Friday, July 13, 2007

Catholicism and Suburbia

There is an interesting discussion taking place at the "Mirror of Justice" website touching on a number of themes near and dear to my heart, namely, whether Catholics are better served, and serve better, in an urban or suburban setting (you have to scroll down their site to see the scattered entries; thanks to Joe Knippenberg for calling my attention to the discussion, and to the "Veggie Tales" connection - one of the contributors, Rob Vischer, is the brother of the founder of Veggie Tales). It is more than an interesting question, but a vital one.

I don't believe the Magisterium has weighed in one way or the other on this matter, but it seems to me that Catholicism as a whole cloth may not be best expressed in either setting, though I'd give considerable preference to a rightly ordered urban setting over a suburban one. The best setting, it seems to me, is a town of a reasonable size, ranging from one that might be considered to be a small city to modest town. I have in mind Aristotle's definition of a polis as a place that is to some extent self sufficient and is of such a size that one does not need to voice of Stentor to be heard through its environs. It should be a place where one can reasonably expect to rule and be ruled in turn, that is, to learn the discipline of liberty and self-rule. It should be a place where culture, as an accumulation of habituation and practice, can be passed from one generation to the next, starting in the family but continuing and being reinforced in the community at large. It should be place where people from various classes and professions can interact, and thereby with greater ease and willingness overcome the resentments or disapproval that can form in the absence of interaction between people differently placed. It should be a place where one's work and one's contributions to the common weal can be discerned and remembered. It is a place, therefore, that allows for the creation of communio, the passing on of culture, the formation of tradition, and the continuity of memory.

The suburbs, it seems to me, were formed for reasons that permitted, nay encouraged, the avoidance and escape of all these conditions. The suburbs were formed to be non-communities, to be enclaves for nuclear families that sought to be isolated from the inconveniences of community (and there are, of course, many inconveniences in communities). One revealing architectural indication of this ambition - drawing on an article I have discussed before - was the replacement of the front porch with the back-yard patio. The home ceased to possess an intermediary space that connected the public to the private, but became a private bastion for ever-smaller families (and, current design trends further emphasize our isolation, including subdivision of the McMansion into private enclaves for children and parents, for each family member, and increasingly separate sleeping spaces for each spouse). Suburbs not only segregate families from one another - and increasingly, family members from one another - but segregate our life-activities from one another. Zoning regulations forbid the intermingling of commerce and "living," and hence few suburban settings allow for the possibility of enacting commercial transactions in or near the places where one lives. Compare the current suburban enclave - where one must drive significant distances to purchase a distantly produced gallon of milk or loaf of Wonder Bread (R)- to many older American towns and cities (take, for example, the town where I live, Alexandria, Virginia) or most European communities where families still live above their shops and stores, where one's shopping can be done by walking through one's town.

This segregation is only the most visible sign of a deeper segregation of activities: ths suburban arrangement is designed to divorce us from any intimate or even passing knowledge of where and how the goods of life are produced. The growth of the suburbs and exurbs and the "globalization" of production far away from the places where we would consume and use those goods are intimately connected phenomena. Once we no longer rely upon local producers, locally situated, to provide for our daily provenance, the only reason to prefer one set of goods over another becomes increasingly that of everyday low prices, and hence the flight of production and jobs to low-cost labor providers. The producer thus has no knowledge of the people who will use the goods, just as the consumer does not have the slightest familiarity with the people or practices that went into the production of the goods. This leads to all sorts of pernicious outcomes, one of the more visible being the abusive labor practices that we end up implicitly supporting as well as the shoddy products that we end up consuming (and that are nowadays killing our pets and poisoning our toothcare). These are only some of the more sensational instances, however: the deeper consequence is to divorce communities from any knowledge of the source of their sustenance, and hence to separate us from a kind of daily familiarity with how our respective forms of work and labor contribute to a common weal, and in turn how the work of others contributes to our good. Suburban life reinforces modern trends toward extreme specialization (the sub-division of labor) and our growing ignorance of how our discrete forms of work in any way contribute to the commonweal of the community. We cease to have vocations and have "jobs" or "careers" that we undertake with little knowledge or even thought to how that work contributes to - or detracts from - the good of the community or nation. Unsurprisingly, the outcome of this arrangement is one in which our pursuit of the "bottom line" of our work trumps (or, really, wholly obscures) our concern for common weal, and allows for the the kinds of work and production that not only is neutral toward community and nation, but actively undermines and even destroys those entities. Our business or plutocratic class is the most obvious manifestation of this kind of work, those people who are educated in our free-floating universities (that wholly eschew any responsibility to the communities in which they find themeselves and instead now emphasize their participation in the project of "globalization") and become "itinerant vandals" in the "absentee economy" (to quote Wendell Berry) that exploits without regard to the consequence to particular communities. I grew up in a town with a real downtown, dotted with individual propietors who ran businesses that were embedded in the community. These places sponsored local Little League teams and would provide food and provisions for school activities, local community events and the like. I grew up going to school with the children of many of those owners; most of them had no intention of taking over those establishments, given the greater remunerative possibilities of the absentee economy. Those places were put out of business by the chain stores and the box stores and the Wal-Marts that are physically located as islands in parking lots of major thoroughfares, and which have no concern or care for the communities in which they happen to be plopped down next to, other than extracting maximum profits and dumping Chinese-produced products so that local shops (a.k.a. "competitors") are quickly put out of business.

