Sunday, November 30, 2008

Happy Birthday, Sam

Today is the 173rd birthday of America's greatest writer (or at least arguably), Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain. Twain lived so many places and wrote books of appeal to so many people that nearly everyone growing up in America identifies with him at some level. My own life has always seemed deeply intertwined with that of Twain: growing up in Windsor, CT, and only a few miles from Hartford, from a young age it was an annual rite of passage to attend a school trip to his magnificent house in Hartford. If you have never visited the house - or even if you have - should you find yourself in the vicinity of Hartford, take the time to tour this stone and wood storybook of Twain's own imagining, down to its likeness to a steamboat from certain angles (what's more, you'll help keep it open - like many undertakings, the Twain House museum society is in dire financial straits).

I grew up next to a family named Clemens. The two sisters who lived there - slightly older than my immediately younger brother and I - regularly tormented us in the way that only older girls can do (at least that's how I remember it; I'm sure they'd have a different take). One day they were taunting us that "Deneen" wasn't a famous name at all, and that they were related to Mark Twain. I taunted back, informing them that their last name was CLEMENS, not TWAIN, so they couldn't be related, to which they shot back some cockamamie story about Twain being originally named Clemens. I shot inside our kitchen to ask my all-knowing Mother, who informed me that indeed Twain WAS born Sam Clemens, much to my chagrin. I asked her if WE were related to anyone famous, and she told me that we were, and gave me the lineage. I marched proudly out to those uppity Clemens sisters and told them that we WERE related to someone famous. "Yea, who," they asked. "Adam and Eve," I informed them, repeating my mother's information. It's a wonder I still talk to that woman.

When I was in the fourth grade I took a shine to my Fourth Grade teacher (Mrs. Carenza - where are you now??), and proceeded to finish my whole English workbook way ahead of schedule. She decided that I should have some more challenging reading and gave me copies of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper and Puddinhead Wilson. I found the books tough going at first, but eager to please Mrs. Carenza, I plowed through them and eventually caught on to Twain's manner of writing, coming to love the books and reading them many times during my youth. Do we still have teachers like Mrs. Carenza? I'm probably a college professor now at least in part because of her.

In college I happened to take a class with a political theorist named Wilson Carey McWilliams, who it turned out was a great and passionate reader of Twain. Not to be missed were his lectures on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and his fabulous re-telling of Twain's long story "An Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven," a story that features a character in heaven named McWilliams from New Jersey and thus which, in Carey's view, must be theologically true.

In August, 2001 - by that point I was a professor at Princeton - Carey asked me if I'd like to attend the Fourth International Conference on the State of Twain Studies at Elmira College in Elmira, NY, very near to where Twain's wife Olivia's family lived and where Twain spent most of his summers and did a great deal of his writing (the conference meets every four years, and thus the Sixth Conference is coming up). I was profoundly honored to spend that time in Elmira with Carey, during which we visited Olivia's house, Twain's writing study (An octagon shaped study since moved to the Elmira campus), and a moving visit to Twain's grave, where he lays with Olivia and several of his children.

For the occasion of that Conference, I wrote a paper that I'd always had tumbling about my brain and had for a time considered for inclusion as a chapter in my dissertation (a study of the political theory of the Odyssey and its reappearances in the history of political thought). You see, it had always struck me that Huckleberry Finn had all the earmarks of being deeply based upon the basic framework of the Odyssey, but some other people had noticed this and the observation was probably not worthy of an entire chapter. But during my graduate study I had the chance to visit the Twain papers at the Huntington Library, and discovered that Twain had written an unpublished, mock review of a new German translation of Homer's Odyssey, which he purported to attribute to a new German author named "Herr Homer" (one of its best lines: Twain objects to its setting in Troy and Ithaca, finding it unlikely that a Greek hero would spend so much time in upstate New York). This review was written just as Twain was finishing Huckleberry Finn, and was for me the "smoking gun" that Twain was indeed thinking of the Odyssey as he wrote his classic, and served as the key evidence in my broader claim that there is both plot and philosophic kinship between the two works. My paper, I must submit, made a bit of a splash, and was subsequently included in a CD-Rom of significant secondary works on Huckleberry Finn and published in the journal Modern Language Studies (Vol. 32, 2003). For those interested in the argument, and who may have a bit of free time on this rainy day on the East Coast, I include the original paper I delivered in Elmira in 2001 (it was somewhat altered for publication), which I still like better because it saves the "smoking gun" for the end. Comprising about 12 typewritten pages (minus additional pages of notes, which I don't include here; should you wish a copy with citations, just holler), it's a moderate read, but I think an interesting one, and my effort to honor the memory of that great American author, Mark Twain, as well as my teacher who so loved Twain, Wilson Carey McWilliams. Happy Birthday, Sam!


Was Huck Greek?: The Odyssey of Mark Twain

Patrick Deneen
Princeton University

Since its publication, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been recognized as perhaps the consummate American novel. This assessment was articulated most famously, and succinctly, by Ernest Hemingway, who declared that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn … it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that.” The critic William Lyon Phelps intoned in 1920s that “is not only the great American novel. It is America.” Yet more magisterially, Clifton Fadiman anointed Twain as “‘our Chaucer, our Homer, our Dante, our Virgil,’ because Huckleberry Finn is the nearest thing we have to a national epic.” Twain scholar David Sloane has recently confirmed these sentiments, noting that “Huckleberry Finn is one of the most steadily experienced projections of America and the American spirit.”

It would seem almost a form of national sacrilege to suggest that Twain’s classic novel could be considered anything other than purely American; it may even appear recidivist to suggest that one of those influences is one of the pre-eminent “dead white males” so widely maligned in the past decade. Yet, Twain’s vision was certainly large and capacious enough to incorporate many streams of influence in his composition of his work, and we might accuse him of either not being prescient enough, or perhaps compliment him for anticipating the need to be willfully resistant toward, contemporary suggestions that one must choose sides in the “culture wars.” For, there is circumstantial evidence, and furthermore, archival proof, to suggest that Huckleberry Finn is not only a consummately American novel, but one that might be viewed as remarkably Greek as well, given its remarkable resemblance to that most ancient of classical epics, the Odyssey of Homer.

The “ancient,” even Homeric qualities of Huckleberry Finn have been long acknowledged, but not as extensively as may be justified. Lionel Trilling compared the place of Huckleberry Finn in the life of an American child as similar to the place of the Odyssey for an Athenian child; Alfred Kazin has suggested that Huck must “become our American Ulysses in order to survive; T. S. Eliot has also noted the similarity inasmuch as “we come to see Huck himself in the end as one of the permanent symbolic figures of fiction; not unworthy to take a place with Ulysses, Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Hamlet, and other great discoveries man has made about himself.”

It is not difficult to perceive the immediate similarity of Huckleberry Finn to the Odyssey: both are books about long journeys held loosely together by adventurous episodes at various stops along the way. Both journeys unfold over water, and water is portrayed in each work as both a friend – providing escape and comfort – and as a foe, threatening destruction and death. Each work seems holds out a tension between the attractions of “home” – whether the settled life of “civilization” or Ithaca – and the temptations of undiscovered land. Just as Huck returns to “civilization” at the end of the novel, only to indicate that he intends to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest” (229), in a similar fashion Odysseus must take up a journey anew to a wholly unknown place so far inland that its populace is unfamiliar with the purpose of an oar, mistaking it for a “winnowing fan.” Tradition holds that Odysseus takes up this new task with some relief, as he is likely to feel as constrained by “civilization” as Huck after having beheld the wonders of his journey.

Yet, beyond these most obvious features, upon further comparison the similarities multiply and deepen. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, like the Odyssey, is a sequel to a successful earlier work. A secondary figure from each earlier work – Huck Finn and Odysseus – becomes the main, even title characters in each sequel. There are narrative similarities in each sequel: like Huckleberry Finn, told in the first person by Huck, a significant portion of Odysseus’s tale is told by himself before the court of the Phaiakians, from Books 9-12 (in contrast to the third-person, omniscient voice of the narrator in both Tom Sawyer and the Iliad). Both works rely heavily on cultural oral traditions, the Odyssey literally performed from memory by rhapsodes, and Huckleberry Finn drawing extensively from dialects of the south, as Twain points out in the “Explanatory” statement at the beginning of the novel.

Along with such structural similarities, there are more specific similarities in character between all the works, original and sequel alike. Tom Sawyer, the main character in the original novel, is, like Achilles of the Iliad, concerned almost above all with honor. Consistent with his portrayal in Tom Sawyer, Tom declares in Chapter 35 of Huckleberry Finn, while speaking of “stealing” Jim, that “there’s more honor in getting him out through a lot of difficulties and dangers, where there warn’t one of them furnished to you by the people who it was their duty to furnish them, and you had to contrive them all out of your own head” (188). Achilles, of course, is also concerned with the perception that his actions are honorable, and seeks recompense for his great deeds, which have been withdrawn by Agamemnon:

“Yet still the heart in me swells up in anger, when I remember
the disgrace that [Agamemnon] wrought upon me before the Argives…
as if I were some dishonoured vagabond."

