Friday, May 29, 2009

Justice and Community

A reader writes,

Dear Patrick,

You wrote: "A smart political leader who argued for a government that governs close to home (not simply "anti-government," but the goods and benefits of more local government) - and proposes actual paths and policies to effect that end - I believe would attract a large swath of the electorate."

Okay. But there is another problem. It seems to me that well-meaning people use a good principle, subsidiarity, to justify too many arguments against federal government. They overextend. Subsidiarity is not opposed to federalism, but rather is against ~unjust~ federalism. Subsidiarity is a an important ~part~ of justice in politics, but it is no panacea.

We return, therefore, to justice. If powers close to home are unjust, then we need a federal government capable of timely intervention. Likewise, if the federal government acts unjustly, then minorities (i.e. local powers) must be invested with the power to legitimately resist. Justice then attains to a higher priority than subsidiarity.

In sum, a well-balanced, thoughtful judiciary matters in our kind of democracy to help weed through our situations. So we return to the notion of good government (which consists of the judiciary), rather than no government or anti-government. Newt's got it all wrong.

And to return to one of your blog's ongoing themes, a sense of place lends itself to subsidiarity. But the federal government also operates with a sense of place---the nation. Too much of an emphasis on local place can undermine a nation's sense of common place, or culture. If our sense of the local is too strong, we will find ourselves unwilling to accept taxes that build roads in Idaho, say, if we live in Virginia---forgetting that our system of unrestricted interstate commerce allows for the import affordable potatoes.

In sum, how do we prevent the good of the local from becoming parochial? How can guys like Newt get away with minimalizing, or forgetting, about the dangers of local small-mindedness that are the hazards of subsidiarity?

This is a very good question, and a difficult challenge to answer because it is impossible to guarantee or ensure that "parochialism" will not involve some degree of injustice (depending on how we define that word). It is an issue and concern that must be confronted with the utmost seriousness. I cannot provide any philosophical, theoretical or political answer that will guarantee that life lived on smaller scales will be absent injustice. But I do want to respond initially by asking whether it's safe to assume that larger scale is necessarily more just, or even whether justice is or should be the aim of politics. Indeed, it is because of our dominant liberal definition of justice that we see the rise of concentrated central power, but the very existence - and exercise - of that power is likely to be inherently unjust.

First we should ask - what is justice? Justice, according to the Aristotelian definition, is defined as giving each person his or her due - that is, "just desert." In order to do that, the ancients recognized that it is necessary to know something of the character of each individual in order to treat each person justly. In order to have sufficient, much less intimate, knowledge of many individuals, it is necessary to live in relatively small settings where such knowledge is possible. Yet, in such intimate settings, we are likely not to need formal appeals to justice. Inasmuch as we are likely to know those with whom we share our lives, our relationships are much more likely to be based on appeals to "friendship" or love, not justice (imagine a family, or small community, or church, that operated on strict demands of justice, instead of charity). Aristotle wrote that where there is ample practice of friendship, there is no need of justice; further, that where there are greater degrees of friendship, there are fewer lawsuits (or need for laws) regulating our behavior. We are more likely to deal informally with our fellow citizens, including the ability to forbear injury and to accept conditions of inequality if the underlying condition informing that inequality is a shared regard for the common good.

In larger settings, however, we demand justice as a second-best substitute. Because we can no longer accept unequal relationships based in a deeper solidarity, we instead demand equality as a consequence of impersonal relationships. Thus, we have tended to substitute any such interpersonal basis of relationships instead with demands for "social justice," which is a misnomer that means, in fact, "equality." Equality is, in certain senses, the opposite of justice: it rewards like and unlike equally. Its precondition is that I know nothing about you, and even that I don't particularly care about you. Its precondition is indifference, other than a formal demand not to be treated differently than anyone else. This latter definition of justice animates the philosophy of modern liberalism, particularly theories of justice inspired by John Rawls. While Rawls argued that justice consists of equality in many areas (including dignity), it turns out that the only way to adequately measure and ensure equality in conditions of indifference is through material markers - wealth and income. The tendency in such settings that tend toward the large scale is for justice (or "social justice") to be defined exclusively in material and monetary terms. A striking aspect of the "greatest political thinker" of the 20th-century is that he was essentially arguing for a certain kind of tax code.

Taking this into account, the unit of measurement comes into question. Is it enough for policies of redistribution to take place within a proscribed domestic national sphere? Wouldn't that leave significant inequalities between nations in place? Thinkers like Thomas Pogge have argued that for Rawls's theory of justice to be just, it must apply internationally. National boundaries are inherently unjust, and the only legitimate and true form of justice can occur in the context of a single unified world government. The logic of the claim made here - that justice must be given "higher priority" than subsidiarity - is toward one-world consolidation. My suspicion is that any such condition would require massive increases in injustice in the effort to achieve "justice."

This latter suspicion brings us to a core contention: justice must be understood to be one of among many goods and virtues for human beings, but not the sole or exclusive good or virtue. Justice must be weighed against other goods as well, such as the goods of family, fraternity, liberty, community, tradition, as well as the virtues of sacrifice, faith, charity. It could be argued that no human community can ever be truly just, and the effort to achieve true justice is itself unjust: long ago, Plato suggested that true justice could only come into existence if families and private property were abolished. This is a justice so extreme as to give rise to injustice. There will always be degrees of injustice in any society, beginning with the fact that we will be born into different conditions, to different parents, in different regimes, etc. We don't get to choose those conditions, and nor can we wholly correct the results of those varying conditions.

Once elevated, justice is thus a particularly imperialistic virtue. Injustice must be rooted out everywhere, and its elimination - given the natural and pervasive injustice inherent with all human life - requires massive intervention by ever-more powerful entities. Ironically, the substitution of justice for interpersonal relations (e.g., friendship, fraternity and charity) that is required in larger settings sets into motion logical necessity for ever-larger settings that include ever-more claimants of justice, and thus, ever-more centralized and powerful enforcers of justice. This is why there is a natural tendency, over time, for centralization of power within a liberal context - a condition ironically born of the fictitious notion that the aim of liberalism is a limited State. Hobbes was the more accurate and truer liberal all along, although what animates us outside the State of Nature is not fear of death, but fear of being treated unequally.

Prudence gives way to legalism and "principle": small injustices are treated with equal degrees of intolerance as the most egregious forms of injustice, and in the name of the eradication of all injustice wherever it may exist, existing ways of life are also eradicated. "Culture" is the first victim of the imperialistic search-and-destroy mission of modern liberal justice. To the extent that culture is in fact a culture - because it seeks to rule authoritatively and within a relatively closed context - it must be destroyed in the name of justice. Any attendant goods of that culture are deeply discounted, whereas the opportunity to join in a modern consumerist regime is seen as ample compensation.


