I am extremely uncomfortable with some of what I wrote in a previous posting (written about another previous posting), and Rod Dreher has forced me to acknowledge it publically. There is the express danger in the argument that we are ALL in the throes of embracing an unmitigated narrative of progress - even the good people who "cling" to guns and religion in Pennsylvania - that the social conservative position contains simply another version of the accusation of "false consciousness" that was implicit in Obama's remarks. That is, Obama implied, a la Marx, that religion is the opiate of the masses who don't have the same opportunities as our cosmopolitan city dwellers. In my previous post, I suggested that at the very least some of the anger expressed in the rural towns of our heartland has its sources in resentment toward the "successful" (and hence, a degree of jealousy), inasmuch as the narrative of progress appears to have been embraced widely and deeply in our culture. No doubt I overstate this, and far be it from me to claim comprehensive knowledge of the views of the many diverse peoples throughout this land. But, my libertarian critics are nevertheless correct to note that many small towns have emptied as other opportunities have arisen. I have a good number of students at Georgetown who come from these sorts of towns, and whose parents hope that they can be given opportunities at a place like Georgetown that will allow them to live and succeed in places like San Francisco. Moreover, and perhaps most problematically, many who remain in those towns have been complicit in the destruction of the economic bases of those very towns by readily embracing the opening of Wal-Marts and Home Depots, and ironically killing off the manufacturing base that once undergirded their communities.
So, Russell Arben Fox asks nevertheless whether I'm just a wee bit populist. I'd like to say yes, of course I am, but what does this mean exactly? I fear that we romanticize a time when - as critics note - there were no other good options other than to be involved in small town, rural, local life. But what do we mean by populism now? Are our small town denizens now any less inclined to shop at Wal-Mart or to watch American Idol than many other Americans? I doubt it; indeed, I suspect they are likely to be more inclined. The populists of the turn of the last century were notable because they realized that they needed to actively defend their way of life against encroachments from the centralizing and homogenizing powers of business and government. I am not so certain that many small town Americans are as willing, or perhaps able, to defend their way of life and the fundamental philosophical bases on which it rests. I would like to argue that they are not in the throes of false consciousness - that is, that they do not know their own good and it is for me, an urban college professor, who must enlighten them to fully embrace their way of life. Rather, I think we need to acknowledge that the dominant narrative of progress (and growth and globalization) has become well-nigh monolithic in our age, and intellectual sources of opposition have withered. As discomfiting as it may be, I am inclined to conclude that people who are blessed with some degree of time and the opportunity for reflection, but more importantly, intellectual connections with a countervailing philosophical and religious resources, need to articulate and propound this alternative from every available soapbox. This is discomfiting because it smacks of "elitism," but it also reflects the paradoxical truth that even populism requires an intellectual class to make its best case. This was no less true for someone like Chesterton living a century ago than it is for someone like Wendell Berry who - while every bit the farmer - is known to us for being a writer.
I say: Down with false consciousness, up with a true and defensible populism.