By contrast, both Huck and Odysseus are supremely concerned with the efficacy of their actions, and not, in the first instance, with the perception by others that their actions are honorable. As Huck declares in response to Tom’s elaborate machinations for freeing Jim, “as for me, I don’t care shucks for the morality of it, nohow. When I start to steal a nigger, or a watermelon, or a Sunday-school book; and if a pick’s the handiest thing, that’s the thing I’m agoing to dig that nigger or that watermelon or that Sunday-school book out with; and I don’t give a dead rat what the authorities thinks about it nuther” (194). Similarly, Odysseus is not ashamed to reveal to the Phaiakians during his long tale that he willingly plundered cities during his attempted homecoming; that he did not defeat the Cyclops by force, but by chicanery; that he willingly lies to protect his identity, using the name “Noman” to protect himself (against the standard heroic code of declaring one’s identity and the identity of one’s father as well). Perhaps as an ultimate measure of Odysseus’s willingness to sacrifice honor for efficiency, it is revealed that he willingly used poisoned arrows as a method of fighting, a practice at odds with the accepted norms of Homeric warfare.

Moreover, both characters are renowned for their trickery, theft, facility with disguises, and for their overall cleverness. Both Huck and Odysseus assume different identities as the situation warrants: Huck pretends, among other things, to be a young girl while gathering information before setting out; to be an abandoned or lonely young boy (not a long stretch, in point of fact), as he often claims on the raft (often to protect Jim); and even, at the novel’s conclusion, to be Tom Sawyer. Odysseus tells five separate stories upon his return to Ithaca to different people, each time claiming to be a different person who has arrived on Ithaca by means of different adventures. During most of the second half of the Odyssey, Odysseus is disguised in the outfit of a poor beggar, only identified by means of a scar on his leg by his nurse of old, Eurycleia. Both Huck and Odysseus are often and expressly concerned with the current condition of their stomachs, and each willingly steals food to fill it. Both characters, notably, perform many of their activities at night, endowing their actions with a sense of hiddenness and undetectablity, and suggesting a life led in a shadow-world outside the regular diurnal activities of most people. Above all, each character, borrowing Homer’s description of Odysseus from the first line of the Odyssey, is polutropos: boy and man of many ways, devices, tricks, skills, minds.

All of these similarities strike one as superbly coincidental, but, like many literary comparisons, fascinating coincidences that deserve the briefest mention, and hardly further commentary. However, further commentary appears warranted, because archival investigation suggests the strong possibility that these apparent coincidences were noted and even encouraged by Twain. Archival evidence from Twain's papers suggests that during and especially toward completion of the manuscript of Huckleberry Finn, Twain was thinking about the story of the Odyssey and even implicitly inviting comparison of the epic to his nearly-completed novel.

Twain composed Huckleberry Finn in several stages. He composed one half - approximately four-hundred manuscript pages - in 1876, to the end of Chapter 17. He completed chapters 17-20 and part of 21 after slow progress in 1880, and completed the manuscript in a burst of activity in 1883, when he wrote chapters 21-43. As Twain was completing the manuscript in 1883, he also composed a burlesque book review of Homer's Odyssey, which has been never published - unfortunately, as, in addition to its comic wit, its wider dissemination might have made the comparison between Huckleberry Finn and the Odyssey more evident and unavoidable.

Entitled "Book Notes: Eine Erzählung aus der Alten Welt. Von Die Odyssey," on twenty-five pages written in long-hand, Twain purports to review a book of adventures "evidently by a new hand," a German author named "Herr Homer." While Twain claims the manuscript is not without "merit of a certain kind," he is largely critical of the new entry in the travel literature for a number of glaring errors, not the least of which is the title, which Twain observes is a bad pun on the story itself, "the-odd-I-see."

There are more serious problems with the book, in Twain's view, including a number of narrative difficulties in the text. He opens with a critique of the poetic form: "verse is not in this writer's line, and it is not a good vehicle of travel anyway." This critique is amusing, but all the more striking when one considers that in September 1880, as Twain took up writing Huckleberry Finn again after a long hiatus, Twain wrote the following verse by John Sheffield in his Notebook (no. 19):

"Read Homer once, and you can read no more
For all books appear so mean, so poor;
Verse will seem prose; but still persist to read,
and Homer will be all the books you need."

Sheffield effectively criticizes the "proselike" character of Homer's verse, but insists that a reader "persist to read." These lines may have been in Twain's mind as he wrote the burlesque, especially given Twain's own attention in Huckleberry Finn to narrative considerations, and indicated how seriously he took the relation of narrative form and the travel genre, and his own interest in matching a contemporary travel narrative to the "native" style of the U.S. Twain seems to confirm these narrative kinds of considerations in his hilarious critique of "Herr Homer's" use of German as straining credulity.

The main critique in Twain's "review" concerns the substance of Homer's adventure tale - the story itself is not believable, the exotic descriptions co-existing at such odds with its setting in upstate New York cities like Troy and Ithaca - and filled with unsatisfying and unsavory characters. Ulysses, in particular, receives the disapproval of Twain, for, while "Ulysses was a king," he "was a king with the morals of a burglar and the appetites of a tramp." One disturbing aspect of the story is the constant attention to eating in the book: "There is too much space given over to eating…. The people in this volume eat almost as often, and almost as much, as do Mr. Dickens' characters, and the food is usually as repulsive as is Mr. Dickens' food." The character of Ulysses, in short, bears a striking resemblance to notable features of Huckleberry Finn, who, while not a king, does appear from time to time to have the morals of a burglar - after all, he believes that he has helped steal Jim from Miss Watson - and one can easily count over a dozen instances in the novel when rather explicit detail is paid to the appetites and meals of Huck and various characters.

Despite his distaste for these various qualities of the Odyssey - features that bear striking resemblance to Huckleberry Finn - he goes on to note something worth praising in Mr. Homer's work: "But [Ulysses] does finally get himself out of the State of New York, and then your confusion dissipates, your embarrassment ceases, and you soon begin to take an interest in the excursions and the way he inflates his facts." Despite those aspects that Twain purports to find distasteful about the book – its unbelievability, its crass dwelling on appetites, its immoral characters, Twain nevertheless finds the story itself altogether absorbing and praiseworthy. In short, if one considers that Twain writes this “review” at the same time that he completes Huckleberry Finn, one might conclude that Twain to some extent “anticipates” a number of criticisms that will be lodged against his own travel novel, and by poking fun at them in the context of the Odyssey – a recognized masterpiece – he effectively seeks to disarm such future critiques of his own book, and by extension both seeks to make an implicit comparison of Huckleberry Finn with the Odyssey, both its “weaknesses,” but more importantly, its status as a “classic” in spite of those purported weaknesses.

This latter suspicion is all but confirmed when one considers one of many reviews of Huckleberry Finn that could be citing the same criticisms that Twain leveled at Herr Homer’s Die Odyssey. Joseph Wood Krutch’s 1954 New York Times review is an excellent case in point, in which he wrote:

"Everybody knows that Huckleberry Finn is an unintentionally bad novel in certain fundamental respects. Much of it is so improbable as to become at times wholly unconvincing on one level of understanding. It is also episodic, clumsily plotted, and sometimes as crudely melodramatic as a dime novel. One could reasonably argue that, as a whole, it is a botched job…."

Yet, even as Krutch finds aspects of the plot almost irredeemably hopeless, like Twain in his “review” of the Odyssey, he finally finds the description of the journey itself to be the saving grace of Twain’s novel:

"The river journey is as unforgettable as the march of the Ten Thousand or the wanderings of Ulysses. By comparison to that fact, the badness of the plotting or the “unconvincing” aspects of the episodes is as irrelevant as the “unconvincing” aspects of the story of the Cyclops."

As improbable as it would seem that Krutch read Twain’s unpublished burlesque review of the Odyssey, he appears to so unconsciously echo the main criticism of Twain’s review so closely – even comparing the story, as well as the “unbelievable” plotting of Huckleberry Finn to the Odyssey – that one marvels more at Twain’s prescience than Krutch’s unaware echoes.

Beyond this prescient undermining of future criticisms of his novel, Twain may have wished to invite comparison of Huckleberry Finn to the Odyssey for more substantive thematic reasons. Both works, after all, beyond their similarities as tales of journeying, homecoming and new departures to the wilderness, are depictions of the sacrifices that human beings are willing to make on behalf of other human beings. The Odyssey highlights this feature by beginning, famously, in medias res, on the island of Calypso, the location where Odysseus spends seven of the ten years of his homecoming. Calypso makes Odysseus an offer that few men, it is suggested, can refuse: Odysseus is offered immortality if he will remain on the island with her for eternity, forgo homecoming and forget his wife Penelope, his son Telemachus and the people of Ithaca. Homer artfully reminds us how difficult it is for mortals to decline the offer of immortality: he begins Book 5 – the book that begins the tale of Odysseus’ homecoming after the first four books tell of Telemachus’ search for his father’s whereabouts – by departing from the usual formulaic invocation of Dawn spreading her rosy fingers, and instead states, “Now Dawn rose from her bed, where she lay by haughty Tithonus.” Homer implicitly invites us to compare Odysseus – who consistently declines Calypso’s offer of immortality – with the example of Tithonus, who, offered immortality by Dawn, accepts readily only to find as the years pass that he forgot to ask for eternal youth as well. Despite the hazards of accepting the offer of immortality, the example of Tithonus suggests, it remains the fond wish of mortals to believe they can be the exception to the rule of death’s finality.