If pressed to make a defense of "subsidiarity" in the name of justice, I would say that justice consists to a significant extent of living in the world in a way that makes "the good life" possible for your own and future generations. To be just is to treat the world, and our children's children children, justly. By that measure, much of our modern way of life is "unjust" to the extent that we live in ways that are likely to make life worse - even unlivable - for future generations. A major contributor to that condition is our large-scale and centralized political and economic systems. More local scale - in which, for example, what I eat tends to be derived from sustainable local agriculture, not potatoes trucked in from Idaho - is therefore more just, by this definition (on the egregious practices involved in modern potato farming, read Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire). More local economies - in which our consumption matches our production, and is not driven by a feverish and imaginative creation of "wealth" through debt - is more just. Our current arrangements, by contrast, are profoundly unjust to those who are not yet born, saddling them with eroded topsoil, depleted aquifers, artificially increased world temperatures, and mountains of debt. That is not a "culture" - it is its antithesis, an "anti-culture." Our imprudent pursuit of "justice" and its attendant demands for growth of economies and government is, in the final estimation, profoundly unjust.

Mr. Deeds

On June 6, Virginians have the opportunity to vote in the Gubernatorial Democratic primary. To my mind, the choice could not be clearer - there's the vote for Clinton political operative Terry McAuliffe, conventional Democrat Brian Moran - two Northern Virginians - or Creigh Deeds, a Virginia native from rural Bath county with longstanding generational ties to the State and a story that suggests strong ties to and sympathies with people for whom home and place are central to their self-definition (rather than position, wealth and mobility). The Washington Post endorsed Deeds the other day - in some ways, a surprising but admirable choice - for his willingness to make some hard decisions that sought to take into account the common good of Virginia. For once, there seems to be a real choice in an upcoming (primary) election.

Two stories in today's Washington Post confirm my suspicions. The first is a background story about Deeds' life, which chronicles his rural background, his long roots in the Commonwealth, his background as a farmer and a hunter. I particularly like the stories of his time in college (where he met his sweetheart and eventual wife), particularly the detail regarding the fresh venison he was able to provide to grateful classmates. He admits to fearing "the perception that some of the conservative values common in rural America are out of sync with the Democratic mainstream." This is a rather amazing concern, given that it was these rural values that was long one of the mainstays of the Democratic party. That this background may now be a liability - particularly given the growth and dominance of Northern Virginia in electoral politics - is a sad statement of the disconnect of the Democrats from the deepest roots of their own commitment to a kind of civil and economic equality (not simply a devotion to meritocratic upward mobility - a system that results in profound inequality). It was in defense of these sorts of homespun values that the party originally was created by Jefferson, against the specter of Hamiltonian commercialism.

By contrast, there's a story on Terry McAuliffe's efforts to buy off Ralph Nader during the 2004 Presidential election. McAuliffe does not deny the story that he tried to pay Nader - using DNC funds - to remove his name from contests in 19 battleground states. If this action was not strictly illegal (and there's no suggestion that it was - surprisingly - though it wouldn't matter, since Nader turned down the bribe), then it's surely damnable. McAuliffe exhibits many of the most egregious qualities of the Clintonistas, above all, literally the desire to win at any cost. As Mark Plotkin averred the other day, while Deeds and Moran have shown a devotion to constituents in the state of Virginia, McAuliffe has shown felicity in one thing - raising money by leaning on potential beneficiaries of a Clinton presidency. His motivation seems to be personal glory and political upward mobility. Surely he could care less about putting in his time in lower offices; instead, his first run will be for the Governor's office, surely with an eye out for bigger and better things.

Could there be a more obvious choice on the ballot - between someone for whom it's easy to imagine that the Governor's office would be the fulfillment of a lifetime's devotion to a place and the fulfillment of obligations and gratitude to a State that made him who he was; and someone for whom the office is clearly a stepping stone to the place that really counts for him - Washington D.C.? I hope that Virginians eligible to vote in the coming Democratic primary will look closely at these candidates - their character and reasons for seeking highest State elective office - and vote accordingly.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


In a recent op-ed in the pages of the Washington Post, Newt Gingrich attempts to revive the old playbook of the Reagan Revolution by attempting to argue that a disgruntled electorate will and should seek to elect to power a party that is fundamentally anti-government. Get it? Send anti-government people to Washington. Good plan.

Forgive me - and thousands upon thousands of my countrymen - of some degree of skepticism. It turns out that once the anti-government Party arrived at the punchbowl, they found the brew to their liking. But more: it was discovered that power is fun to wield. They followed the old Polemarchian adage of politics - that the end of politics is to help one's friends and hurt one's enemies.

The same issue of the Washington Post also happened to carry a story about the Obama administration's reversal of the Bush policy of "preemption." Preemption, in this case, does not refer to the "Bush Doctrine" in international affairs, but rather a quiet and largely unremarked upon policy by which the Federal government presumptively and preemptively overturned State-based laws in areas of interest to private business interests. According to one person quoted in the article, "'It's environmental law, it's drug law, it's mortgage law, it's a whole host of areas where the Bush administration was really aggressive about using regulatory action to clear state and local laws that businesses and corporations didn't like,' said Doug Kendall, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center." Federal regulation was regularly, even promiscuously used to overturn legitimate State legislation in areas where private business demanded uniformity for the sake of efficiency, profit, and economies of scale. So much for the idea that the States are the "laboratories of democracy."

So, if we are to believe NEWT, then a vote for the Republican Party will mean a blow struck for anti-government forces. Yet, in point of fact, we see two parties that shamelessly and gleefully use the powers of the central government to advance the particular interests they represent. There is - and, truth be told, can be - no party of "anti-government," only better and worse ways to govern. At the moment we have two parties that are designed to reward that part of the electorate that puts them into power, and in particular powerful and well-financed interests that demand a highly active federal government that successively and unwaveringly increases power to the center.

Still, the anger and frustration that Newt identifies among the electorate is real, and a smart political leader who argued for a government that governs close to home (not simply "anti-government," but the goods and benefits of more local government) - and proposes actual paths and policies to effect that end - I believe would attract a large swath of the electorate. First, however, we need to get beyond the canard that some "party of anti-government" is waiting in the wing. It's time to clean those particular Aegean stables, and Newt's dung should be the first to be washed out.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

At Front Porch Republic I've posted the following reflections today:


Today is a day of remembrance for those whom have died in the service of their nation. We attend parades, memorials, cemeteries and ceremonies to honor their sacrifice. Some - such as my son and I, yesterday - ride motorcycles through our capital city especially to recall those who may still be missing or captured. And, many of us will enjoy a weekend that marks the beginning of summer, with festivities ranging from barbecues to beaches to boats, almost all gatherings allowing us time to enjoy friends and family.