Our ignorance of how and where the goods of life are produced is further extended to our practical ignorance of people who are likely to be differently placed than us. Thinkers such as Christopher Lasch some time ago noted that the effect of current "lifestyle" arrangements (that is, suburbia) made it possible for people of similar socio-economic status to create living arrangements in which people in other socio-economic strata could be effectively excluded. Suburbia has encouraged the rise of "gated communities" and, through zoning regulations, housing that must be uniformly constructed and hence uniformly priced, ensuring that people of certain economic strata are barred from purchasing in those communities. This consciously-constructed effort to create "lifestyle enclaves" has resulted in the breakdown of informal relationships between wealthy and poor, proprietors and wage earners, farmers and shop-keepers, and so on. A further practical effect - also noted by Christopher Lasch - is the "inter-breeding" of these classes, ensuring that income inequality between the classes is only exacerbated when lawyer marries doctor, CEO marries stockbroker, and, alternatively, cashier marries busboy and construction worker marries hotel housekeeper. Upward mobility, and non-mobility, are enshrined in our living arrangments.

All the above has the practical effect of feeding into a sinful condition in which we falsely convince ourselves that we have achieved self-sufficiency and independence. The successful are tempted toward disdain toward those who have not succeeded, and the unsuccessful are given to resentment and self-reproachment. Our loss of any habituation in lived common weal undermines our capacity and willingness to act on its behalf, or even know what that would mean or entail. We care for our families, yes, but we increasingly disconnect the ways in which the sustenance of our families depends on certain kinds of culture, economy and polity. We can all-too easily allow justified criticism of "government" (especially the centralizing tendency of our time - one that has been concomitant with the rise of "globalization") - to become a blanket criticsm of "politics," with the practical effect being a withdrawal from a concern for, or even rejection of the very idea of, common good. Ironically, of course, what we possess least is actual self-sufficiency and independence: in our current living arrangement we couldn't survive a week without the products trucked and increasingly shipped from distant locales, and the (still) cheap petroleum purchased on credit from the tyrants of the Middle East whose regimes we prop up and in whose populations our way of life gives rise to vicious and deadly resentments. Our belief in self-sufficiency and independence is purchased dearly at the price of the loss of actual liberty, as self-delusive a condition as one can imagine.

Peter Lawler, in his comments to my previous post on "No Left Turns," admits to admiring the way of life described in Alan Ehrenhalt's book "The Lost City," but would also stress that it is "LOST." My reply is that this way of life was "lost" not by accident, as a marble can be lost when there happens to be a hole in one's pocket, but lost by intention and design, as well as massive government subsidy, commercial pressure, and hence huge material incentives. There are goods that come with suburban life surely (and I will admit to enjoying them in our weirdly communal and throwback neighborhood), but there are costs that are becoming so evident that it needs to be considered whether "intention and design" cannot reverse some of the worst consequences of our current suburban regime, and that - ironically - the government that undermined certain cultures and ways of life needs to be harnessed in reviving those ways.

The Catholic angle, among other places, is here: subsidiarity demands that the most local competent authority should be the proper venue for public action. Here is where the Catholic view can contribute to a recognition that simple anti-government sentiment, even anti-national government animus, is insufficient to the task at hand. Even while defending the primacy of locality in raising and providing for one's families, the forces arrayed against the realization of this proper arrangement are global in scale, and hence need a larger government entity in their defense. This argument was made cogently by Hilaire Belloc in his book "The Restoration of Property" and lie at the heart of the Distibutivism of Belloc and Chesterton. In this book, Belloc noted that local proprietorship - what he called "well-distributed property" - would not spring up of its own accord in free-market and hence centralizing economies. Since large scale economic actors evoked "all the powers of the state" to secure their positions, Belloc argued that the restoration of wide-scale ownership would require "the deliberate reversal of economic tendencies.... Well-divided property will not spring up of itself in a Capitalist society. It must be artificially fostered," he wrote. He proposed creating tax incentives for the protection of small-scale family-owned businesses against larger, distant rivals; he sought to subsidize "the small artisan at the expense of Big Business," including support for trade guilds; he sought to support small-scale farming, and thus to treat farm land differently than urban land - a proposal that would itself have prevented the viral infestation of suburbs on "cheap" farmland throughout the country; the favored treatment of local banks against distant financial institutions with no stake in the community; and "extravagantly" supported "peasant" class who would largely seek to provide much of their provenance from fruits of their own labor on their own land.