What makes Odysseus’ decision to return to Ithaca all the more remarkable is that he – unlike most mortals – has seen the horrific afterlife that awaits him after his death, now ensured once he has left Calypso’s island. We only find out the dire import of his decision to decline immortality when, in Book 11, he tells the Phaiakians of his journey to the underworld. “Life” there is horrific: the dead can only speak when they have drunk the warm blood of a slaughtered sheep; they are insubstantial shades, incapable of embracing or being embraced; each seems frozen forever with bitterness at the circumstances of their deaths. Yet, even having journeyed to the underworld, Odysseus chooses his own inevitable death, claiming that his connections to the people he loves – despite, or perhaps because of their imperfections – transcends any temptation he might have to prolong his life at the expense of achieving his homecoming.

Odysseus’ choice is echoed by that portentous choice made by Huckleberry Finn in Chapter 31 of Twain’s novel. Believing that he is wrongfully helping Jim escape, he writes a note to Miss Watson telling her where she can find her missing slave. Believing he has done the right thing, he thinks how close he came to “being lost and going to hell” (169). For all of Huck’s claims that he wouldn’t mind going to the “bad place” when receiving his religious education at Miss Watson’s hands in Chapter 1 (p. 8), he clearly fears for the state of his eternal soul in this dark moment of choice in Chapter 31. Yet, having written the note to Miss Watson, he then thinks about the concrete instances of fellowship and friendship that marked his relationship with Jim:

"And got to thinking about our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was…; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper." [169]

Like Odysseus, Huck’s affections are concrete, his vision of immortality challenged the real affections and love that binds him to specific people. Like Odysseus, he knows how perfect immortality (now, in heaven) promises to be, and knows (via Miss Watson) how horrific Hell forebodes to be. Yet, he decides in favor of his affections and against the narrowly self-interested protection of his own soul, and thereby ends up doing the right thing:

"It was a close place. I took [the paper] up, and held it in my hand. I was trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
'All right then, I’ll go to hell' – and tore it up." [169]

Like many of the other resemblances between the two works, the fundamental choice of life-paths that face Odysseus and Huck, one promising an easy immortality, the other a harrowing existence in a horrific afterworld, presents a remarkable, startling similarity that might be discounted as coincidence but for the knowledge that Twain himself was thinking about the Odyssey as he completed Huckleberry Finn in 1863. The resemblance may simply point to the recurrent themes of sacrifice and friendship that underlie many enduring works of literature. Or, if we are to take into consideration Twain’s own attentiveness to the “Herr Homer’s” epic at that critical time, we may be led to conclude Huck was not only the consummate American, and not only a little Greek as well, but, like Odysseus, a human being above all.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Black Friday

Yesterday's death-by-trampling of a Wal-Mart employee invites, even demands, moral condemnation, and further points symbolically to a profoundly sick culture in which the prospect of cheap pleasures trumps the value of human life. Like a morality play, we have the satisfaction of seeing SIN and GREED personified, and the pleasure of condemning their bloodthirsty lusts from the comfort and even self-satisfaction of our place amid the audience. We experience the odd and what should be discomfiting satisfaction of moral disapprobation, the tut-tutting over morning coffee, the shaking of one's head and then the outraged denunciation of the murderous and ravaging hordes before turning the page to see what football games ESPN is carrying today.

Writ large, it seems to embody the moral rot that summarizes the causes of our economic woes: our mad, nearly insane fervor to get something for virtually nothing; the symbolic role of Wal-Mart and its kin in stoking our willingness to trade any semblance of an economy embedded in the lives and folkways of a community for the promise of everyday low prices achieved by "globalization," particularly sweatshop conditions for workers overseas, the evisceration of local businesses, and the outsourcing of jobs in "the developed world"; our simultaneous rush to compromise the responsible care for our children and our communities into the future in the name of instant gratification; a culture glutted by superfluous goods that aim mainly to distract us from gutted communities and eviscerated cultures (cultures whose core role was to provide and pass along many of the stories, poems, plays and music that was worthy of our leisure), and our near-insane fixation on acquiring the newest and flashiest gimmick; and, perhaps above all, our mindless and self-indulgent insistence on living beyond our means, of borrowing against the future on terms set by a universally greedy culture in the present - terms that would never be agreed to by those future generations considering the debts and enormous sums that will be borne by those not yet born. And, for most of us, over this societal disaster we tut-tut, shake our heads and call down moral disapprobation on the wrong-doers.

The deeper tragedy of this story, and its broader meaning, I suspect, is our collective incapacity to respond adequately to what we read everyday in the papers or see on the news - born in the first instance of our inability to understand what we are reading and seeing. We tend to understand our current crisis as the result of economic malfeasance, bad behavior that got out of hand, and which - if moderated suitably - can again be undertaken toward the reinvigoration of a robust growth economy. Depending one one's partisan allegiance, the fault lies with the greedy Wall Street bankers and corporations, or the skewed incentives created by legislation that forced Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to make loans to people who reasonably should not have mortgages. Such partisan explanations - another version of tut-tutting over our morning coffee - masks the deepest roots of our disorder, and permits us the comfort of identifying a bad guy who bears responsibility for ruining a perfectly good economy. In this sense, the "partisans" are in deep agreement that everything is basically fine - we feign disagreement in our argument over who will be allotted blame (just as the officials are now scouring the store video to discern who killed the Wal-Mart employee) without pausing to reflect on the deeper root causes of our riotous behavior, writ small and large.

We are now in an in-between time, an interregnum between rulers both of whom share a fundamental commitment to "repairing" our broken economy by means of massive public expenditure - sums on a scale never before seen, and difficult to fathom. Before the fix is finished we will collectively be on the hook for TRILLIONS of dollars, sums borrowed from nations such as China and the oil exporting nations of the Middle East, those nations to whom we have been shipping vast sums of our assets and then debts in pursuit of oil and plastic derivatives made from oil and sold by Wal-Mart. Having undergone a barrage of promises for "change," we passively observe the kind of change that took place on the deck of the Titanic as musical chairs were being played before the encounter with the iceberg (the difference now: we have hit the iceberg, and still we play musical chairs - and not "Nearer My God to Thee").

With oil prices a third of their highest recorded price, our attention has been averted from the great and daunting challenge of planetary depletion and focused instead on the great and daunting challenge of financial and economic disaster. Yet, in both instances, the root cause of each challenge, and our flailing and feeble reaction, are the same. Both have been caused by the refusal to live within our means, and our borrowing against the future in the name of present satisfaction. Both are born of a misguided and unearned belief in entitlement. Both are sustained by a profound self-induced blindness to costs and consequences. Both are rooted in our learned ability to divorce ourselves from past and future alike, to disconnect ourselves from an understanding of our place in generations, the obligations we bear from the past and the duties we owe to the future. Both crises were fomented by the destruction of cultures - undermined by their replacement with instant gratification and the profligate employment of energy utilized to decouple our lived lives from everything necessary for the sustenance of life and the maintenance of culture, above all by disconnecting folkways of human life to particular places and particular people. Our oscillating crises of resources and finance - assuredly a pairing that will continue to make alternating appearances in shorter and more desperate cycles - have their deepest roots in a modern project that actively educated us to see the world as existing solely for our extraction and utility, a dead resource subject to our dominion for the sake of our comfort and satiation. Having reveled all too recently at the peak of extraction and the creation of mountainous debt that could no longer be sustained, we look down toward a steep abyss, suddenly conscious of our precariousness but wholly unprepared, even unaware that there was any alternative to continued ascent toward permanent growth (a condition also known as cancer...).

And to both crises our reactions are the same: we can fix it and go on in exactly the same manner. As evidence mounts of planetary depletion, we cut down rainforests to plant sugar cane, process food into fuel, accelerate our removal of mountaintops to burn more "clean coal" and await a miraculous transportation solution from a bankrupted Detroit. To solve our financial crisis, we take on massive new quantities of debt to bail out countless financial institutions and soon a huge expenditure in new "infrastructure," including massive outlays on building... new roads! In both instances we seek to assign blame on one culprit or another (High oil prices? Must be the Oil companies, the Saudis, the guvment. A financial crisis? Must be Wall Street bankers, AIG executives on junkets, Barney Frank, Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac - someone, anyone, other than each of us). We all labor under a pervasive and deeply formative collective delusion that our way of life - based upon a conception that arose in the early modern period of a dead and subjected nature - is somehow natural, necessary, and unavoidable. We need only to punish the evil-doers, fix our current crisis and continue our global profligacy.

