Thursday, September 4, 2008

After the Glow

In response to The Speech:

Daniel Larison calls down an anathema on all their houses, demanding political purity. Rod Dreher offers a more nuanced reflection, mainly centered around the question of whether putting Sarah into national ascendance would justify lending assent to the last eight years of bellicose, incompetent Republican rule. While a close call, he's leaning mccain/PALIN.

Both seem to assume that Sarah represents all that is good for the future of conservatism in spite of all that's bad about Republicanism. Having praised her speech - and criticized the sources of the vicious hostility of a number of her overheated critics - I actually remain dubious that Sarah is the savior of conservatism any more than Obama is the actual savior.

My main objections - it will surprise none - revolve around her (doubtless Alaskan, if not Repubican) impulse to "drill, baby, drill" (is that chant any less creepy than when it was "burn, baby, burn"?). I think her position is reflective of a broader set of commitments that ultimately raise questions of how she can reconcile her laudable small town conservatism to her adherence to economic profligacy that contributes above all to homelessness and placelessness. I'm not against drilling per se - and it really wouldn't matter if I were, since it will be pursued by a thirsty public and a craven Congress, as surely as an addict will search the dregs of an ashtray for an unsmoked cigarette butt - but what I AM against is the prospect that we will tap whatever domestic reserves we still have in an effort to bring down prices enough to continue our happy and wasteful motoring suburban lifestyle. If the best and largest oil reserves we have remaining are offshore and under ANWR, shouldn't we put what remains to good use - like preparing for a post-oil world? Shouldn't we create incentives and zoning regulations to increase settlement density and make a world of decreased cheap energy a decent place for our children? If McCain/Palin (or Obama/Biden) are serious about treating domestic and sustainable production as a national security issue - which surely it is, about the best and most effective front we can fight in the "war on terror" - then isn't it about time to ask the citizenry for the kinds of sacrifice that warfare demands? The Republicans have spoken quite a lot about John McCain's noble sacrifice for his nation and have gaudily displayed their motto "Country First," but not once have I heard a single one of them call for even a comparatively tiny amount of sacrifice from the citizenry. We don't have to expect that we're going to live in the Hanoi Hilton, but surely it's not so awful if we begin living in smaller houses spaced closer together if it means we don't have to send another generation of soldiers to protect our "Vital National Interests" in the Middle East? Instead, we hear the tired mantra of tax cuts (who's demanding them? Oh, yea, those folks with large inheritances) and free enterprise (you know the kind - subsidized by the Fed).

How about a deal - we "drill, baby, drill," and in turn put a floor on the price of oil. How about not letting it drop below $4 a gallon, for instance (or, pick your favorite amount, and adjust it for inflation, etc.)? The tax revenue could be used to sponsor research in alternative energies, for starters. It could be used to subsidize public transportation (don't gasp - we already use tax revenues to subsidize private transportation, including things like the "bridge to nowhere"), and investments in infrastructure that will be actually useful in a decade (rather than expanding existing highways). What about creating mandates that encourage States and localities to approve mixed use zoning - rather than the current set of incentives that foster vast distances between where we live, shop, learn, work.... How about changing a whole set of tax incentives that currently favor BIGNESS instead to favor small businesses and local farmers? I'm not a policy guy, so talk among yourselves. But we need something else than tax cuts and "free" markets.

Such a set of policies, or something like them, would ACTUALLY do something to support the kinds of home towns that Sarah Palin came from and whose values she extols. Ironically, it's the policies of her party (no less than those of Bill Clinton, to be honest) which did a whole lot to kill off my home town and many just like it. How about a call for some policies that support real small town values, rather than a really great speech about them? I loved the speech - I really did - but, as you keep saying about Obama, in the end, is it "mere rhetoric"? Personal example is a good thing, but societal structure shapes us. Show me the money - and that it's not all going to go the oil companies, the "developers," the big box stores, and the SUV manufacturers. Show me the money, Sarah. I'm ready to believe, but admit to a whole lot of skepticism.


brierrabbit said...

Same with me. I want to SEE, all those vaunted small town values. That actually CARES about what happens there. Saying you are for "small town values" has become frosting to used to cover up the dry mealy cake of Modernism's value systems. Of EVERYWHERE else, but here.

Kevin J. Jones said...

"I think her position is reflective of a broader set of commitments that ultimately raise questions of how she can reconcile her laudable small town conservatism to her adherence to economic profligacy that contributes above all to homelessness and placelessness."

I'll point out that for resource-rich, job-poor regions of the country, drilling, mining, and lumbering helps keep people at home and away from the cities. The maternal Palin thus makes the perfect spokesman (frontman?) for oil drilling, since her pleas are both economically and culturally favorable to her own people.

