setting up the wonderful music and insights of this film perhaps required giving us viewers as exhaustingly immersive an experience as possible. Anyway, more thoughts of mine here; the point is, this is a monument, worthy of the monumental band which it takes as its subject.

Bo Burnham: Inside  is the first video of any sort by Bo Burnham that I've ever seen; I totally missed his YouTube career, and haven't seen any of his comedy specials or any of the movies he has appeared in or made. So why did I watch this? Primarily because, during the summer, our younger daughters, both of whom had seen the movie, watched a long YouTube commentary on the film which they found kind of fascinating, and wanted to show it to me. So that I meant I had to watch the movie in order to watch the commentary, and so I did. And man, was this an eye-opener. There's a profound--if often inchoate--wisdom to Burnham's sometimes hilarious, sometimes kind of horrifying movie, casting already-exhasting topics like performativity and authenticity in the internet age into startlingly new (to me, anyway) contexts, and doing so with such a sharp musical sense.("Welcome to the Internet" is an evil masterpiece.) Weeks after watching it, I couldn't shake some of the questions it made me ask myself, and that's the sign of a great film. (Oh, and the YouTube commenting on the movie was pretty thoughtful too.)

I'm not sure what exactly led me to watch Douglas Sirk's 1959 Imitation of Life, but whatever or whomever it is or they are, I owe them a debt of thanks. Superficially it's a weepy melodrama, with lots of hammy acting and oppressive music cues. But if you're willing and able--as I fortunately was--to turn off the cynicism and just embrace this overripe story, it's actually immensely rich. It's the story of a bi-racial girl who reasonably sees sexual escape as her best route out of the second-class status forced upon her, no matter who it hurts, and of an honestly striving--though still oblivious--career woman who stands up for liberal truths but apparently had no idea her African-American maid had a rich life outside her orbit, and much more. It effectively wraps smart takes on race, art, culture, class, feminism, marriage, and more into its overwrought running time. I kept getting gobsmacked by the ridiculously unsubtle--but still perceptive--turns the script kept taking, one after another. Well worth it.

I'd heard much praise for the original Swedish Let the Right One In over the years; all I can say is that it's all deserved. Such a strange, creeping, compelling story of bleakness and the weird feelings of love and friendship and attachment which can emerge in the midst of such darkness nonetheless. There's all sorts of marvelous little details in this vampire story; many simply emphasize its omnipresent darkness (the fact that little Oskar is clearly a budding sociopath, surrounded by other fully developed sociopaths) but others surprisingly become a counterpoint to it (Virginia's suicide becomes, in retrospect, almost a hopeful sign of someone trying to hold to the light in the midst of a descent into banal horror). A solid, provocative, kind of lovely horror movie.

Minari is a glorious, humble ode to family and nature, though not, I think, in any kind of romantic way. The family in question is one of constant arguments and deep divides; the natural world is one whose bounty is only incidentally (and at the film's conclusion) shown to be given freely, otherwise being depicted as something that has to be wrested out of the ground with hard labor. Through it all, though, there are constant returns to quotidian decency: David and Anne writing notes, begging their parents to stop fighting; Soon-ja defending the children against unnecessary discipline and bonding with them over games of hanafuda; Paul as a strange kind of guardian angel, guiding the family, against their own expectations, to a spiritual connection with the land. It's a beautiful movie in every way.

Despite being, I think, more familiar with the history of pop music than the average radio-listener in America, I had never heard of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival before, and thus was like millions of others who, when this film was released, was in for a serious education. Summer of Soul really deserves the Get Back treatment; I could have watched nearly 8 hours of these lost performances from more than a half-century ago, and I hope the filmmakers eventually make available on dvd extended takes of these wonderful performances, from the more than 40 hours of footage which is apparently available. But for now, seeing these clips along with contemporary interviewers--for whatever it's worth, my favorite moments were the 5th Dimension (not milquetoast at all!) rocking "Age of Aquarius," and the Reverend Jesse Jackson (still very much the young civil rights radical, before age and ambition took its toll) leading everyone in prayer--made for marvelous viewing.