And, today, if we can identify the rampaging "consumers" who trampled to death that poor man who sought to open the doors of Wal-Mart for minimum wage on Black Friday, we will exonerate ourselves from any stain that we may all bear in assenting to a culture in which hordes stampede for cheap flat screen televisions and microwaves, convinced that what matters most is what we have, not who we are.

God forgive us all.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Party Time

Last night I dined with several very fine young men, students of Georgetown who find themselves surrounded by ascendant liberalism and who were seeking together to defend what seems defensible in conservatism. Much of the conversation centered on what can be done to improve the fortunes of the Republican party, that Party that has seemed to embody the antithesis of liberalism during their formative years. Their concerns mirrored the belief of their elders: indeed, what has happened over the past half-century is an ever-greater identification of a certain definition of conservatism (the "fusionism" achieved by Buckley and others) and the Republican party.

I was quietly observant for much of that conversation, lost a bit in my own reflections whether this belief of the easy identification of conservatism and the Republican Party was something that could be redressed, or whether it had become so deeply formative amongst a younger generation that it was all but impervious to reconsideration. In spite of the evidence of the past eight years - the example offered by that purported savior of conservatism, the true heir of Reagan, George W. Bush who encouraged financial profligacy at home and Wilsonian foreign policy abroad, who abrogated the Constitution and socialized major parts of American industry - still there is a belief across the land that the Republican party is somehow fundamentally conservative. And, at the same time there is the belief that the Democratic party is incontestably liberal, in spite of the calls by Jimmy Carter to reduce American reliance on foreign oil as long ago as 1979 (a call ridiculed by Reagan and his supporters), Clinton's fiscal responsibility, and even the actual reduction in the number of abortions during the Clinton years.

In truth, neither party is nor can be a pure expression of ideology in the American electoral system. This is actually a good thing - it is a major contributor to the American resistance to ideology - but it can sometimes be ignored or wished away during election season, when ideology becomes more evident (exacerbated by our Primary system) and reified above all in symbolic politics. It has been made worse - much worse - by the contemporary emphasis on policy-making through the Courts (liberal bear a particular responsibility here), that institution through which ideology can be most coherently advanced. Conservatives have themselves in turn concentrated on achieving victories in the Courts, and to do so have increasingly adopted their own forms of ideological reasoning in order to get a hearing within a legal system that only recognizes a such reasoning. Many of our conservatives today speak like Kantians rather than like Burkeans or Chestertonians. Certainly there are ideological tendencies and major policy differences between the parties, but what this most recent election has made possible - and what I hope will occur - is the possibility of at least modestly disassociating conservative commitments from easy identification with the Republican party. Many have become lazy, or simply habituated, into thinking that they are the same, but enough evidence can be gathered from recent political history to suggest that conservative ends are alternatively pursued and betrayed by both Parties. Those who maintain a deeper philosophical and theological allegiance to certain conservative beliefs should be wary of this close identification with one party, and even the dangerous ideological belief that one's goals can be achieved through a political program. Frankly, the truth is that the conservative view is likely to be a permanent minority voice in modernity, and thus must maintain the capacity to be poised in opposition, and to work - where possible - with the dominant forces. This means developing the difficult capacity to be somewhat apart, yet avoid complete disengagement.

These concerns have been very well-expressed in a recent essay by John Haldane of St. Andrews, who has written a cautionary note to his American colleagues on the website "Public Discourse." I recommend it, particularly the following passage:

It has been a mistake for moral conservatives to associate their concerns with opposition to one candidate and one party. Not only has the previous administration proved itself unworthy, but the state of the Republican party continues to be divided over values such that, had it won the White House and Congressional elections, it would not have delivered a range of policies that would have addressed moral concerns about the conduct of war, the management of markets, the securing of marriage, or the protection of the unborn.

While it would be wrong to abandon the political parties, it would be equally mistaken to side with one of them. The fact is that elections will always be fought and decided on a range of issues and the balance will sometimes favour one side, then another. Social conservatives who look to politics should be seeking to work within both parties, and in the case of the Democrats, seeking to return them to a historical position that was once more in line with Christian moral values and Catholic social teaching than was that of the Republicans.

There is also a further reason to be wary of confusing moral concerns with the fortunes of a political party. Those within a chosen party whose primary interest is pursuing electoral victory may prove fiercer enemies of one’s moral position than political opponents in other parties.

Social conservatives should understand that in American politics - and all modern politics, really - they will never have a true "party." Particularly in modernity, a time shaped to repudiate many of the basic commitments of conservatives (indeed, a time that gave rise to the peculiar beast called "conservatism") there will always be a degree of political homelessness. Conservatives should aim to achieve some political ends, but understand that those aims will always be partially or imperfectly reflected in the commitments of all modern parties, and should seek, where possible, to reinforce or extend those commitments where they can be found. There is an odd willfulness on the part of many so-called conservatives to damn every action and word of Obama even as they excuse the actions of Bush. This reflects, in my mind, the sad reality that the Will to Power has deeply infiltrated itself within some thoughtful people who ought rightly to be the greatest opponents of that Nietzschean ambition.

Social Justice

In the Roman Catholic church, Sunday was the last Ordinary Sunday of the liturgical year; this coming Sunday marks the beginning of a new liturgical year, the first Sunday of Advent when we await with anticipation the birth of Christ.

The gospel reading of Sunday was striking to me in how it both confirms certain Catholic commitments to "social justice" even as it rubs against the grain of other aspects. Here are the lines from Matthew 25:31-46:

Jesus said to his disciples:
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him,
he will sit upon his glorious throne,
and all the nations will be assembled before him.
And he will separate them one from another,
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the king will say to those on his right,
'Come, you who are blessed by my Father.
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say,
'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,
or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply,
'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left,
'Depart from me, you accursed,
into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
For I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
a stranger and you gave me no welcome,
naked and you gave me no clothing,
ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
Then they will answer and say,
'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison,
and not minister to your needs?’
He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you,
what you did not do for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me.’
And these will go off to eternal punishment,
but the righteous to eternal life."

Having now taught at Georgetown for some three years, I have come to learn that the officialdom of the university is most apt to embrace its Catholic identity when it comes to issues of "social justice." The phrase is used promiscuously and without reflection: there seems to be a widespread assumption that we know what social justice is, and thus there is no further need for discussion about it. Yet, as someone who regularly teaches the Republic of Plato - a long dialogue devoted to the subject of exploring what justice is, and which concludes with some ambiguity whether it has been adequately defined much less made realizable - I am deeply uncomfortable with the notion that we can bandy around such terms within a university that is supposed to be devoted, in part, to the exploration of just what such terms mean.

In particular, I am constantly struck by the strain implied in the combination of the words "social" and "justice." Justice, according to the ancient definition, is according to each what is due (whether reward or punishment). Justice thus - as the word suggests - requires judgment and discrimination. By this definition, justice is a thing pertaining to individuals - according to your actions you can and will be judged. Strikingly, in last Sunday's gospel reading, Jesus (as he does often) asserts his role as judge of individuals who do, or do not, act in accordance with his precepts. It is widely the view today that Jesus preached a message of love and forgiveness - which he did - but he was also a harsh judge to those who did not measure up, even promising damnation in "the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" for those who do not "do for one of the least ones." Judgment shall be rendered upon individuals, and they shall be rewarded or condemned according to just deserts.

By contrast, adding the word "social" to justice implies that justice is a collective quality. Justice, it would seem, consists of treating everyone equally. According to Georgetown's "Justice Report" of 1999, "justice issues" that can occupy the faculty include:

specific issues-focus, such as poverty, prejudice and tolerance, slavery, human rights, and language minorities; Catholic social thought; and ethics across a wide range of applications. In the social sciences, faculty research covers policy applications; structural inequalities of race, gender, and class; diversity issues related to religion, nationality, language, sexual identity, gender, and ethnicity; and specific episodes or manifestations of injustice, such as slavery, the holocaust,
and colonialism. In the natural sciences, the topics seem to fit into few categories, such as environmental justice issues--that is, differential access to resources; varying burdens imposed by exposure to pollutants or toxins; and access to technology and the effects of technology transfers. In business, the research topics include business ethics and socially responsible business practices; labor and management issues; and economic justice issues such as access to credit for minorities and the "glass ceiling."

Many of these "justice issues" imply (without reflection on what justice is) that justice has the aim of achieving equality, particularly material equality. By implication, social justice incorporates the commitment to treating unlike things equally, and thus contradicts the classical definition of justice simpliciter. It's interesting to raise the question of what would be lost by removing the word "social" to the language of justice. It could be suggested that the addition of the word "social" allows one the appearance of a commitment to justice while in fact rejecting its substance.