This form of understandably self-serving regionalism isn't addressed much in localist rhetoric.

Your proposal for a floor on gasoline prices is of course a great short-term economic threat to rural communities, which are even more automobile dependent than suburbs. Can the much-praised small towns ever embrace a "proactive" peak oil policy that would help drive their members away from home?

Anonymous said...

I agree with the idea of a floor on the price of gas -- it's the only way to keep us from reversing the modest changes we've recently made, never mind more substantial ones. At the same we need to address the fact that for many Americans more expensive gas is a hardship in ways it isn't for others. Thus, we should refund some of the taxes to lower-income Americans, perhaps in the form of lower payroll taxes.

Unknown said...

It is for the reasons offered here that I cannot in good faith understand the glowing reaction to Palin's speech. As a lifelong South Carolinian, gun owner, hunter, fisher, evangelical Christian, small town married guy with kids, I am an admirer of all the things that Palin is claimed to represent. But, other than identifying herself as such, what did Palin say that would help preserve this way of life? What Republican policy would further it?

The specific policies mentioned here (restrictive zoning, gas taxes, public transportation) are all Democratic territory, are they not? I work for local government and, at least at that level, they are. When we try to restrict land use to encourage infill development and prevent suburban sprawl, it's the republican land rights absolutists that are against us. When we try to move the county farmers' market to local, sustainable produce, our supporters are democrats. When we try to force the local Wal-Mart to stay in its existing building, rather than move two miles further out and leave another deserted strip mall behind, the local Chamber of Commerce republicans wear us out. When we complete a public transportation center to get people to work, the disgruntled residents are republican tax hawks. And so on, on things from afterschool mentoring to sidewalks to green space in low-income neighborhoods. The point is that whenever we take action to create a uniquely local, self-sustaining, pedestrian accessible community, it's Palin's party that obstructs us. And I didn't hear anything in her speech to make me think she is different.

All of which is why, in the end, I remain puzzled. I can see two things that today's republicans, even with Palin, offer to traditionalists like me. First, I am pro-life, and this may well be determinative. If that decides the entire issue, fine, but we need not cede every other issue in the immensely complex welter of political discourse to this republican party. Second, and I sadly think that for many people this carries the day, they offer an aesthetic affirmation of a cultural identity. This is where Palin excelled, of course, in presenting an authentic and most likely sincere testament to the virtue of such a culture. But I worry that this testament is being deployed in service of the party that has impaired that culture. It is for this reason that I find myself liking Palin, but still unpersuaded to vote for her ticket.

Anonymous said...

I can echo Eric's post.

As someone who lives in an infill house in a historic, but neglected, urban neighborhood in Macon, GA, I have a little experience with some of the issues he raised..

The city I live in is controlled by Democrats who have done an admirable job trying to bring new business and housing to the downtown area. The city government has partnered with private corporations, foundations, and my employer to provide subsidies for people to build infill housing or restore older homes. So far the results have been mostly positive--crime rates are down, derelict housing is disappearing, homeownership is on the rise, and the neighborhood is pleasant and walkable. Yet, the local Democratic party is rife with corruption and fiscally irresponsible, thus undercutting much of the good they have done.

On the other hand, the Republicans who control the county surrounding our city have no interest in the city's revitalization. They give property tax breaks to any developer that wants to build a big box mall next to an interstate exit. Each one of these malls siphons away business from the city and encourages exurbs to follow in their wake.

The result--I live in a great neighborhood where I walk my kids to school and myself to work, but I have to drive to buy food, clothing, or gasoline. Church is 20 minutes away. When I tell people from the suburbs where I live, I am greeted with shock and misplaced pity.

I bring all this up to say that the Republican party, for whom I have voted most of the time, is the chief culprit in supporting an economic system that is the enemy of real places that are inhabited by people with roots in that place.

The dilemma for me is that the other side is not much better. If Republicans are guilty of bleeding traditional culture to death through their mindless support for the "global economy", more oil drilling and the exurbs, Democrats seem to be militantly in favor of destroying that same culture albeit for different reasons.

I have real problems with some of the reasons that McCain nominated Palin (her inexperience, the loose ends that she has in Alaska, her lifelong membership in the NRA), but when those who identified themselves as liberal commentators mocked her family size, her pro-life stance, her faith, and her small-town origins, it touched a nerve. So much so that I will probably be voting for John McCain in the fall, despite the fact that I share most of Patrick's concerns about the McCain/Palin ticket.

I am beginning to think that those of us who value places and connection and an unhurried family life are pretty rare or too silent. We have no natural political allies and we are unlikely to get any soon.

So the best we can do is join the PTA, neighborhood watch, community garden, etc., and keep faith with our families, friends, and neighbors. I know that is not much but it might be enough, for now.