West Side Story was never my favorite Hollywood musical; while there were segments of the 1961 version that I still consider today probably the most powerful combinations of song, scenery, and dance that I've ever seen on film, over all the elements of the movies story which, in 2021, can't help, I think, but be received as both kind of racist and kind of ridiculous weighed it down. Spielberg's fabulous remake of West Side Story doesn't fix all of that; in some ways, the occasionally heavy-handed script which Kushner developed merely swapped one set of eye-rolling moments for another. But for all that: this is a terrific movie musical. "Dance at the Gym" had me dancing in my seat at the theater, the setting and performance of "One Hand, One Heart" was totally convincing, and giving "Somewhere" to Rita Morena was a genius decision. I was especially captivated by Ansel Elgort's Tony; he made the weakest part of the 1961 movie into, in my view, the strongest part of the 2021 version. So while some parts of this remake didn't fully work for me, those limitations can't stop this brilliantly visualized and executed cinematic creation from landing on my top ten list.

I can't imagine a more total inversion of Spielberg's approach to West Side Story--sumptuous and detailed and hyper-realistic--than Jacques Demy's delightfully bonkers Young Girls of Rochefort. This 1967 movie--a homage to the classic Hollywood movie musical style? or a parody of it? or both?--was simply outrageous in its stylized use of color and costuming, and its story was so crammed with campy musical conventions that it's kind of remarkable how Demy was able to orchestrate it all such that they weren't just crashing into each other.  A student of mine has been urging me to give Demy's films a look for months, and from other movies of his, I know he was capable of taking both a serious and surrealist approach. But Young Girls simply delighted me with its lightness (a pair of musically talented twins looking for love!), its ridiculous choreography (dancers selling Honda motorcycles!), and its total embrace of utterly stereotypical "Frenchness" (the sad older woman who left her lover--who pines for her still!--because he had a stupid name!). Demy understood something which, perhaps, Spielberg should have kept in mind; as great as his achievement with West Side Story was, musicals really kind of have to be a little campy, a little outrageous; you can't make it all grounded and "real." There's not a moment of reality in Young Girls, and dang it, that's what makes it great.

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2021

As always, these are my choices among all the books I read in 2021, not my choices among the books published in 2021.

While I'm no scholar of St. Augustine, I've read a fair amount of his writings before, including the entirety of The City of God in graduate school. But I had never read Augustine's Confessions before, not as a complete book, and after spending a year and a half reading the Apostolic Fathers, the Desert Mothers and Fathers, and early Church Fathers like Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, I decided this would be an appropriate text to finish up the year with. I'm glad I did. It is every bit as powerfully introspective as everyone has said it is for the last two millennia; Augustine's masterful language conveys an honest sense of struggle and doubt that has become an obvious model to millions. On a personal theological note, I appreciated the challenge which Confessions confronted me with. For decades, the understanding of the Christian message which has seemed most intuitively true to me has been that of Paul's Letter to the Romans, with its focus on sin and grace. Augustine's expression of that understanding--complete with notions like original sin--has thus been one I have long subscribed to, theologically if not confessionally. Yet in reading the complete Confessions, I was confronted with the fact that Augustine's absolutist logic cannot avoid leading one to accept that Christians should have no love for the world whatsoever, and that's not something I think I can accept. So Confessions made me want to go back to the scriptural texts, after reading nothing but canonical commentaries upon them for so long, and for that I'm grateful.

I've been a fan of Wendell Berry for years, and The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture is in many ways an ur-text for all his subsequent writings. I assigned it in a political theory class this year for the first time in many years, and as I re-read it, it kept surprising me, making me wonder if I hadn't read the whole thing before, or if I'd just forgotten it entirely in the years since. In any case, while I would recommend any number of essays or poems or works of fiction by Berry before this book to those unfamiliar with his agrarian arguments, I would nonetheless point every fan of Berry back to it, at one point or another, as a summation that they must struggle with. And it is a struggle! This passionate condemnation of the whole network of economic, cultural, and educational systems which have transformed the work of farming and, really, all of humankind's relationship with our natural environment is a profoundly radical statement, but also the expression of a deeply particular and in many ways cranky worldview--his weaving together of ecological concerns with racial and sexual ones is provocative, but also pretty disconcerting to readers today. But that's Berry, I think; you have to take him whole, if you take him at all.