Still, it would be wrong to suggest that a commitment to justice implies an embrace of a Darwinian world in which each person gets what they deserve from a cruel and unforgiving world. After all, Jesus asserts that he will render judgment based upon what one does - or does not do - "for the least of these." We are called to a life of charity - of love - on behalf of those who are less fortunate. Jesus does not imply that our aim or goal is to relieve their condition of poverty or inequality - after all, he insists that "the poor will always be with you" in John 12:8. He does not claim that our efforts on behalf of the poor will have the effect of eliminating poverty or suffering from the world; the human condition is one in which we will always have inequality, including the unequal capacity for charity. Rather, this gospel seems to say that what matters less is the ultimate effect of our charity - the aim to give aid and comfort to the poor - than our willingness to engage in charity for the right reasons, above all, our capacity for selflessness, the governing of our self-centeredness and self-satisfaction. In the end, charity is not the sometimes condescending actions of haves providing for have-nots, but a universal call to govern the aggrandizement of self and the call to act in the manner of Christ - a person who was himself arguably quite poor, yet who dedicated his life to helping others. According to contemporary versions of "social justice," it would be all but inconceivable that the poor and disadvantaged would be similarly called to act with charity toward others, yet this seems to be precisely what Jesus calls for. We will be judged not for alleviating poverty in this world, but on the basis of whether we acted on behalf of our own advancement, comfort and position, or whether we chastened and at times overcame our devotion to self.

We are entering a time when it will become more evident than ever that the poor are always with us. In the midst of a still wealthy and bountiful world, more people are going hungry and are put in a condition of desperation by harrowing economic times. We will see greater and more fervent demands for "social justice" accompanying these arduous days. But even as structures and programs are initiated with the aim of effecting material equality, I suspect that the proper motivation - charity born of the chastening of self - will be widely lacking. From those who will be relieved, there will likely be greed; from those whose goods will be distributed to others according to law, there will be resentment. There will perhaps be more "social justice," but little charity on the part of anyone in these coming transactions, and thus we will ALL be subject to the righteous judgment of Christ when "all the nations shall be assembled before him."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Congratulations, You are Our 100,000 Visitor

Well, it just happened - the 100,000th visitor to my little outpost of insanity, just about two years after I started this wee "blawg." We're having a small party here - me, Henry Adams and a bottle of bourbon that was the gift of a Kentucky friend who is now a nun. Good times.

Here's what I know about my 100,000th visitor - he or she or them is/are from Rochelle, Illinois, located at: 41.9627, -89.0511. He or she uses a Mac, so obviously is very hip and very cool. If the lucky visitor will send me a note, I'll send you a prize - a free copy of one of my books of your choice. Which may be more a curse than a blessing. I'll deface it with my signature for free, if you want. Congratulations! Or condolences!

[I actually wish 100K had been the 100,001st visitor - no offense to our reader from Rochelle - who happens to be from Hillsborough, New Hampshire. It would have been nice symmetry, since I spent several weeks of most summers of my childhood with my family at a small cabin on Lake Pierce, just outside Hillsborough. Every summer we'd take a tour through Franklin Pierce's Homestead in Hillsborough, the nice house of a mediocre President for whom I harbor nostalgic fondness, nonetheless. I'll send you a runner's up prize, if you drop me a note. It will be only slightly less valuable than the amazing grand prize...].

You can reach me at: pdeneen (AT)

As for the meaning of this momentous occasion - I only note that of the two books I've written and one I've edited, I have yet to sell more than 700 copies of any, and there's no telling how many of that small number of devotees has read a word. The academic audience is small, cramped and over-specialized; but ideas arguably can and should receive a wider airing, at least if they are worthy of consideration. I'm gratified and humbled by this readership, and hope that there is something of worth to be found here. I think it's fair to say that you certainly get your money's worth here...

Now, back to that bourbon....

Monday, November 17, 2008

Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking

In spite of the praise for and embrace of “diversity” on nearly every campus in the nation, there is one orthodoxy upon which all campuses now largely and uniformly agree: the aim of a university education is to inculcate among students the skill of “critical thinking.” As various requirements in humanities, social sciences and the natural sciences are eliminated, reduced, or replaced by a set of “distribution requirements,” colleges and universities increasingly signal that it is less any particular content or specific knowledge that matters than the ability to think critically about any and all issues. The skills that one learns in any given course – whether geology, philosophy, literature, sociology, physics, theology or political science, and so on – are fungible and transportable, a set of tools that can be used to analyze any topic or idea that falls within the general family of inquiry that is learned in a given course. “Critical thinking” is now effectively the core curriculum, or its functional equivalent, at most of our colleges and universities.

This is a striking fact given that there is almost no discussion about what “critical thinking” is. There is a general low-level and largely underarticulated agreement that it is a good and desirable thing, and a shared sense that both “criticism” and “thinking” are praiseworthy, by themselves and especially in combination. In contrast to the curricular “culture wars” of the 1980s – during which debates over the content of curriculum were vehement and heated, stoked in part by protests against “Western Civ” and Allan Bloom’s broadside The Closing of the American Mind – there is today almost no discussion – whether national or local – about what is meant by “critical thinking.” This absence of discussion gives rise to the suspicion that what mattered for many participants in the “culture wars” was not so much the content of the curriculum per se than its ultimate evisceration. What is studiously avoided on most campuses today is a revival of the curricular debates that faded after their apogee in the 1980s, in the main because those debates have been decidedly won by the party that was ultimately devoted not to an alternative curriculum, but to its absence. What was sought was not the abandonment of certain books in favor of certain other books, but the abandonment of the idea that there were normative standards or moral lessons that could be drawn from books at all. What was sought was the defeat of the idea of education that involved moral formation based upon an inherited tradition discoverable by inquiry and reflection encouraged by the reading of great books, and instead its replacement by an ideal of a free-floating liberated “subject” who was capable of “thinking critically” about any and all subjects except the basic presuppositions of what constituted “critical thinking” and associated substantive commitments. The content of books was ultimately an obstacle to this goal, except inasmuch as books could serve as the raw material for the inculcation of “critical thinking.”

“Critical thinking” is a form of intentional deracination and displacement. Its basic assumption is that students enter college or university with a set of under-explored moral commitments that they have inherited from the broader culture. Most dangerous and of concern are those students who enter college with traditional, particularly religious commitments that represent an obstacle to “critical thinking.” The implicit opposite of “critical thinking” is faith, understood as an unreflective set of commitments to pre- or anti-rational beliefs. An education in critical thinking takes on the appearance of contentless inquiry, but is in fact deeply informed by a considerable set of Enlightenment beliefs, including the effort to inculcate deracinated reason, a conception of the individual as a monadic “self,” antipathy to culture and religion, philosophical skepticism, a deep-seated materialism, and a devotion to a cosmopolitan outlook that permits one to be comfortable everywhere and nowhere in particular. The vast panoply of our “diverse” institutions of higher education are increasingly dedicated to the uniform formation of this particular sort of human being, and in the absence of a good understanding of the implicit content of “critical thinking,” are successful in that endeavor.

This is particularly a striking fact at some of our leading Catholic colleges and universities which, in a pursuit to be seen as respectable by their secular and disaffiliated peers and attractive to contemporary faculty, students and parents, strive to embrace with the fervency of a convert the aim and implicit content of “critical thinking.” Avoiding with equal studiousness discussion of the desired content of remaining requirements in theology and philosophy – those remnants of an increasingly neglected core curriculum – contemporary Catholic administrators and faculty employed at Catholic institutions (fewer of them Catholic with each passing year) instead seek to ensure that our students are equipped with the requisite and valued skills of “critical thinking.” Viewed charitably, such an admonishment reflects the desire for leaders at Catholic educational institutions to prepare their charges for success in a world that requires deracinated, skeptical, materialist and rootless people. They are concerned with the ultimate success of their students. Certainly this aspiration cannot be condemned?

Unfortunately, such a defense is specious if not contradictory: the embrace of the amorphous and underdefined goal of “critical thinking” collides at Catholic schools with an inconvenient truth: the basis of Catholic education begins with an acknowledgment that such an education is devoted to the understanding and embrace of what is true. The charge to engage in limitless and even promiscuous forms of critical thinking runs up against a basic feature and aim of Catholic teaching: that there is a limit on what can be critically regarded – namely those truths articulated in the Nicene Creed, including belief in God and the Holy Trinity, the Resurrection of the body, the communion of the saints, and the promise of life in the world to come. Of course, few Catholic universities articulate explicit devotion to these truths, content instead to offer bromides about “spirituality” and “social justice” that seem to comport at some level with Catholic teachings. Questions raised about pedagogical and curricular approaches that contradict the Church’s teachings are inevitably met by, and defended in the name of, invocations of “academic freedom,” the doctrinal twin and umbrella defense of the goal of “critical thinking.” Thus, recently the President of Georgetown University could define the core goals of a Georgetown education to include the aim of “respecting academic freedom and discourse,” a particular form of respect that is shared by many if not most of the officials that lead or teach at Catholic institutions.

Ironically, this invocation of the fundamental inviolability of academic freedom was offered in the course of apparent fervent agreement with the main themes of Pope Benedict XVI’s lecture to Catholic university leaders, delivered on April 17, 2008 at the Catholic University of America. In that address the Pope announced that “I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you.” Doubtlessly many Catholic leaders were tempted to stop their hearing or reading of the Pope’s words here. However, His Holiness continued, “Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission; a mission at the heart of the Church’s munus docendi and not somehow autonomous or independent of it.”