A theology of work is at work here, a sacrament of good work in a community of continuity and remembrance - a concern that is wholly lacking in our current arrangement of "get all you can now." One way in which this is "Catholic" is in its concern for continuity between generations, familial, communal and institutional. There is at once a dedicated concern to preserve the inheritance of the past and an intention to ensure the livelihood of future generations. A culture is cultivated, preserved, and transmitted. So - to the question being raised by colleagues about the Catholicity of the suburbs, or lack thereof, I respond: let us pray.


Anonymous said...


You're at least the Catholic James Howard Kunstler, though (thank goodness!) you lack his ROLLING STONE-inspired profanity.

The question I have for you is how the community you so evocatively portray can be created or recreated. There's clearly a "market" for New Urbanism-style developments, but they're lifestyle enclaves just like everything else and they rely pretty heavily on the availability of developable land, which means that they feed on and aren't really alternatives to sprawl.

And the problem with small towns is that there's not really much work to be had near all too many of them. (That's partly why they're small.) My wife and kids visited some homeschooling friends yesterday. They'd relocated from our suburb to a small town in the north Georgia mountains, close to the museum the dad was running. Everything sounds idyllic, but, as the mom pointed out, if you don't work for the county, there's not much to do. So small towns may for the most past be for the relatively well-to-do (investors, writers, and, for example, college professors in college towns), the poor (who can't afford to go anywhere else), and a middle class largely employed by the public sector (county government, county schools, county hospital).

I agree with much of your critique of the suburbs (where I live), but could only find an alternative by accepting an unconscionably long commute or by finding another job (easier said than done, of course). And while it could be great for our family, it wouldn't of course begin to solve what ails us as a nation.

So, once again, what is to be done?

Anonymous said...

Let me build on Joe K.'s comments. Living in an isolated small town struggling to survive, and surrounded by even smaller towns fading from existence, one sees that small town life can be idealized to the extent it blurs reality. As Joe sugggests, at this point most small towns are small because no one wants to live there. In my town there are plenty of jobs, but not very many "white collar" jobs. So most kids, including the college kids I teach, must look elsewhere for their career (or, if you will, vocation). Indeed, in South Dakota , out migration of young people is a major problem. In most small towns, unless you want to farm or work as a clerk at the gas station, there are no jobs for you.

I share Patrick's discomfort with modern life, with its consumerism, frivolity, and isolating tendencies. But the alternative picture he paints will certainly make us poorer than we otherwise would be, and that's a problem. Does Patrick deny the efficiency created by the modern economy, with its division of labor and economies of scale? This has created massive amounts of wealth allowing Americans to live in unbelievable comfort.

Now that comfort may also be hollowing out our souls. It may produce countless gadgets with which to distract ourselves (physician heal thyself!), a nihilistic popular culture that thrives on vulgarity, and the reduction of all questions to ones of either comfort or economic calculus. But, that same economy has produced untold wealth that allows us to, say, treat childhood cancer patients so they have a chance to live. Allows older people to get artificial joints so they can lead lives free of constant pain. Creates the MRI machines that allow us to do to see into the body in ways that used to be done through invasive surgery. Allows the common man to travel the world with relative ease to see things our grandparents only dreamed of. These kinds of innovations do not come about in rustic, self-sufficient, quaint neighborhoods and economies. This is why, for example, in most of the world clean drinking water is still a dream.

It may be that at the heart of the American (and perhaps the modern) experiment lies a contradiction, indeed a tragedy. The desire for Progress, indeed an almost religious faith in Progress, comes from a very human desire to live a life of comfort, liberating one's self from back breaking labor and conquering disease. That same faith in Progress also neglects another part of the human soul that longs for community, that seeks to know the infinite, that wants to pass on a certain way of life to ones posterity in addition to passing on wealth and comfort. This, I think, is at the heart of Tocqueville's discussion of religion along side the "perfectibility of man." There is a war in the American soul, and I think it is clear which side has won. I am with Dr. Pat in lamenting that, but I think we should recognize the very reasonable basis for the modern commercial life Dr. Pat deplores and the undoubted good that it has produced.