We mark this day with flags of the nation and recollections of the freedoms that we enjoy for which they made the supreme sacrifice. But, it is necessary and proper to recall that on the battlefield - doubtlessly assaulted by sounds and sights that few humans should experience, and hardly any can bear without scars, visible or invisible - almost no soldier is thinking of the nation, the flag, the Constitution or the even the liberties that we note particularly on this weekend. What they are, almost to a man and woman, thinking about as they move forward in the onslaught of violence and stench and horrors and death are the lives and loves they share with their comrades in arms. They die not for abstractions - ideas, ideals, natural right, the American way of life, rights, or even their fellow citizens - so much as they are willing to brave all for the men and women of their unit. On sparkling weekend days like this, beside white graves bedecked with pristine flags, we understand and interpret their sacrifice in broader and more comprehensive terms - and surely it is a piece, since it is to country and Constitution that they swear allegiance when they enlist. But on the battlefield, it for is the sake of particular people that they are moved to put their lives into immediate danger, against every instinct and impulse that guides any creature.

It is right to recall this, because as a nation we are more prone than ever to interpret our national story as one centered on the universal abstractions of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, those natural rights of man with which we are all endowed, regardless of place and history and culture and kin that we may also happen to possess. As we have become ever more not only citizens of the nation, but encouraged to become citizens of the world, we lose the capacity to understand that the sacrifices of soldiers are made for reasons other than those abstractions. There is a danger that to be an American increasingly means solely a common allegiance we hold to a set of self-evident truths, and not a storehouse of memories and stories and traditions and folkways - some that are shared, others that are particular to a set of people - but all of which are indelibly American.

Our national self-understanding has been transformed over the past twenty-five years or more - from one bounded by particular stories of particular people, often with an emphasis on sacrifices made during war-time, instead to a nation-building effort to encourage allegiance to the idea of the nation, its animating ideals and underlying philosophy. As has been pointed out by my friend Mark Henrie, where once school-children learned about the lives and deeds of Betsy Ross, Paul Revere, and George Washington on or near the battlefield, now they are more prone to be taught (if at all) about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and above all, their Rights as enshrined in the Bill of Rights (and, from there, their ever-greater realization through various emancipation and civil rights movements). The story of America itself is not a patchwork of stories, but instead a grand narrative that discloses - with Hegelian inevitability - the unfolding of an every more perfect natural rights Republic.

This emphasis upon the idea of the nation has been shared alike by liberals and so-called conservatives alike. If the Pledge of Allegiance was written by a socialist (with an aim to overcoming any particular allegiances people may have had to region and varying traditions), it is today fiercely defended by conservatives. Our liberals have as their hero Martin Luther King, and our conservatives, Abraham Lincoln - both because they advanced the natural rights Republic. If there is one main point of distinction between liberals and conservatives today, it is that liberals believe that the idea of the nation can and should be extended universally, while conservatives would emphasize its limitation to a particular nation-state. Neither is much interested in defending the legitimate place of smaller units within the nation - other than as administrative units. Both are attracted to the theory of America more than its stories, poems, places and songs.

No soldier dies for a theory. He dies on behalf of the people with whom he enters battle, seeking to save those whom he loves, to whom he feels a strong sense of duty, and for whom he is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. Today, on this day of remembrance, we should recall not only the lives and deaths of the soldiers whom we rightly honor, but the right and proper grounds for their sacrifice, and keep in mind those reasons as we seek to defend, in our own less demanding ways, a nation of particular places, particular people, and particular memories.


And in reply to one comment critical of the idea of "particular stories about particular people" - thinking this can easily be construed to the ends of various PC multiculturalists, I've replied:

I think we should not mistake contemporary iterations of "multiculturalism" - that is, efforts by various self-proclaimed victimized groups to claim certain privileges and status - with the kinds of "particular stories" I'm alluding to here. To wit, the deeper motivation of these versions of "multiculturalism" is actually and ultimately a reinforcement of abstract liberal conceptions of the human self, ultimately shorn of particularlity. This is most deeply revealed by the marks of status by which such victimized groups are recognized - that is, biological markers that are ultimately to be regarded with indifference. What is excluded from recognition are groups and identities that are, to some extent, chosen, and hence are not allowed to claim any special status in liberal society (if it's chosen, that's your problem). About the best summation of this deeper point was made by my teacher, Wilson Carey McWilliams, which I've quoted and commented upon here.

I am not suggesting that there are not and ought not to be national stories - that's of course the kind of story we tell in relating the deeds of Paul Revere, Betsy Ross and George Washington. But there also ought to be a place for the stories of particular places with particular histories that will have less universal appeal or meaning to the rest of the nation. Where I grew up - in Windsor CT - we reserved a special place in the curriculum for the deeds of Nathan Hale, whose homestead in nearby Coventry we visited nearly every year. The same went for Windsor man, Oliver Ellsworth and the stories that were still told about the Connecticut Charter Oak tree, pictured on the back of the Connecticut state quarter (and before that, marvelously brought to life in the backdrop of one of my favorite childhood books, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, which was a book that we were all encouraged to read as youth in CT). We were curious to learn stories about King Philip and the war he fought, as we could still see the cave it was reputed he lived in on a sheer cliff-face of Talcott mountain, a favorite hiking venue. These - and others like these - were stories that had particular meaning for me when I grew up in a Connecticut that still proudly identified with its colonial roots, and reserved a place for their retelling to the young in our state. When I speak of "particular stories of particular people," it's these sorts I have in mind...

Update, June 1, 2009: A reader sent me a link to this song, with the refrain "...right now, I'm fighting for the man next to me; I know he's fighting for me." Thanks to him.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What Is to be Done? the title of a piece I've posted today at Front Porch Republic. Here's a snippet:

For some [to the problem of how to live a more deeply rooted life amid our rootless culture], the answer is simple: live the life you are propounding here. Wendell Berry is the touchstone of this site, not only because he has long and best articulated an alternative vision to the dominant cultural, political and economic presuppositions of this nation of “boomers,” but because he has walked the walk, leaving a promising academic career in New York City to take up a life of greater “complexity” on the farm in Henry County, Kentucky. To greater or lesser extent, this is the example also on display here not only in the words, but in the deeds of Caleb Stegall, Bill Kauffman, and Kate Dalton. In living lives of deep commitment to places that are at once home and outside the cosmopolis - even, in Caleb and Kate’s cases, tending to the land in those places - they are living demonstrations of their words. Both Caleb and Bill have, more than once, expressed misgivings about writing here, because to do so withdraws them from the very actions of which we all write about here. There is something inauthentic about propounding a life of localism and community on the internet, though they propound it magnificently and persuasively nonetheless.

For most of the rest of us, we live deeply enmeshed in the world shaped by an itinerant economy and rootless journeymen. Particularly the academics among us have emerged from a system that is designed to foster the very opposite of the ethic that is being articulated and defended at FPR. It has been noted on more than one occasion that most of the rest of us writing here lack the authenticity of the likes of Berry. Because of this, we can be dismissed all the more easily as, at best, intellectual romantics of a Rousseauvian mien, and at worst, as hypocrites who would call on others to live a life that none of us have ever shown any real capacity to live.

My own response, however, takes several parts. First, those among us who have been emerged from the experience of graduate education designed, above all, to create deracinated and rootless intellectuals who theoretically could work anywhere but who generally crave to live and teach in one of a half-dozen cosmopolite cities in the world, have come to understand with crystal-clarity the deepest presuppositions of the liberal ethic. While we doubtless expose ourselves to the easy charges of hypocrisy, for many of us I suspect - and certainly, speaking personally - our opposition to the dominant ethos comes largely as a result of this particular education, and the contradictions and ultimately distortions that it forced most of us here (I presume) to confront.