The concept of “critical thinking” has come to be an aim that comports with the questioning of all things, including the very truths that lie at the heart of Catholic belief. Such questioning takes place under the rubric of “academic freedom,” permitting faculty at Catholic institutions to engage in what are at times aggressive disagreements with Catholic belief inside and outside the classroom, and disallowing administrators to restrain or even reprimand faculty who engage in such forms of critique. While residual Catholic belief and habit might persist among some faculty and in the remnants of a core curriculum, in fact the trajectory of the adoption of the goal of “critical thinking” among leading Catholic universities – their faculty and administration – is ultimately to make those institutions indistinguishable from their secular and disaffiliated counterparts. This is an intended result of a university culture that demands diversity at every turn, but in fact seeks with ferocious devotion the achievement of a form of uniformity and monoculture.

The greatest irony is that an institution-wide devotion to and encouragement of Catholic belief would permit an actual form of critical thinking to flourish – a form of critical thinking that would be capable of raising fundamental questions about many of the deepest presuppositions of the dominant assumptions of current devotions to “critical thinking.” Catholic belief is now profoundly counter-cultural within the context of the general and widespread university culture. Catholic thought permits thinking critically – in the first instance – about what is meant by critical thinking. It permits those who are informed by its tradition to raise questions about some of the deeply individualistic assumptions at the heart of encouragement to “critical thinking.” It encourages questioning of its deracinating tendencies, its materialist biases, its anti-cultural presuppositions. It offers as witness of a way of life that is guided by a deeply moral and ultimately heaven-directed orientation, in contrast to the commitments of the wider culture. A set of strongly Catholic institutions would represent a true form of diversity in the midst of a dominant and increasingly monolithic set of educational presuppositions. Worth emphasizing is that this is not a debate between a form of religious orthodoxy and narrowing belief against a neutral tool that can be applied in an infinite variety of ways; rather, it is one system of belief against another system of belief, with the defenders of “critical thinking” hiding behind the purported neutrality of method that masks profoundly substantive commitments. The curricular debates of the 1980s had the virtue of forcing the various combatants to put their intellectual cards on the table; our remarkable placidity regarding the near-universal embrace of the goal of “critical thinking” is a reflection of increasing intellectual flaccidity.

Whether Catholic institutions of higher education – their leaders and faculty – will ultimately have the courage of their own convictions to combat this pernicious uniformity is a deeply worrisome question. Increasingly those convictions have been eviscerated or abandoned in the name of joining the chorus of those who would adopt “critical thinking” as our main academic ambition. In doing so, we deprive ourselves of the capacity to think truly critically, and instead tend toward a mind-deadening conformity that is neither capable of true criticism nor of any real independent thought.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Smart People

I was going to write a lengthy comment about Mark Lilla's lamentation over the demise of an intellectually vibrant conservative tradition in America, but Ivan "the K" Keneally has done so at "Culture 11" with insight, verve and wit, leaving me with little more that needs to be said. I commend his critique to your attention.

However, I do think there is one aspect of Lilla's argument that deserves further consideration and emphasis, namely his knee-jerk condemnation - even incomprehension - of conservatives who "mock the advice of Nobel Prize-winning economists and praise the financial acumen of plumbers and builders." The rejection of the wisdom of such highly credentialed experts - and the apparent respect accorded to views of "ordinary Joes" - is unfathomable to Lilla. The self-evident absurdity of such views does not deserve further explanation or commentary on his part.

Surrounded as he is by the denizens of Columbia U., NY, NY, the possibility that the views of Nobel Prize winning economists may be subject to debate and even be specious, while the economic concerns of ordinary folk who produce his food, who build and repair the buildings and bridges and streets that he takes for granted, who patrol the streets and stand ready to put out fires - indeed who repair his toilet - might be relevant, is out of the realm of consideration. Yet it is precisely this massive blind spot that portends the rapid demise of this moment of an apparent liberal triumph. Should we witness the ascent of such elite liberals during the coming years of an Obama presidency, we will quickly see a most stunning comeback of a vibrant and powerful conservative intellectual counterthrust. If Obama is smart, he will stay away, far away, from people like Lilla - although it seems that he has a propensity to surround himself with just these sorts of cocooned intellectuals who drip condescension toward the views of the uncredentialed.

It was our Nobel prize winning economists who argued aggressively on behalf of NAFTA, and were unwilling to seriously consider that one of its effects - intended as it turned out - was to displace thousands upon thousands of small Mexican farmers who had little choice but to seek illegal employment in the United States. Since they would be producing more and better products, the problem of inciting illegal immigration was irrelevant. It was our Nobel prize winning economists who extolled the virtues of outsourcing and globalization, wholly uncognizant of the impact and effect on the "ordinary Joes" and its effects of family, community, and civil society. It is our Nobel prize winning economists who actually argue that global warming - if it does indeed come to pass - will not adversely impact the worldwide GDP other than having an adverse effect on agricultural production. Such declines in agricultural output, they argue, will be nugatory since other industries and economic activities will be needed and will compensate any overall GDP loss in the agricultural realm. The fact that this decline will manifest itself as hunger and starvation doesn't really show up in the models, it seems (though, I'm willing to bet that a plumber or a builder would understand the implications pretty quickly). Don't believe me? Read this lecture by Herman Daly (particularly pp. 13-14), a bonafide economist, who names names, including a Nobel prize winning economist.

The utter presumptuousness and blindness of a view that the expertise of Nobel prize winning economists is unassailable, and the concerns and priorities of everyday ordinary citizens is irrelevant, remains one of the major obstacles to the actual revival of liberalism in this country. An intellectually vibrant conservatism - rightly understood - is actually on the rise, in fact energized by the demise of a long-compromised shotgun wedding with a liberal Republican party. Liberalism - wrongly conceived - remains mired in a self-imposed rut of self-satisfaction and ignorance. If Lilla got out of New York on occasion - say, perhaps, a visit to a certain farm in Kentucky - he might get an education.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What Happened to Peak Oil?

With the collapse of the financial markets and now the wider economy, the price of oil has declined dramatically, from its high near $150 bbl. to just below $60 bbl. yesterday. The massive losses on Wall Street, the shocks to the financial system, the worrying rise of unemployment, the ongoing decline of housing prices, all have combined to depress the price of oil, as the future looks to be one of economic contraction and even deflation. As the world works less, builds less, travels less, and consumes less, the decline in the price of oil seems to be the only bright light in a dismal landscape, relieving the pinch on the wallet that we all felt at the pump only a few months ago.

However, a presentation yesterday by Nobuo Tanaka, Executive Director of the IEA (Internation Energy Agency), paints a different and more worrisome picture. He compares our situation to one of driving a car, and suggests that we drive best when we keep our eyes further ahead where dangers may lie, permitting us to avoid them with foresight and advance warning. With such a longer term perspective in view, he warned his listeners that we continue to face a future of energy constraint, particularly when we consider the ongoing and dramatic decline rates of the world's largest oil fields. While our eyes have been focused on demand - which is softening in the expectation of an economic slowdown - the more important side of the story is production, which - he argues - is one of ongoing and inevitable decline. In spite of the current evidence of softening oil prices, he emphatically stated "the low price energy age is over..."

It's difficult to see now - if I may extend Tanaka's analogy, we're like a driver trying to swerve out of the way of obstacles in our immediate path, and so our eyes are neither further down the road nor on our rearview mirror - but there is a deep connection between our current financial crisis and the reality of peak oil, a connection that is now obscured by our sole focus on the economic downturn and the decline of the price of oil.

Peak oil will manifest itself not as the continuous rise of oil prices, but as a series of ongoing cycles and crises in which declining supplies - and higher prices - will create enormous economic stresses that will in turn lead to economic downturns as economic activity is no longer sustainable. Inflation will follow deflation and so on, leading one to observe perhaps not that the "low price energy era is over" so much as the era of price stability is over. Currently we are told that the current crisis arose due to the declining prices in the housing markets, but deeply related - perhaps even underlying - that decline were the rising prices of oil, the unsustainability of far-flung housing, the tanking of the American automobile industry (that had tied its fate to the prospect of low gas prices), and above all, the replacement of an American manufacturing economy (built on home-grown resources) with a service industry (relying on foreign resources and a global market and financial system designed to ensure their flow into America). Our giant financial Ponzi scheme began to be erected in those years following the American encounter with peak oil and the realization that, in the future, energy would be produced largely by foreign regimes. A vast monetary system was erected to ensure certain American advantages - particularly the pricing of oil in dollars - allowing us to begin a long-term process of off-shoring not only labor, but debt as well, as the world's appetite for oil was manifested as an appetite for dollars and the dollar-denominated instruments that allowed America to run up scandalous levels of debt that would have been impermissible to another nation. Our debt-based economic system was deeply and impenetrably linked to our own declining supplies of oil and the world's rising supplies; and when the world ran up against the upper limits of retrievable oil, the entire system began to unravel. The collapse of the financial markets really began with the encounter with worldwide peak oil.