I'd never read any Octavia Butler before, and so this past summer I decided to rectify that with her "Parable" series. Parable of the Sower is a powerful, enveloping near-future story; really, it's barely science fiction at all, given how intuitively plausible the environmental breakdown, governmental collapse, religious authoritarianism, and economic dislocation it describes is to us today. That it's a deeply painful read goes without saying; the voice Butler gave to Lauren Oya Olamina, through whom we see the deaths of family, friends, and random others, not to mention the collapse of one plan after another, is tremendous. But I have to put Parable of the Talents even above that; in this book, Butler invented and brought together other voices, including ones from the more distant future, all representing figures from Lauren's grand project--several of whom pointedly despise everything about Lauren's "Earthseed" vision--and through whom we gain a deeply nuanced, sad, and yet still resolute vision of what it means for human beings to move forward, past our own worst tendencies. A great, great book.

I've read both of Matthew Crawford's previous books, and found them both to be provocative and insightful in equal measure. Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road fits that description as well, with the added challenge of being the book which reveals (probably unintentionally, though Crawford is such a meandering and disorganized writer--something he cops to in the introduction to this book--it's hard to know sure) much about Crawford's own character, and I'm not sure how much of that character I actually like. Crawford, like Wendell Berry, a crank, though not an agrarian one. Instead, Crawford is a gear-head, a lover of speed and of making machines with his hands, and he has the philosophical chops to dig into what it means, as a matter of both economy and culture, to push against massification and homogenization in this age of late capitalism, and instead celebrate local communities and individual creator. This celebration, however, invariably involves Crawford praising of those who achieve mastery and pull themselves up by their bootstraps; while by no means a sophomoric libertarian thinker, Crawford, at least in this book, cannot help, I think, but discomfort his liberal readers by laying out, without condemnation, the emergence of hierarchical structures--including occasionally deeply sexist ones--within those worlds of work which are simultaneously sites of resistance to concentrated socio-economic power. This isn't a gaslighting book; multiple times in the book, Crawford takes the time to emphasize how the mentalities he is (rightly, as an independent creator) somewhat suspicious of are nonetheless unambiguous goods, pointing to the lives of mentally and physically handicapped friends which have been made much better by government regulation and the evolution of social norms. It's a tribute to Crawford's writing that he can walk that line as well as he does.

I picked up On Juneteenth, a short book of essays by this historian Annette Gordon-Reed, thinking it would be interesting to learn a little about the history of the holiday. I ended up learning a huge amount, with the title essay, "On Juneteenth," actually being one of the lesser contributions to the book, though quite brilliant on its own. Overall, though, what fascinated me so much about this book was Gordon-Reed's voice, speaking as one of America's foremost historians but also as an African-American woman, born in 1950s Texas, who has never lost her love for and her fascination with her own state. This was a book that I immediately recommended to Texan friends of mine, because it helped me see--through Gordon-Reed's thoughtful reflections on everything from the role of Native Americans in the slave trade to the integrative role played by the movie "Billy Jack" in the consciousness of her generation--just how it is that Texans can have such a passionate attachment to their own culture. This is a Harvard professor who adores Six Flags Over Texas, who has deeply complicated memories of how other Black families treated hers once her parents pushed her to attend an integrated elementary school, who can remember her favorite soda pop on hot Texas nights. Sometimes you read something that opens you up to a world you'd never thought about before; this book that for me.

I was aware of Gracy Olmstead's writing from various publications, but I didn't know what to expect from her memoir of the small southwest Idaho town she grew up in; to be honest, I was probably disposed to be critical of it, thinking that it might be re-hashed localist stuff without much wrestling with the deeper issues environmental and personal issues which a story like hers would have to involve. Suffice to say, I was wrong. Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We've Left Behind is a marvelous book, deserving of a place on the shelf with the best, most thoughtful and touching localist writing out there. I wrote at length about the book already, so just read this here if you want to know more; or better, just read the book.