Those of us in this “itinerant” category are, in some ways, well-positioned to speak to so many of our fellow countrymen who find themselves in a similar pass. Many of us - whether because of circumstance, such as our professions, or background, such as an upbringing in the suburbs - cannot easily make choices that would demonstrate our full commitment to a more rooted life in a small town or even our home town. For many, there is no “going home again” because many of us come from places that cannot properly be called home. And, for many others of us, it is perhaps the ultimate irony that a society so deeply defined by choice and mobility makes the choice for rootedness difficult. Whereas the default was once to become a country doctor or town lawyer or one-team baseball player, now the defaults are set in an opposite mode.

I’ll give one personal example of this. Shortly after I finished my Ph.D., I received an invitation to interview at a college that was quite close to where I had grown up. I was inordinately excited at this possibility, thinking that it might work out that my wife and I and newborn son might be able to settle close to family and childhood friends. When asked about accommodations, I proudly informed the college that I would be staying in my bedroom that night - my childhood bedroom, that is. During the two day interview I related in every conversation that I was native to the area and had a longstanding relationship to the campus, having attended its plays, movies, and used its library for many years. I believed my local connection would make me an especially attractive candidate, sure in the knowledge that a school would be attracted to someone who already had deep roots in the community and was likely to build a long life and career in that place.

Yes, I was incredibly na├»ve. I learned later that this proud display of my nativeness went over badly - it was discerned as a compromise of what should have been my true and only motivation for seeking employment at that institution, which was its objective and universal academic excellence. And, more generally, it is now almost universally the case that institutions will not hire faculty who have been trained at the same institution, or even an institution in the same state. Any such hiring would be suspected of nepotism - or worse, “in-breeding” - as if there are not positive features of such connections having to do with particular institutional identity and loyalty and memory. However, no less than the international and global economy, academia is now an international “marketplace” as well, and we only become valuable when we enter the stream of international intellectual commerce that is at once nowhere and everywhere.

Most of us, then, live in “the real world” as it is, and as it will persist to be for a foreseeable future. Yet, I think all of us genuinely struggle with second-bests - how to put down roots where one is; how to introduce a different ethic into a profession and way of life now defined by the dominant liberal ethic; how to raise good families amid the wreckage of this culture; how to live in ways larger and, more often, smaller, that reflect a resistance to the dominant culture, to support the sustenance or renewal or even creation of communities.


The rest is here.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Obama at Notre Dame

The President's speech - as could be expected - was tactically masterful. He is a wordsmith of first order, but more, has a remarkable rhetorical ability to call for forms of higher reconciliation and transcendence of division that has otherwise been fomented by so many other politicians and opinion leaders of our age. While most on the Right either suspect him of bad faith, or impute such bad faith to him for political advantage, I believe he honestly desires to heal some of the worst divisions of the nation. His call yesterday both to include a "conscience clause" to protect professionals who object to the practice of abortion (and gay marriage?), and his call to reduce the number of abortions - including the commendation of adoption as an option - appeared to have been enthusiastically greeted by nearly everyone at the ceremony.

Yet, actions have too rarely accompanied the best words articulated by Obama. The call to "openness" will quickly be seen as an invitation to join him where he stands, not to reach out to others with whom he disagrees, if he does not act firmly and with determination in these areas that could go some distance to narrowing some divides.

That said, I thought part of his own speech - had it been articulated by a pro-life politician - could easily have been understood to be a critique of a regime committed officially to the idea that abortions are not morally condemnable. He was, clearly, speaking about our sins in relation to the economy. But are those sins and their motivations much different when considering the taking of unborn life?

Unfortunately, finding that common ground - recognizing that our fates are tied up, as Dr. King said, in a “single garment of destiny” - is not easy. Part of the problem, of course, lies in the imperfections of man - our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos; all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin. We too often seek advantage over others. We cling to outworn prejudice and fear those who are unfamiliar. Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism; in which the world is necessarily a zero-sum game. The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manner of justification for their own privilege in the face of poverty and injustice. And so, for all our technology and scientific advances, we see around the globe violence and want and strife that would seem sadly familiar to those in ancient times.

Change a few words here - very few - but none of the underlying moral considerations, and this is an argument against abortion. Perhaps we inch closer to a recognition that the deadly vices are not to be disaggregated. Obama was right to recognize their source - "our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos; all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin." The very pride that informs our politics makes it still difficult for our various political leaders to recognize that common cause lying behind the sins of our economy and the sins of our "reproductive rights" - indeed, to call something from either domain an individually vested right when in fact what we are ignoring is a duty owed to another.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Abortion and the Catholic Culture

Jody Bottum has written a medium and longer essay reflecting on the meaning of the opposition of conservative Catholics to the President's speech at Notre Dame. His conclusion: the leaders of the great (and increasingly liberal) Catholic universities have become distant from, and ignorant of, Catholic culture. And because of this distance from the heart of Catholic culture, they have become tone-deaf and even willfully resistant to the idea that opposition to abortion is the issue that will brook no compromise.

To quote Jody precisely,

The role of culture — American Catholic culture, in particular — is what Fr. Jenkins at Notre Dame, and John DeGioia at Georgetown, and many other presidents of Catholic colleges seem not to understand. Indeed, their lack of Catholic culture is what makes them appear so un-Catholic to the people they antagonize, and it is what so befuddles these college presidents when the charge is made. They know they are Catholics: They go to Mass, and they pray, and their faith is real, and their theology is sophisticated, and what right has a bunch of other Catholics to run around accusing them of failing to be Catholic?

But, in fact, they live in a distant world, attenuated and alone. Opposition to abortion doesn’t belong at the absolute center of Catholic theology. It doesn’t belong at the perfect center of Catholic faith. It exists, however, at the center of Catholic culture in this country.

I admire and agree with much of what Jody writes, but I fear I have to disagree with him over this analysis. In my view, the singular focus upon abortion as THE issue over which conservative Catholics will brook no divergence and around which we are called to rally reveals, to my mind, not evidence of robust Catholic culture as much as its absence. It seems to me that - along with the opposition to gay marriage - this issue represents the last stand, the inner-most wall barely keeping the hordes from overrunning the sanctum. The ferocity over this issue - and this issue almost to the exclusion of nearly every other issue that might be part of a rich fabric of Catholic culture - suggests to me that Catholic culture, where it existed, has been largely routed. And, in fact, it suggests further that it is precisely for this reason that this issue has become largely defined politically - and not culturally - with an emphasis on the way that the battle over abortion must be won or lost at the ballot box (and, by extension, Supreme Court appointments).