The particularly nefarious part of this cycle is that it shows how the self-regulating market will actually be unable to redress these calamitous successions of commodity-based inflation and economically-distressed deflation. During the past year the high price of oil has sent a strong price signal for energy innovation as well as conservation; one could not pick up the newspaper without reading some call or plan for development of alternative energy and new fantastical behaviors such as "hyper-miling." Countless new projects were springing from paper to construction site, and massive investment was flowing into alternative energy development. With the economic collapse, many of those projects have been shelved, and those price signals have all but evaporated. Private funding for energy projects has stalled, and public funding is increasingly strained as it has been re-directed toward shoring up the basic economy. Investors are again confirmed in their view that investments in alternative energy are too risky, since - without a floor on the price of oil - there can be assurance that the development of energies that seem reasonable profitable with oil over $100 bbl. can be rendered a fool's bet nearly overnight.

When we work our way through this current economic crisis - as we will, if slowly and painfully - we will emerge on the other side again suddenly cognizant of declining rates of oil production and with the realization that we have again lost several years during which we should have - but were unable to - been planning for an alternative future. We will emerge with less oil being produced, and prices that will again skyrocket, likely reaching levels that will make previous highs look cheap. We will again curse the oil companies and the oil speculators (what ever happened to our animus against them? We only dislike speculators when they are making, and not losing, money), failing to understand that it is our own appetites and short-term thinking that is to blame. We will lurch again toward another economic calamity, with commodity-based inflation again creating unbearable economic stresses again leading to an economic downturn. This cycle will ensure that we are incapable of a long-term and sustained effort to develop alternative fuels and alternative habits, but will manifest itself assuredly in our confusion over our apparent lack of power and control over a world over which we were assured mastery. The market will self-regulate, but we will discover - perhaps too late - that its self-regulation is not necessarily to the advantage of human societies.

My small contribution: perhaps a first step is to cease using analogies involving automobiles. That may help us in achieving a truer and more fundamental form of long-term thinking...

UPDATE: Sharon Astyk takes the analysis a step further - noting that our current proposals to ramp up a massive green economy represents more of the same. Her conclusion:

"We can restrain ourselves, emphasize radical shifts in consumption, while also gradually and carefully using our remaining energy resources to build out renewables that can bootstrap us to a sustainable economy - and a sustainable culture.

"Or we can do what we’re doing - borrow like there’s no tomorrow, ignore the reality that tomorrow does always come, and ignore the vast elephant taking up all the space and air in our room, instead of talking about consumption."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

"Full Faith and Bad Credit"

The most recent issue of "The American Conservative" is devoted to an assessment of the Presidency of George W. Bush. While most people have come to associate conservatism with the failed policies of the Bush presidency, many of the writers for AmCon have been among Bush's most vocal critics - indicating that at least one brand of conservatism had long seen the disastrous trajectories of those policies.

I was asked to write a brief assessment of the economic policies of the Bush years. I'm not an economist - and protested as such to the magazine's editors - but they asked me to consider the broader set of economic issues I've been wont to explore here on this site. With that caveat in mind, I agreed to write a brief assessment, and it appears here in their most recent issue.

I conclude thusly:

For much of this period [since the ascent of Reagan], our political leaders battled over whether a free market or an activist government should hold sway. These seemingly fierce battles obscured the deeper truth: that our particular form of free market favors big government and vice versa. Government has always arranged the playing field for the advantage of swift flows of capital [and the efficiencies of scale that are able to take greatest advantage]. The market, meanwhile, has steadily undermined local loyalties and rendered small-scale solutions increasingly ineffective, thus ensuring our fealty to a tutelary state.

The mortgage crisis has highlighted the tight bonds between a large central government and large centers of financial power. We have also witnessed the way in which a “flat” world permits no quarantine: a financial virus encounters no barriers. Within a few weeks the entire world economy was brought to its knees by America’s bad mortgages. The myth that structures could be built so large that they could not fail should have been laid to rest with the sinking of the Titanic. At least now we have seen the end of the idea that there is some fundamental antipathy between big government and big business.

Conservatives will now enter a time of rethinking and regrouping. It would be the height of folly for the Right’s political masterminds to try to concoct again the particular brew that led to the electoral victory of a deeply unconservative Republican Party under Bush. In the wilderness years to come, conservatives should spend some time encountering minds that paid attention to the notion that conservation is at the heart of conservatism — among them E.F. Schumacher and Wilhelm Roepke, both of whom focused on a form of economics that was mindful of the moral health of the society.

An economy that undermines the virtues of a citizenry, and eviscerates the culture that reinforces those virtues, has lost its purpose. Yet it is too simple to lay full responsibility for the recent collapse on Bush. He perpetuated a bankrupt system, but the rot runs deeper than the last eight years.

My point in the second-to-last paragraph - a call for a reconsideration of the economic theories that are profoundly distinct from the Milton Friedman-esque free market ideology - is a consummation devoutly to be wished for, but difficult to imagine. The state of the study of economics has become emaciated - in part because there is very little place in the discipline for "economic theory" in the same way that there is for "political theory" within the field of political science. Political theory has played a leavening role, at its best reminding all practitioners and analysts that politics cannot be reduced to its narrowly conceived empirical study of narrowly conceived human behavior - but rather that politics will always involve such difficult-to-measure aspects such as honor, shame, the will to power, the imperative of self-sacrifice, the appeal to the common good, the cultivation of the citizen. Economics has become ever more constricted, almost completely dominated by technicians who are not only incapable, but wholly incurious, about the larger questions of what an economy is for.

It is a curious thing for a field of study within the "social" sciences should find itself unable to consider its role in the formation of a good society. I am convinced that economics should no longer be left to the economists - that a kind of "intervention" is needed by people who are not blinkered by the current academic orthodoxies of that field. Still, the problem is being recognized by some economists - albeit ones who are heterodox and often either of an older generation or outside the mainstream. In that vein, one recent book has caught my attention, and may suggest the possibility of an opening to a larger set of questions that should ultimately guide economic policy. The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community was written by Stephen Marglin, professor of Economics at Harvard University. It is a book intended for a non-specialist audience, and invitingly begins with the story of his own discovery of the narrowness of his own discipline. It took the encounter with a foreign place - in this case, efforts to encourage "development" in India - for him to realize that the basic presuppositions of American-based, academically-trained economists were not shared by the Indian villagers who did not see the ultimate aim of life to be economic efficiency and the increase of profit. In a sense, he had the experience of a "theorist" - a word that originally was used to describe someone who encountered different practices and customs in foreign lands.

Marglin wrote of his discovery thus: "Beyond answers to questions that had brought me to Dhabi, I learned something infinitely more valuable: an entirely different way of knowing and being in the world from anything I had ever imagined. Like all of us, I was a product of my culture; I had never questioned the idea that society was composed of self-interested individuals who rationally calculated their way to more and more. In Dhabi, I experienced something very different: not that people lacked all sense of self or of individual interests, but that people lived their lives in deep connection with others - in short, in community. A human life was not conceived of as beginning at birth and ending with death, but as a link in a chain that extended backward to time immemorial and forward as far as the imagination might reach, as a link in a chain that existed in space as well as in time, connecting family, clan, and village."

To this fantastic discovery of an economist, I would only add that this has long been the basic form of OUR culture as well, and that it took the concerted effort of educated elites especially to encourage Western Anglo-American humans away from this more natural form of culture qua community. Much of the deracination that took place was effected through economics and the filtering down of basic liberal economic presuppositions into the heart of society. Marglin's acknowledgment of an enormous blind spot in the basic presuppositions of economic theory is an encouraging sign that perhaps again economists can begin to consider questions that go beyond profit and efficiency. Guides like Roepke and Schumacher might help us to find out way back to a conception of culture in which the market has a place within the city, rather than being something that consumes the city and all of the concerns for commonweal that rightly belong to it.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Yesterday at Yale

Yesterday's conference "The Future of Conservatism" hosted by I.S.I. on the campus of Yale University was among the best conferences I've ever attended. The talks were of uniformly high quality; the audience was attentive and deeply engaged, asking great and probing questions; the atmosphere was even electric, with students eagerly surrounding speakers and faculty affiliates to learn more, to sop up whatever thoughts and ideas they could get. I was humbled and grateful to meet several readers of this site - I thank you for introducing yourselves to me, and for taking valuable time of your day to visit these ruminations.

At the end of a long but rich day, I found myself wishing that EVERYDAY at a university were like that.