I picked up a copy of Ira Katznelson's Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time at a conference this summer, where attendance was small and the pickings at the book fair even smaller. But I needed a book to read on the flight home (which ended up being a ridiculous mess all on its own), and when I saw this book I remembered hearing good things about it. Reflecting that I hadn't read a solid, stand-alone 20th-century history book in some time, I picked up. Really, that was the best decision I made that whole trip. Katznelson's thesis is straightforward: the modern bureaucratic and democratic welfare state which the combination of the New Deal and World War II built in America emerged the way it did entirely due to conflict with, negotiation with, and often acquiescence to, multiple totalitarian pressures: Germany and the Soviet Union, most obviously, but also Italy (I had no idea just how extensive and complicated were the connections between Italy's fascist government and different segments of America's society in the 1920s and early 1930s, but Katznelson has the receipts), and then, crucial, the white supremacist American South, whose determination to protect their racist culture had far reaching consequences not just for the construction of social policy in the United States, but even foreign policy as well. By looking closely at congressional hearings and committee votes, Katznelson built an argument that I found entirely persuasive, one with major implications for how one thinks about 20th-century American history.

I've been both informed and inspired by Charles Marohn's Strong Towns movement for years, and his most recent book, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town, only furthered that opinion. Early in 2020, I'd hoped to be able to bring Marohn back to Wichita to speak at Friends University; thanks to the pandemic, that was delayed by more than a year, finally taking place last October. Many conversations--and ideally, actual action, as opposed to just talk!--that I hope will progress further from that conference are still in development; in the meantime, you can read my thoughts on Marohn's deeply practical but also theoretically wise argument for reclaiming control of our roads from the "infrastructure cult" here.


I came late to the work of Terry Pratchett, whose writing never fails to make me smile. Sometimes the man took so much pleasure from setting plates a spinning in his books that he left aside anything like a compelling plot, in favor of just writing paragraph after paragraph of ridiculous stuff. I can't say that Raising Steam is entirely free of that tendency, but after having discovered his marvelous character Moist von Lipwig last year, I was determined to check off all his subsequent appearances in Pratchett's oeuvre, and I'm glad I did. Making Money was a charming book, a worthy successor to Going Postal, but I have to highlight Raising Steam because it actually put all those spinning plates to work. This predictably hilarious story of locomotives coming to Discworld manages to also incorporate all sorts of reflections of urbanism, capitalism, immigration, racial and religious diversity, community traditions, and all sorts of other things which technological change invariably upends. So yes, a fun Discworld novel, but also maybe something a little bit more.

I read Erik Olin Wright's Envisioning Real Utopias ten years ago, and I've never read since any work of socialist or radical theory that was equal to its detail, complicated, demanding, but deeply clarifying perspective on what it means to challenge the capitalist. How to Be an Anti-Capitalist in the 21st-Century is a comparatively much less detailed and demanding, but no less clarifying, restatement of Wright's ideas, completed shortly before his death in early 2019. Wright's ideas emerged from the analytical Marxist tradition, so the much more anarchist/localist character of my own socialist sympathies were definitely not his own. Yet Wright nonetheless provided me, both in this book and in his earlier writings, a rigorously sociological language by which I could articulate and thus feel that more confident in my own most fundamental egalitarian belief: that resistance to capitalist inequalities will be best realized, not through revolutionary parties and movements, but through the communities and neighborhoods and communes which arise "interstitially" within civil society. As the broader political systems around us become ever more dysfunctional, that's an important lesson to keep in mind.

Friday, December 24, 2021

The Place (and Place-ness) of Occupy, Ten Years On

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Before 2021 comes to a close, let's remember the many tributes, found in many year-end wrap-ups written just about exactly ten years ago (including one of my own), to the tens of thousands of people across our country, and the tens of millions of people around the world, who stood up in 2011, and fought for their local communities, and strove to reclaim their cultural strength against oppressive elites. I am, of course, talking about Occupy.