Most Catholics have long ago ceased to live in a Catholic culture, per se. I would go so far as to surmise that many of the most vociferous opponents of abortion - ones lined up in this particular battle - do not by and large live in particularly Catholic cultures, so much as occasionally gather with like-minded Catholics at various locations (Church, a conference, a retreat) and otherwise live suffused in a decidedly non-Catholic culture. Most of us - Catholic or non-Catholic - live by default in THIS culture, whatever we would call it - liberal, modern, American, global, polyglot, anti-culture. THIS culture is decisively a "culture of choice." Even those who would seek to inhabit a Catholic culture do so as a matter of individual choice - a lifestyle option. But this is not a Catholic culture as we might historically and traditionally understand such a culture - where that culture (as with any culture) shapes and forms your worldview, largely unbeknownst to you and without prior consent or choice on your part.

One of the most ardent and conservative Catholics that I know lives in an ocean-side house in Malibu, California. His opposition to abortion is fierce; however, in no way could it be suggested that he lives in a Catholic culture. He is a Catholic living in a culture of materialism, individualism, hyper-mobility and hedonism. While perhaps more extreme than the case for most of us, nevertheless his situation is closer to most American Catholics today than not. American Catholics have largely assimilated into mainstream American society, and come to seek success and approval from that culture on its terms.

If Jody were right, parents from this Catholic culture would refuse to allow their children to attend those schools he mentions. Now, it's true that many do just that, electing instead to send their children to Ave Maria or Thomas Aquinas rather than Georgetown or Notre Dame. However, many many good and faithful Catholic parents whom I have met over the years absolutely and without question want their children to attend a top tier institution, whether it be Georgetown or Princeton or Harvard or Notre Dame. The likelihood of their childrens' success, it is believed, hinges on their attendance at one of these sorts of institutions.

So, it could be asked - do the likes of Fr. Jenkins or President DeGioia operate in a vacuum, guiding institutions that aim to pull the wool over the eyes of parents and undermine the cultural commitments of their incoming Catholic students? Of course not: these administrators have been selected because they are expected to evince keen sensitivity to market forces, particularly what constitutes a "good product" for the "customer base" of prospective students and their tuition-paying parents.

Jody himself begins his essay by acknowledging that some 55% of Catholic voters cast their ballots for President Obama last election. His positions on life issues were fairly well-known by election day, but were less influential among that part of the electorate than, presumably, discontent with Bush, the Republicans, and the economy. If the Catholic culture were indeed defined by opposition to abortion, then one would have expected 100% opposition to Obama on this score - or at least 55%. It turns out that this issue determined less than half the vote of Catholics, and perhaps a lot fewer than even 45%.

In sum, I see little evidence of this Catholic culture to which Jody would point us. I wish there were such a vibrant and living culture living alongside the dominant liberal culture. However, Catholics have been substantially assimilated to the reigning "culture of choice" that defines modern liberal and capitalist America, and it's hard to imagine that this condition will be changed or reversed any time soon.

A culture - Catholic or otherwise - that regarded abortion as well-nigh unthinkable would be profoundly different than the one we inhabit. First, such a culture would foster a strong sense of place. This is one of the central features of Catholicism, in strong distinction to Protestantism: we are members of parishes, which are located where one lives, and not according to the choice of minister or music or fellow churchgoers. One's worship - and much of one's life - is lived with a considerable degree of acceptance of what the Lord gives (a necessary disposition for having children and staying married, as well). There is a predisposition for acceptance, not transformation.

Catholicism is a religion of memory and tradition: at every mass we recall the saints and martyrs, the founders of the Church and its greatest heroes - inculcating as if by second nature a familiarity with past generations and our expectation for ones that follow. As Chesterton wrote, we must inhabit a democracy of "the living, the dead, and the not-yet-born." A Catholic culture is replete with stories passed down from the past and conveyed to the future - after all, we have all the best storytellers, from Dante and Shakespeare (yes, he was) to Percy and O'Connor - and, of course, Chesterton. All this is to say, the dead and the not-yet-born live among us - they are not forgotten or ignored, but among us as sure as the people who share our lives in neighborhoods and communities. This was precisely the point of Jody's fine essay on why we need to live near cemeteries. Most of us, however, are in living arrangements where the dead are kept distant and apart from us - just as we separate all of the various aspects of life, disaggregating shopping from work from recreation from home. And even in the home, we are likely to be texting or emailing Facebook "friends" or hanging on the edge of our seats to see who gets kicked off American Idol. Much of the time, we are not even home when we are home.

A Catholic culture would inculcate a certain kind of character: one of respect, self-restraint, responsibility, humility, thrift, moderation, self-sacrifice. Courtship and marriage would be encouraged among the young. Divorce would be well-nigh non-existent. Such a culture would not valorize materialism, but understand that things of this world is not to be wholly embraced. At the heart of our culture would not be - as Jody suggests - opposition to abortion - which is, after all, negative - but rather the things that abortion is not: family, Church, community, memory, tradition, continuity of past, present and future. Culture is affirmation, not simply denial.

Our culture is driven by a different ethic altogether: mobility, markers of material or political success, a fetish for technological innovation and distraction, a media that is almost wholly visual and which portrays no past and no future (Read Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, especially his chapter "Now, this..."), a valorization of choice in ALL things hourly reinforced by advertising that is ubiquitous and insidious. Our culture is one in which previous generations are forgotten - an acceptable price of progress - and even the relationship of parents to children is either chummy friendliness or marked by the knowing sarcasm and irony of youth toward obsolescence (just watch an hour of the Disney channel for confirmation). The abortion of children is to be expected as a consequence of THIS culture: in a culture in which I define my own future in accordance with will and desire, and in which that which is personally inconvenient to me is as disposable as most everything else I use for my convenience everyday, sex is a consumer product and abortion is the trash. Disenchantment and utility defines my relationship to ALL things, in the end.

Unfortunately - and perhaps as an "irony of history" - conservative Catholics have and continue to participate in the dismantling of its own culture. Rightfully joining in the opposition to the Communism, Catholics at first reconciled themselves to (e.g., Buckley), and eventually became active proponents and cheerleaders of free market capitalism (e.g., Novak). In doing this, they encouraged the expansion of a materialist, hedonist, and culture-destroying economic system in order to combat a materialist, impoverished, and culture-destroying enemy. The enemy was worse, because its ideology posited the prospect of changing human nature in accordance with the expected progressive course of history, but the ferocity demanded in the opposition to Communism fostered acquiescence to, and eventually wholehearted support of, an economic system that has proven destructive to what was a strong Catholic culture. The Catholic economic thought of Pope Leo XIII, Chesterbelloc, Schumacher and Roepke has been displaced among many Catholics by an embrace of Hayek and Friedman, along with their materialist and individualist anthropology. The whole cloth of Catholic thought - encompassing politics, economics, religion and culture - has been unraveled, thread by thread. Lacking the solidity of that cloth across the spheres, its porousness led to its eventual disintegration. The current battle over Obama's appearance at Notre Dame takes place amid this backdrop: one can still focus on abortion as the single remaining issue that defines us, but to arrive at this point, much else that would have supported a culture of life has long been discarded.

