Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Problem with Agrarians

Much as I enjoyed the fellowship of the past weekend in Charlottesville, there was a persistent and palpable animosity toward politics and government generally held by many of the participants. For all the talk of community, it was a community bereft of the idea that communities require more than just good feeling, but laws and institutions as well as the willingness on the part of citizens to work publically toward the formation and enactment of the public good and the recognition that such work will result in conflict. There was something of a gauzy sentimentality and even anarchic libertarianism that pervaded the sessions. As much as I admire Wendell Berry, his work does not sufficiently attend to the needs for, and demands of, politics. Indeed, I was struck by the similarity between two camps that otherwise might be thought to be polar opposites - agrarian communitarians and libertarians. Both are wildly optimistic about human nature and the ability of humans to "do their own thing" without the "interference" of politics and government.

At the dinner before the public session on Saturday, the participants were asked to name, among other things, the most despicable city in America. Among the few cities that were named (since most people forgot this requirement), one was Washington D.C. Washington D.C.??!!?? It may not be one of the world's great cities, but it is a fine city, and not the most despicable city in America. What about Las Vegas or Phoenix? Houston or Palm Beach? I have to think that Washington was named because it was the location of "Guvment," to quote Pap Finn.

It amuses me to think that anyone holding such optimism about human nature can be called "conservative." Conservatism, to my mind, necessarily requires the recognition of the fact of human imperfection. Call it original sin, self-interest, the fatal flaw - what you will - such optimism is incompatible with conservatism because optimists are inclined to make wild surmises about the plausibility of perfectibility, individual or social. One of the great ironies of our time is the inscription at the burial site of Ronald Reagan, the great paragon of "conservatism" in recent times: "I know in my heart that man is good." Of course, we also need recall that his favorite political philosopher was Thomas Paine, that great conservative, so beloved by Edmund Burke....

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

For the people in government, rather than the people who pester it, Washington is an early-rising, hard-working city. It is a popular delusion that the government wastes vast amounts of money through inefficiency and sloth. Enormous effort and elaborate planning are required to waste this much money. – PJ O’Rorke

Many a time I have seen my mother leap up from the dinner table to engage the swarming flies with an improvised punkah, and heard her rejoice and give humble thanks simultaneously that Baltimore was not the sinkhole that Washington was. – HL Menken

I date the end of the old republic and the birth of the empire to the invention, in the late thirties, of air conditioning. Before air conditioning, Washington was deserted from mid-June to September.... But after air conditioning and the Second World War arrived, more or less at the same time, Congress sits and sits while the presidents—or at least their staffs—never stop making mischief. – Gore Vidal

It is sometimes called the City of Magnificent Distances, but it might with greater propriety be termed the City of Magnificent Intentions.... Spacious avenues, that begin in nothing, and lead nowhere; streets, mile-long, that only want houses, roads, and inhabitants; public buildings that need but a public to be complete; and ornaments of great thoroughfares, which only lack great thoroughfares to ornament—are its leading features. - Dickens

Not exactly a collection of bright-eyed optimists.