Obviously, not many people talked about Occupy--whether we mean Occupy Wall Street or any of its other many incarnations--that way, either at the time or since, whether they be those who were directly involved or those who merely cheered them or castigated them from the sidelines. With their their class-based talk of the "99%" challenging the "1%," and their attacks on everything from oppressive student loans to growing wage gaps to spiraling health care costs, it was easy to assume that Occupy--in the United States at least--reflected the complaints of underemployed college grads with progressive politics, and nothing more. True, some people recognized that its radicalism was broader, more cultural and communal, than that--Jedidiah Purdy, for one, argued that OWS provided conservative as well as liberal, socialist, and anarchic lessons for us all, one of which ("It is sometimes necessary and appropriate to appeal to...[the] sentimental ties that join individuals in group") I think sums up what happened in Zuccoti Park in New York City from September to November of 2011 as well as anything written about it since. What, after all, held together the people drawn to those protests, and inspired them to built those makeshift communities, more than the stories and testimonies which those suffering through the Great Recession stood up to share?

Most, however, look back upon the Occupy movement as a failure, a perhaps inevitable and in any case an embarrassing one. The essayist Freddie deBoer recently summed up the results of Occupy pithily, claiming that, given the apparent absence of attacks upon the power of capital in progressive circles today (I say "apparent" because deBoer--a wonderful writer but not, I think, at his best here--appears to base his judgment perhaps too much on that which he sees posted to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram), one must conclude that OWS's failure is "almost complete." Even those deeply sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street's general aims--specifically, challenging the financial and social power of the 1%--see it as having been a "leaderless, ultimately structureless collection of people," unfortunately reflecting the tendency of those on the left to engage in "mindless repetition" and talk in circles in an "outwardly incomprehensible loop." Those inclined to rant about the undeniably jargony woke-speech of many of those concerned with social justice today can easily connect the dots.

But such connections would miss the real point of Occupy, I think, and the real reason its messy provocations and demands have nonetheless continued to reverberate and recur within American discourse, shaping the way many of us think about economic equality and its disruptive effects. That lesson is contained less in what the protesters said, much less how they said, and rather in what they did: they occupied. Meaning that their argument about the oppressive power over our lives, our family finances, our economic plans, and our communities' fiscal integrity which the 1% wields was literally grounded in a claim to a space. A public space, wherein human beings can and should be able to democratically, deliberately, determine the risks and rewards of their collective choices. An inhabited space, wherein those who make their homes and contribute to their cultures and simply live can act with the sort of freedom that not being subject to what Thomas Jefferson derisively called (in a recreation of a historically unsubstantiated but intellectually truthful dinner conversation) the "moneyed interest" and "New York stock-jobbers" allows. A space wherein one can insist that the laws of the market (especially as mastered by those whose wealth and advantages enable them to) are not, as Wendell Berry has insisted, "inevitable." To claim such a space, and to occupy it in the face of the (elitely developed) rules which claim that the people, gathered together, simply cannot, should not, must not, act or organize or vote in certain ways, is and has been central to the arguments against finance capitalism which millions concerned about preserving their places and their choices in this world have made ever since the Industrial Revolution, if not earlier.

The centrality of occupying a space was key to the 19th-century Populist movement, for example, though it was rarely articulated as such. After all, the whole point of organizing at community granges in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Colorado, Iowa, and Texas to challenge the power of the railroads was exactly because this alliance of farmers and ranchers and homesteaders wanted to defend the communities and the ways of life which had developed in those places, communities and ways of life that were being driven to ruin by manipulative railroad shipping rates and punitive lending and mortgage practices. They wanted their families and their children's families to be able endure in place, and they knew that collectively fighting on behalf of the integrity of their places, rather than giving in to an individualizing acceptance of the undemocratic, unaccountable, why-don't-you-just-sell-out-and-invest-in-stocks-instead-marketplace, was their only option. Such a fight would be inconceivable without a sense of place-ness. The better observers realized this parallel at the time, seeing in Occupy Wall Street in 2011 a model for a twenty-first-century, "open-source populism," with the places where we stand and build lives for ourselves being much more inclusive and interdependent than was the case in the 1890s or 1930s, but nonetheless playing the same conceptual role of pointing us towards that which we want to conserve in the face of the atomizing effects of concentrated capital. While the ideologies and trajectories followed by other instances of populist occupation--including everything from the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle to the water protectors at Standing Rock to the Little Mountain Cohousing village in Vancouver to the Solidarity House Cooperative in Laramie--their commonalities remain: people inhabit places, and so fighting on behalf of the democratic treatment of people must, or at least should, incorporate a defense of a place, whether literal or metaphorical or both.