So, I wish I could agree with Jody, because then I would think this issue was less bleak than it appears to me. Until there is an alternative culture to the culture that is regnant in our age - and appears to have largely routed every resistant culture into which it comes into contact - I fear we throw our passions into a skirmish while avoiding battle with our own self-deception.

Our Broken Mulitiversities

"Minding the Campus" has posted an essay authored by yours truly on the sorry state of higher education in America. I wrote the piece some time before the financial crisis, but in some respects its basic argument may be even more relevant in the wake of that crisis with its attendant pressures upon schools to provide ever-more direct forms of career preparation and the demand for elite credentials as the route to landing the diminishing number of what are regarded as good jobs.

Here's a snippet:



Traditionalists and conservatives may decry the decline of liberal education at the heart of the modern university - and its replacement by a Left-wing agenda - but the deeper truth is that liberal education has been more fundamentally and powerfully displaced by demands of global competition. While traditionalists and conservatives might wish to apportion blame to the vast Left-wing conspiracy - particularly those increasingly irrelevant faculty whose postmodernism has become a form of stale institutional orthodoxy - the truth is that the rise of the Left faculty was a response to conditions that were already making liberal education irrelevant, a sort of pathetic and ultimately self-destructive effort to make the humanities relevant and "up to date." These purported radicals - mostly bourgeois middle-class former hippies - were not agents of liberation, but a deeper reflection of the reality of the irrelevance and neglect of the liberal arts in a dawning new age of global competition.

Still, it should be acknowledged that their initial instincts were not altogether damnable. The first student protests of the 1960s arose in response to Clark Kerr's 1963 Godkin Lectures - eventually expanded and published as The Uses of the University - in which Kerr declared that the old ideal of liberal education within the college or university was officially defunct and was in the process of being replaced by a new form of the "multiversity." The aim of the new "multiversity" was to advance the great Baconinan project of human dominion over the world. He declared that "the multiversity was central to the further industrialization of the nation, to spectacular increases in productivity with affluence following, to the substantial extension of human life, and to worldwide military and scientific supremacy" (199). The first student protests on the Berkeley campus - often forgotten - were in response to these lectures and its implications for the neglect of undergraduate education in the name of research and "the creation of knowledge." Allan Bloom acknowledged his initial sympathy with the protesters in an overlooked passage of The Closing of the American Mind, though he rightly noted that the protests quickly morphed into a general anti-authoritarian sentiment defined by the ambition for personal liberation. Worth noting is that both Kerr and the liberationist protesters - antecedents of the modern Right and the modern Left - agreed on the fundamental point that what was desirable was the dismantling of the classical liberal arts tradition. Both ultimately came to share the belief that the object of the university was human liberation from old restraints - whether material (to be solved through science and modern economics) or moral (to be overthrown by Left campus radicals). Today's university faculties are largely populated by denizens of the liberationist Left in the form of the faculty, while the administration remains dominated by technocratic professionals who largely evince allegiance to Kerr's declared ambition to pursue the aims of the multiversity. An unholy alliance exists in which both sides pursue their agendas separately but utterly compatibly, both in profound agreement that what is most fundamentally undesired is a return to liberal education. For both, a liberal education represents a restriction on the aims of the modern university. Both seek liberation, but on terms that would be unrecognizable to the original definition of "liberal" in the term "liberal education."

A liberal education - most often pursued in the context of a religiously-affiliated college or land-grant university - was originally an education in self-governance, moral restraint, and acknowledgment of the limits of human power and preparation for life in a family and a community. When we think of "liberal arts" more concretely, we rightly picture a numerous variety of different institutions, most (at least once) religiously-affiliated and variously situated. Most were formed with some relationship to the communities in which they were formed - whether their religious traditions, attentiveness to the sorts of career prospects that the local economy would sustain, a close connection to the "elders" of the locality, a strong identification with place and the likelihood of a student body drawn from nearby. Most understood liberal education not as the effort to liberate its students from place and the traditions that a student brought from home (this is the implicit aim of the modern devotion to the teaching of "critical thinking"), but that in fact educated them deeply in the tradition from which they came, deepening their knowledge of the sources of their beliefs, confirming - not confronting - their faith, and seeking to return them to the communities from which they were drawn where it was expected they would contribute to its future well-being and continuity.


Such a form of "liberal education" would be objectionable across the board in today's society - by faculty, administrators, students and even parents. To the extent that it would neglect the education in success - the formation of a character that is capable of living anywhere and doing nearly anything demanded by the competitive global marketplace (even economically eviscerating the very sorts of communities from which a student originally came), it would fail to provide the sort of result that is demanded by the global society and by the consumers and providers within the elite institutions. A school that insisted that the mark of success would be achieved by students who returned to their home communities where they sought to contribute the benefits of their education, or who understood that a good life was constituted by the formation of sound families in settled communities, would certainly be regarded as some kind of fantastical and risible institution. Students at the schools where I have taught - Princeton and Georgetown - uniformly have absorbed the belief that a mark of failure would be to return to their home State or town upon graduation (unless that happened to be one of five or so large American or international cities). Almost certainly demand would decrease, jeopardizing a school's rankings and all the attendant benefits that come from such prestige.

Debates over the "culture wars" - whether or not there should be more conservative or traditionalist professors on the faculty, whether one or several core courses should be required, whether great books are being assigned - are ultimately of little relevance in light of the more fundamental structural forces that have redefined the university for the past half-century (if not more). Unless conservatives and traditionalists - and, for that matter, intelligent critics on the Left - are able to articulate and develop a persuasive critique of these deeper and more profound forces, there is very little prospect for a revival of the liberal arts, and every reason to believe that they will continue to fall into irrelevance and neglect. The one thing needful in our time - an education in self-restraint, limits and tradition, the lessons our colleges and universities were designed to reinforce - is the one thing that our great universities are no longer well-designed to provide since our elders generally agree such an education is undesirable. We need great readers of palimpsests to draw to the surface the older writings and recall the purpose of the buildings, the names and roles of the university's officers, and the great teachings and goals of the university tradition. How such a forgotten art will be restored, however, is a problem without a good or easy solution.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

More Thoughts on Beer

Jeremy Beer, that is, who has written a fine and thought-provoking essay on the ideology of meritocracy at Front Porch Republic.

In his conclusion Jeremy writes: "Eating local, buying local, thinking local all are now in-usually among people who are in no sense “locals.” Being local is the next and most crucial and hardest step."

By this same token, many of our fellow Americans who are most inclined by circumstance to live locally are also more likely than many to shop "globally," that is, particularly inclined to frequent chain restaurants, Wal-Mart and Home Depot. Their very purchasing habits is one of the sources of the decimation of their communities, further making them unlovely for any potential meritocrat who might consider re-settling back home.

This, in a microcosm, is a central paradox of our political system: our cosmopolite meritocrats theoretically admire localism but abhor the idea of living within the confines that such life would entail; our Red-State locals tend to despise cosmopolites, but support (and vote for) an economic system that encourages borderlessness, placelessness, and a profoundly abstract economy that has the effect of eviscerating those very localities. This arrangement is one of the central features undermining the localist cause today, and it's difficult to see how it will be reversed.