While the talks were all fantastic - I was especially heartened by Allan Carlson's call for a reconsideration of some of the goals of distributivism to play a part in the future - I would especially praise the talk delivered by Anthony Esolen, Professor of English at Providence College. It was my privilege to meet and to hear him for the first time, and I was - like everyone else in the audience - mesmerized, electrified, excited, inspired, and near ready to jump out of my skin. I can hardly summarize what he said, and am told that a recording will be available on the I.S.I. website before too long, but a basic insight was how deeply ignorant we have become concerning the absence of an actual culture in our time - understood as a vast, almost intuitively known and usable storehouse of collected wisdom, myth, story, poetry, song, worship, memory, and knowledge from the past. We are likely to know such things as the ending of this unforgettable line - "Rice-a-Roni, the..." What we lack is a vibrantly alive connection to that storehouse that was once available to even the "uneducated" in what we often dismiss as ignorant and backward societies. Still, weaving the tales of our own cultural inheritance, recalling to us the tales of Homer, plays of Ben Jonson, the words of Shakespeare, the epic lines of Milton, the verses of the Bible, Esolen began to reconnect all of us with a culture that is rightfully ours and invited us to become fully capable of a true form of leisure - from which culture derives, and which in turn makes possible true leisure - drawing on the wisdom of Josef Pieper. It was a moving and inspiring performance, and the audience was visibly roused and cheered.

I had my brief moment, during which I tried to offer a hopeful possibility for the future amid what was a times a rightly chastening set of presentations.

"The Future of Conservatism"
Patrick Deneen

I will seek to make an uncharacteristically optimistic argument today, though we have rightly been reminded today at how daunting the task awaits in achieving a revival of our culture. Still, as I look around this room today [gorgeous], adorned by a beautiful stained glass portrayal of the basic elements of a liberal education [a Beaux-Art portrayal of the arts and sciences as young women embodying such qualities as Faith, Hope, Love; Inspiration, Revelation; Color, Form, Symmetry; Truth, Beauty, Light..... and so on....], and the bronze friezes lined above the room of such figures as Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, Milton, we should recall that for all the damage that has been done by our culture, there are tremendous advantages on the side of conservatism. After all, we have Western Civilization – which is not to be confused with fusionism, wedge strategies and Karl Rove.

Still, I don’t underestimate the challenge. The task is daunting, first and most obviously because the universities are today configured, for the most part, as the very antithesis of an embodiment of conservation of this past. Viewing themselves as agents of progress and social justice, the universities are predominantly an obstacle to the deep and transformative encounter with the ideas and words of the figures portrayed around this room. Yet, still this room exists: the buildings of the university are often like a palimpsest, an ancient document whose original words could not be thoroughly erased in spite of the effort to obscure and write over the ancient wisdom. This is as true in the world of ideas as it is in the buildings that adorn our campuses. The very monolithic strength of the modern university also constitutes its greatest weakness – its self-assurance in its progressivity makes it blinkered to its own philosophical presuppositions, and largely incapable of articulating the grounds for its own commitments. Indeed, its commitment to progress inclines the modern university to a neglect of the past and its own sources, and thus results in a set of intellectual commitments that are, more often than not, half-baked and half-cocked if not outright incoherent. We are surrounded by Kantians who ardently defend human dignity without a clue of where such a concept of dignity arises; with secularists who argue for a separation of Church and State without knowing the origin for that view; with multiculturalists who haven’t stopped to think about the nature of culture; and so on.

All of these – and I could mention many more – were originally "conservative" concepts that became unmoored from their traditional and (most often) religious origins. The unmooring served an important tactical purpose, which was to unlink those concepts from the constraining religious sources from which they originated. But this very tactic also destabilized these concepts, lending to them a high degree of incoherence and, increasingly, a great degree of indefensibility, leading philosophers like Richard Rorty to endorse liberalism just because it’s there. This very weakness presents a distinct opportunity.

Our students – young people – are overbrimming with a long list of commitments that they have absorbed from a culture that no longer can provide an explanation for those very commitments. They swim in a vast sea of unexamined assumptions, and their professors are so enamored of their liberation from the past that they are unaccustomed, or themselves increasingly unable, to provide an explanation. Indeed, more deeply they are unwilling to do so even if they could, because to do so would be to acknowledge the deepest sources of their commitments in the abhorrent religious and philosophical traditions of the West (This is why, for instance, European leaders so resisted even the mere mention of the Christian sources of Europe in the European Constitution…). They bank on a high degree of incuriosity and placid self-satisfaction in the contemporary university, qualities they may possess in great quantities and which our modern universities aim to teach, but which is not necessarily the hallmark of the youth.

Now, a great part of the challenge is the absence of "conservative" professors who can help articulate the original sources of our commitments. Even those "conservatives" that still populate most campuses, have become so dedicated to and distracted by electoral and narrowing policy concerns that they believe conservatism originated with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, or if they have a longer view, with Barry Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964. Conservatism’s great strength – its capacity to attain full awareness of the origins and sources of its intellectual commitments – has been ill-served by the very political success, and now failure, of the recent Republican Party. I have now been privy to innumerable meetings of "conservative" intellectuals in which the discussion revolves around how to achieve electoral victory rather than the revival of our culture. We have become blinkered to our own resources.

Indeed, in more than one area conservatives have lost the capacity to articulate these deeper connections because of exigencies of electoral politics, and thus have allowed themselves to fall into their own pernicious forms of incoherence. For many older conservatives especially, formed out of the great and admirable battle against communism during the Cold War, certain alien orthodoxies were introduced that were incompatible with the deepest stores and sources of conservatism. Conservatism became identified with a defense of classical liberalism, with libertarian and libertine economics, with an expansionist Wilsonian foreign policy; in response to the rise of “multi-culturalism” it articulated a defense of Enlightenment universalism (rather than a true defense of multiculturalism); to defend the role of religion in the public sphere it began speaking in the language of utilitarianism, pointing to the usefulness of religion for a liberal democratic order; to argue against Roe vs. Wade it adopted the language of RIGHTS, a theory that originated in a theory of self-ownership. Can there be any wonder that conservatism seems all but routed today, given how readily it curried favor by accommodating itself to the very corrosive modern orthodoxies of what it originally arose to combat?

Perhaps it is the moment for a younger generation of conservatives, less shaped and less beholden to the political exigencies of the past half-century, who can begin a process of recovery of the great storehouse – and the great strength – of conservatism, those very underarticulated commitments of so many of our students today. I could provide a long list of particulars, but let me afford one example that seems to most conservatives a tremendous obstacle among a younger generation – and seems to me to be an area of great promise. It is the remarkable rise of a commitment to the environment, that hallmark of “Left” politics for so many years, yet, to my mind, a deeply conservative commitment that we are allowing to go underarticulated and thus by default permit our students to believe to be the very antithesis of conservative.

After all, we need only point out that the root of the very word “conservative” is “conserve” and “conservation,” meaning “to maintain” or “to keep.” In clinging to their own incoherent orthodoxies, conservatives have ceded this concept to the Left and thereby lost the ability to articulate the deepest sources of conservatism. Instead, we should wrest the many noble and praiseworthy commitments of our young people back to their true origin, insisting on the right definition of things. We would do well to insist on the rejection of the word “environment” – which, after all, places human beings at the center of something that surrounds US – but rather articulate that our commitments lie with NATURE. Nature implies and requires the recognition of a CREATED ORDER of which we are a part. Nature is closely related to culture – those forms and ways of life that arise from the human effort to live alongside nature, at once using and preserving the natural world – and thus rejecting the tendency of the language of environmentalism to fall easily into a deracinated and abstract understanding of the human relationship to the natural world. Nature is at once particular - manifested in many particularities (desert and forest, plain and mountain, ocean and river...) while also always a universal whole - pointing out that we always perceive the universal through the particular. NATURE has a temporal dimension, implying the centrality of generations among living things, of the centrality of fecundity and the inevitability of death, and keeps close to mind our relationship to the past and to the future. Only a time when we have so thoroughly rejected the place and centrality of nature would allow us to become as presentist as we have become, oblivious to the past and negligent of the future. A fuller embrace of the spectrum of time, and a reflection of our place in that spectrum, allows for a respectful consideration of the requirements of obligation and duty, of gratitude and fidelity, of memorial to generations past who sought to convey their own best efforts to live alongside nature, and our duty to leave the world as good and fruitful place for our children. Putting in the forefront conservatism’s deep commitments to the natural order allows us to present arguments and teachings on behalf of governance of appetite, of self-control of our instincts and impulses, of a culture that necessarily prohibits – and understands such self-governance to be a profound form of liberty. And all of this – pointing to a created order, expanding our temporal sense, fostering the liberty of self-governance, inculcating a reverence for the world and for life, points ultimately to our deepest religious longings and aspirations, exemplifying that God is at once demanding and loving, He giveth and taketh, and that it is our nature to seek to understand and ultimately to love and worship Him.

So long as conservatives deride these inchoate and underarticulated longings of our students, conservatism will not be a lived experience, a worldview and a way of life, but a political agenda – another “ism” that is forced and unnatural. The future of conservatism, if it has one, lies – as always – in its past, and not in the prospect of electoral victories (those may come, but will not truly be won if they are sought for winning alone). It must attend to its greatest strength – its great storehouse of those fundamental commitments that have arisen from our civilization – seek to recollect for our young people what most of us have forgotten and increasingly many of us have never known. I don’t promise that it will be an easy path out of the wilderness, but it is the only path, and it is a good and true path.