This is what Occupy Wall Street did: it made its rejection of financial rules visible and present in a particular location, and proceeded to speak and act and protest against all the ways in which economic oppression disrupts the freedom of people in their places by making that location into a human space--complete with publications and libraries and all sorts of other things which humans do. Still, the embodiment of a defense of the ability of people to freely build and securely maintain their neighborhoods, communities, and ways of life--in other words, their places--in the actual establishment of a place itself, however audacious and authentic and influential such an action may be, doesn't lend itself to specific, programmatic plans of political action, any more than the neighborhood or community which anyone reading this lives in itself manifests a ready-made set of talking points or calls for legislation. That's just not the way human spaces work. And so, of course, in terms of a direct legislative and organizational consequences, Occupy comes up short.

It was perhaps this utopian populist element of Occupy--the insistence that in these places, these people possess the sovereign power (or at least ought to) to determine for themselves how to live--that made it less than entirely admirable to some leftist and localists who either opposed it or thought it silly and inconsequential. For Michael Walzer, the long-time editor of Dissent and one of the most perceptive and respected voices on the American left, the Occupy movement was "heartening" but nonetheless primitive; the point of such movements, in his view, is to establish not a place but rather "a presence on the actual ground of democratic politics--where parties are organized and elections fought." The aim that is, according to him, is not to occupy any real or conceptual territory, but to win that territory over to one's side, which means specifically "to force a political party to adopt [one's] program." (The fact that Walzer was, at best, only grumpily tolerant of the enthusiasm which greeted Bernie Sanders's own Jeffersonian and populist form of democratic socialism is, perhaps, revealing here.) Obviously, there is much truth here. Walzer, like just about everyone else deeply committed to a point a view in our democratic society--whether it be anti-tax libertarianism or democratic socialism or Christian integralism--wants to see that view itself established as a matter of law and policy and culture, and not merely as a organizing premise for families or neighborhoods or churches to make use of. This is, of course, a desire complicated by the realities of federalism and the many different, subsidiarian ways in which identities are articulated and authority distributed in our country, to say nothing of others. But it is also complicated by Walzer's own deep belief in the necessity of starting with local, particular places.

Geoffrey Kurtz, a political theorist and scholar of Walzer's thought, has written essays which explore this dynamic indirectly. While never mentioning Occupy Wall Street or Walzer's comments upon it, Kurtz observes that Walzer's ideas have long exhibited, to a sometimes greater and sometimes lesser degree, a tension regarding the experience of belonging. He agrees with other scholars that Walzer's political philosophy is one which takes seriously the proposition that human beings construct and dwell within "moral worlds that contain the resources necessary for their improvement," meaning that visions of more egalitarian, more fair, more free and just arrangements of the power otherwise claimed by the economic elite should not be top-down, all-or-nothing impositions. Rather, Walzer's is a "decentralized democratic socialism," strongly opposed to the administrative state, and thus one which "conveys the possibility of a socialist politics that does not worship progress and innovation." But why then would Walzer not be an enthusiast for similar municipalist experiments around the world, for what his own journal labeled "experimental utopias," which OWS was clearly an early, and perhaps incoherent, but nonetheless fully intentional example of?

Kurtz provides no direct answer--but he does suggest that Walzer is perhaps dispositionally "uninterested in understanding the core of that which he wants to conserve." In an unpublished paper of his, Kurtz digs even deeper into Walzer's oeuvre, insightfully pointing out the ways in which Walzer, a secular Jew, nonetheless implicitly acknowledges that "the mutual recognition of persons depends on a mystery," one that Walzer himself is disinclined to explore or see fully committed to by any of the hypothetical socialist citizens he invokes, all while admitting that those mysteries of belief and identification and attachment "can be the moral basis for a political commitment in the sense that it orients and sustains those who recognize it." While this is admittedly a large interpretive leap, I think that Kurtz can help us understand why it is, then, that even some of those whose particular socialist politics ought to align them strongly with the sentimental and local and communal form which Occupy's protest against economic exploitation took, saw it nonetheless as an impressive yet fundamentally childish step, rather than a model to be embraced. To put it crudely, and probably a little unfairly, but perhaps nonetheless accurately: such thinkers probably aren't believers…while holding up a sign, sitting at a lunch counter, sticking a flower in a gun, setting up a tent, and occupying a space in the face state and corporate power is an act of utopian belief and faith. A belief, to go back to Berry's insight above, that something may not be--and should not be accepted as being--an economic, and therefore social, inevitability.