The stock markets have been rallying on the not-so-bad news from recent unemployment, retail and "stress test" reports. However, note: the price of oil and gold are also rallying, with oil this morning topping $58 bbl. and gold jumping another $12 early today up to $924 an ounce. This utterly predictable dual rally shows two things: 1. turning the economy around will land us right back where we were about 9 months ago, with energy supplies constrained and the economy placed again on tenuous ground because of high cost of energy; 2. we will go directly and swiftly from the Scylla of deflation to the Charybdis of inflation.

In sum, we remain and will remain in a bust-and-boom, bubble economy. The idea that we need to "return" the economic "health" we have enjoyed/suffered for the past twenty years is sheer folly. But we are, above all, not addicted to oil, but addicted to what oil gave us: growth. It doesn't matter that it cannot be sustained; every presupposition about the solidity of our society rests upon it, and so we will base the foundation of global life upon an illusion.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Incisive Economic Analysis from the NYT

New York Times economic analyst David Leonhardt - about whom I've written before - is, like most of his fellow countrymen, deep in the clutches of the "psychology of previous investment," a near-clinical condition in which we throw more borrowed money after bad borrowed money in the belief that things must continue the way they've been going, in spite of any evidence of the deep and disfiguring unhealthiness of that way of life. In an economic column in today's New York Times, Leonhardt juxtaposes the two following statements:

"The overhang from the 20-year bubble in stocks and then real estate won't simply go away."

"In past recessions ..., a few months after [a slowdown in the rate of job loss], the economy typically began growing again. The vicious cycle turned virtuous."

We are asked to accept the idea that the return to a "virtuous cycle" would entail the return to what Leonhardt acknowledges to have been two decades of a "bubble economy" (his time-frame may be too short, if we date the beginning of our bubble to the moment when the U.S. began its descent into a deficit economy, which will bring us back to the 1970s at least).

Language should mean something. A "virtuous" cycle implies a period that is based upon virtue. A "vicious" cycle suggests a time when vice governs. If Leonhardt wished to be accurate, he would have to say that what he and most others like him aim to achieve is a return to a vicious cycle - a time of accelerating booms and busts all based on the belief that you can get something for nothing, that indebtedness is sound economic behavior, and that living beyond one's means represents the normal aspiration for rational economic behavior. If we truly wish to "return" to a "virtuous" cycle, we will need more incisive analysts - people who can get themselves out of the rut of path dependency - to see that what is needed is an encouragement of actual virtuous behavior. Don't count on seeing any of this sort of analysis anytime soon on the pages of the New York Times, or really anywhere that is typically described as "mainstream." In this sense, we've been in the midst of a vicious cycle for longer than most are capable of recognizing...

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Problem with Meritocracy

Everyone should read this essay on Front Porch Republic by Jeremy Beer. His superb essay is a seering indictment of our meritocratic system of voluntary sorting and hyper-mobility whose practical outcome is severe and worsening forms of inequality, the emptying of our small towns and hamlets of their most talented young people, and the dim prospects for democracy as a result of this form of social organization. Beer quite rightly points out that the ideal of "meritocracy" is an ideology which aims to re-make and even eviscerate older patterns of life in the name of progress. Like all other ideologies, its political consequences are dire - tending toward tyranny whose path to ascendancy is cleared especially by creating a rootless, deracinated and deeply insecure populace. Its quite brilliant conclusion is to point out that the now-fashionable movement of "buying local" is embraced above all by people who have largely eschewed the real practice of living locally. This last step will be the hardest for a populace that has grown deeply accustomed to the idea that success requires the achievement of maximum mobility, fostered by an educational system that teaches one thing - how to live nowhere and everywhere. The deepest roots of our current financial crisis can be traced to these forms of dislocation - starting with the practice of dissociating mortgages from the communities in which they originated - and can only be truly redressed not by continuing to expand these forms of dislocation (a project as eagerly embraced by our current Democrats as our erstwhile Republicans, both of whom agree that the object of modern politics is to foster "equality of opportunity" in the name of economic growth maximization), but by putting a stop to its destructive course.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste

I've been reviewing a number of the online offerings of Chris Martenson, whose "crash course" on contemporary economics was made known to me on a recent "Kunstlercast." I was particularly taken by this chapter, on the extremely recent nature of the monetary system that we are now watching unravel before our amazed and fearful eyes (less than forty years old, and not likely to last another decade, if another year). Those willing to watch it should be aware that it portends the collapse of our monetary system, with nasty implications for American society as we know it (developed further in subsequent chapters. By the end, you will probably be considering some stocks of ammo and gold).

Amity Shlaes offers an extremely cogent history of FDR's ushering in of this new monetary system in her excellent book The Forgotten Man (currently on my bedstand, and an extremely engrossing read at that). Anyone who is not endeavoring to take a crash course on these issues only has themselves to blame for their blissful ignorance. Of course, many stock portfolios are down some 50% as a result. We are on a train heading towards a precipice that it appears we cannot stop, and I'll be damned if I know when or even how to jump off. But it's an amazing ride, and not without some fascination at the sheer hubris and grandeur of human folly.

The Great Recession and the Rebirth of Community

An article in today's Washington Post explores the revival of communities as a response to the economic crisis. According to the article,
As the neighbors got out of their homes and started talking to each other, the sense of connection grew. They learned one another's names and began to say hello at the nearby Giant. Somebody got Metro to trim the shrubbery around the Glenmont Station, which made it feel safer. They had a "visioning" session for their community and created a colorful Web site. At their first spring festival, April 25, 174 people showed up for face-painting and hot dogs.

The little Cape Cods and ranchers off Georgia Avenue have been there 55 years, but it took a global downturn to turn them into a real neighborhood.

What this article suggests is that the individualism, isolation and "silo living" that had been the norm for 55 years (!) - that is, that period dating back to the beginning of American suburbanization and our automobile culture fueled by cheap petroleum - is a luxury that we can no longer afford. Individualism, it turns out, may be one of the ultimate luxury items of a prosperous society, one that turns out to be as artificial as the bubble economy and false prosperity upon which it was based. What the community of Glenmont has discovered is something that was the norm in most towns, villages, cities and communities for most of human history: people gather together because we are partial and needy, and we can only achieve the good life together through the effort to achieve together and in concert a shared conception of the common good. Moreover, such common good is not the product of pronouncements of distant government or abstract philosophy, but derives from the lived experience, common concerns, shared history and interlinked destiny of those people who live together. Some economists doubtlessly have read this article and regard it as a highly inefficient expenditure of time and energy on non-productive and unprofitable endeavors. As Aristotle would respond to such economists, they seek to concentrate on "mere life," not "the good life."

This article should be read and considered alongside this recent article from The New York Times which reports census findings that fewer Americans have been able to move since any time since 1962. Of course, this reportage will truly alarm economists - much as it is portrayed by the NYT reporter as a sign of calamity and distress - rather than a positive trend in favor of stronger neighborhoods and the possible source of a renewed sense of loyalty and commitment. However, given our prevailing default preference in favor of mobility (especially, and always, upward mobility) that is promoted (through public policy no less) in order to support the creation of an absentee economy and itinerant workforce in which connections to production and consumption are all but severed, there can be little wonder that elites at the New York Times regard this census data with alarm. After all, above all, the New York Times is devoted to promoting a deracinated culture that allowed for the creation of the reporters at the New York Times.

Many years ago, Albert O. Hirschman wrote among the most perceptive books yet written - intended to describe an economic phenomenon, but more widely applicable to most human relationships, and more broadly, politics in general. Entitled Exit, Voice and Loyalty, Hirschman described how organizations tend over time to develop "slack" (that is, cease to be wholly responsive to their constituents); in response, people involved in those organizations (at least in a liberal society) have two fundamental options: exit or voice. That is, they can choose to leave for some other organization (e.g., in economics, they can choose to purchase another product), or they can choose instead to exercise "voice" - that is, to engage with other members of that organization to convince the organization to change its ways. In order to exercise voice, however, there needs to be high levels of loyalty: otherwise, exit proves to be a less costly and time-consuming transaction. For consumers - or the consumer mentality - we tend mostly to think in terms of exit. If some product doesn't meet our desire for whatever reason, we simply buy a competitor's product or forgo the purchase altogether. Rarely - as in the case of Coca-Cola's introduction of "New Coke" some years ago - there is a deep base of consumer loyalty that fuels "voice," in this instance, demands of the return of "the Real Thing." However, in consumer society, such loyalty is rare and even nearly non-existent. It makes little sense to be "loyal" to a product.

Politics, society, and family life presumably operate on a different model, one in which loyalty is more likely to cause us exert greater levels of voice and be less likely simply to exit. However, much evidence of recent decades suggests that the option of "exit" has everywhere overwhelmed loyalty: that is, the model of economic life has tended to transform every aspect of life in its image, leading individuals in nearly every role of life to exhibit decreasing levels of loyalty in favor of the exit option. Particularly where loyalty cannot be expected in return - people are simply moving, leaving, and divorcing too often for anyone to be unquestionably loyal, and we live in a society that actively promotes "exit" as a default way of life - we are far more likely to exhibit tendencies or proclivities toward exit. Even where we do not literally exit, we proverbially exit, escaping to gated bedroom "communities" where we can live private lives apart from the interference of any of our "neighbors."

These two stories, published within two weeks of each other, are remarkable for the change that they suggest may be afoot. Where exit is harder and not simply the default, we are more likely to foster relationships of loyalty and thereby find firm ground in which to exercise voice. Finding voice, we thereby build relationships that increase loyalty. A society of voice born of loyalty is one of greater civic solidarity. It is more likely to be one of neighborliness and mutual assistance. It is a society from which culture might be expected to arise - that is, a shared set of common understandings that stand the test of time and become an inheritance across generations. We are a long way from achieving the conditions of true culture in contemporary America, but these are promising signs.

Most importantly, it is through the existence of a rich tapestry of actual neighborhoods that the best resistance to centralized authority is to be found. Tocqueville - as ever - understood this best. For a long time Tocqueville's admirers on the Left have admired his criticisms of individualism, while those on the Right have lauded his criticisms of centralized authority. What both have generally failed to do is put these two criticisms together: namely, that it is in a society composed of isolated individuals that one is most likely to see the rise of a centralized bureaucratic State - "the vast tutelary power." Consider this passage rarely cited by any of Tocqueville's admirers:

In centuries of equality no one is obliged to lend his force to those like him and no one has the right to expect great support from those like him, each is at once independent and weak. These two states, which must neither be viewed as separate nor confused, give the citizen of democracies very contrary instincts. His independence fills him with confidence and pride among his equals, and his debility makes him feel, from time to time, in need of the outside help that he cannot expect from any of them, since they are all impotent and cold. In this extremity, he naturally turns his regard to the immense being that rises alone in the midst of universal debasement. His needs and above all his desires constantly lead him back toward it, and in the end he views it as the unique and necessary support for his individual weakness. (II.iv.3).

That is, when we are isolated, alone and most fully individuated, we are most likely to turn to the assistance of the central government when (inevitably) the going gets rough. By contrast, when we live among a strong community of fellow citizens with whom we regularly consort and build relationships based upon trust, history and memory, we are more likely to turn to those people closer to us when times prove challenging. As usual, "conservatives" and "liberals" get roughly half right - and, more importantly, half wrong - in thinking that either we must have the assistance of government or encourage individual self-reliance. What is needed is less exit, and instead, more loyalty and voice. What is needed is what is now happening in neighborhoods like Glenmont, and which - it can be hoped - will happen throughout the nation, if we are to keep our liberty and even aspire to live "the good life." It won't be what the economists wish of us, and it's a good thing too. There is more on heaven and earth than is dreamed in their philosophy....

A Disposable Society

Earlier today I posted on this subject at Front Porch Republic. A snippet:

At most cafes today there is a station where packets of sugar, canisters of milk and cream, and coffee stirrers are conveniently available for the personalization of each person’s hot beverage. Amid the detritus that is collected every hour, each day, week after week, year upon year, is a steady stream of coffee stirrers that are swirled once or twice around the cup and then deposited into the trash. It is a marvel to imagine how many of these stirrers are disposed every day after a single use. Or the tops of the coffee cups, also tossed away with the empty cup. Or the plastic bags we might use to carry the baked goods that accompany our hot beverage. Or the discarded bottles of ecologically produced water the purchase of which goes to help impoverished people in “developing” countries. In that one daily purchase - made daily by hundreds of thousands if not millions of people - we witness in a microcosm our disposable society.


But it’s quite remarkable, when one does stop to think about it: that plastic stirrer, and the millions of others that arrive in our landfills after a single swirl around the edge of the cup, will remain in that pristine and unaltered condition for hundreds and possibly even thousands of years. From time immemorial human beings have sought some way to create mementos or monuments that would stand the test of time, beyond not only our own lifetime and that of our children, but as testimony to what we are and were to future civilizations yet unknown and unknowable. From the epics of Homer or the story of Gilgamesh to the pyramids of Egypt to the Icelandic sagas to the humble gravestones found in ancient churchyards, humans have sought some form of permanence in a world that inevitably all but erases the presence of each generation from the distant future. Yet, when sometimes we imagine the sentient beings that may settle on the layers of earth that will someday cover our surface - or the visitors from some other planet who will arrive here after life as we know it has ceased - and imagine that what they will discover, we picture their unearthing of a civilization that wrapped the earth in a layer of plastic. The things we throw out most readily - without thought or hesitation - will be the very things that will prove to be the most lasting substance known to any civilization of human being. How is it that we came to dispose so readily of something so permanent, when so many generations that preceded us worked so mightily to preserve even those things that are fleeting?


I attempt to answer my own questions here.