In reference to the aforementioned "experimental utopias," perhaps the best comparison with Walzer's--perhaps limited but still clearly wise--approach to conceiving of a more egalitarian politics is the arguments of Murray Bookchin. The contributions of Bookchin and Walzer (left and right in this photo) occupy very different corners of the radical democratic quadrant of American thought, despite many similarities--their concern for pluralism, their respect for communities, and their suspicion of efforts to take the struggle against capitalism out of the hands of ordinary people. Bookchin, who would have been 100 years old this year, was of a different generation and orientation than Walzer. Whereas the latter made his mark primarily in the post-Vietnam era of Ronald Reagan, fighting within the Democratic party for what the founder of the Democratic Socialists of America, Michael Harrington, called "the left wing of the possible," the former's fights on behalf of what he came to call "social ecology" and "communalism" were fought outside of either of the dominant political parties in America, both of which were transforming throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as the individualist, environmentalist, and technological waves which washed away the statist, post-WWII New Deal consensus began to emerge. Fundamentally, though, the key difference may simply be that Walzer, in the wake of those waves, has long insisted that taking the energy they unleashed and using them to build political agendas and structures is the only radical politics worthy of the name. Anything other than that, however deeply felt and expressed, is mere play-acting.

That warning should never be entirely dismissed by those who believe another world is possible; as any reader of the Epistle of James can tell you, belief needs organization and structure to bring possibilities about. But that belief, that confidence in anarchic actions and democratic demands and communal alternatives, must come first. And moreover, as Doug Henwood observes in his own conflicted-yet-deeply-appreciative recollections of OWS, anarchic actions, properly understood, do (or at least can) have a structure to them, and need not be nearly so disconnected by constant discussion from concrete action as Occupy and other utopian experiments have stereotypically been seen to be. Bookchin's insights into how people can truly, freely--while still methodically!--make the places they occupy into transformative spaces is one that needs to be remembered by localists and radicals and everyone who cares about the common good today, 10 years on. As one activist put it, invoking Bookchin's faith in ecologically conscious communities which reject the supply chains of global capital, the legacy of Occupy Wall Street was "something that touches our deepest spiritual yearning," in a very un-Walzerian sense; "its practice says: 'We will no longer live in hatred and competition. We will live in love and community.'" In our deeply divided current moment, is there any better model to carry into our (hopefully) increasingly local-community-focused, (hopefully) increasingly egalitarian, (hopefully) increasingly small-d democratic future? I think not.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

The Osmonds' Christmas, and Ours

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

The Osmond Christmas Album came out 45 years ago today, on December 18, 1976. I'm talking the original double-LP, of course, not the corrupt CD version which cut all of Merrill's and Jimmy's songs and was released 15 years later. For American Mormons of a certain age, the original--all 20 tracks of it--was an essential part of the holiday canon. It generated intense discussions of Mormon-specific trivia (was Donny singing to his then-girlfriend Debbie on "This Christmas Eve"?), gave rise to heated debates about family rules (surely, because it was the Osmonds and it was the holidays, we could play "Sleigh Ride" on Sundays, couldn't we?), and required parental intervention as arguments broke out over who was better at picking up and dropping the needle without scratching the vinyl when it came to skipping over "If Santa Were My Daddy" (which, of course, everyone did). Anyway, listen to the full thing here, if you feel so inclined (I have the original recorded onto a cassette tape--which, miraculously, I think 33 years on, still plays). Or watch the 1976 special, broadcast the day before the album was released. Man, Paul Lynde wasn't remotely Mormon, but I think he kind of loved my tribe, nonetheless.