Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Robert Nisbet's Quest

I have an edited version of my lecture on Robert Nisbet, delivered recently in Seattle, over at Front Porch Republic. My conclusion:

What Robert Nisbet teaches conservatives today is a valuable lesson about the inherent dangers of conservatism. Conservatism was born in early-modern times as a reaction to the radicalism of political ideology. It was reactive, and in that sense defined itself in reference to liberalism. In modern American history - in reaction to the radicalism of the Left on the world stage, particularly given the threat of Communism - American conservatism reacted by occupying space that had recently been vacated by the Left. In responding to calls for global citizenship, conservatism defended the nation-state - while losing sight of a deeper allegiance to localities. In responding to the threat of economic socialism, conservatism defended the free market - while losing sight of a deeper allegiance to the associational life that an economy was brought into being to sustain and preserve. In responding to the dogmatic “multiculturalism” on college campuses, conservatism defended a form of rationalist universalism that contributed to the deracination and homogenization of our colleges - while losing sight of a defensible form of true diversity, a diversity of places, localities, and actual cultures. Nisbet, finally, is an invaluable teacher for today’s conservatives because he teaches us that, more than being a simple reaction against, the deepest commitments underlying conservatism must always be for something, and that something must be finally more than merely “the quest for community,” but the reality and flourishing of community itself.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Studies Show

That Peter Lawler is right about reasons to be disquieted by President Obama's sudden dissolution of the Bioethics Commission, and his more general stance that we can rely on scientific objectivity and experts to settle the great and contested issues of the day.

Obama's stance is reminiscent of a passage from a speech given by John F. Kennedy in 1962, in which he said:
Most of us are conditioned for many years to have a political viewpoint - Republican or Democratic, liberal, conservative, or moderate. The fact of the matter is that most of the problems … that we now face are technical problems, are administrative problems. They are very sophisticated judgments, which do not lend themselves to the great sort of passionate movements which have stirred the country so often in the past. [They] deal with questions which are now beyond the comprehension of most men….

Sentiments such as these are fundamentally a dismissal of democracy, understood not simply as a contrivance of competitive elections, but as the a form of governance devised with the idea that truly human questions are not reducible to technical or expert "solution," but instead require discussion, argument, dialogue, prudence, practical wisdom, and the willingness to revisit. I agree with every sentence in Peter's assessment, and lament the dismantling of what may have been the best thing that GWB did in his eight years in office in forming his Bioethics Commission.

Monday, June 15, 2009

What I Saw in Seattle

Well, I'll be able to speak to what I saw after this weekend. I'll be in Seattle this weekend as part of a day's lectures on "Five Forgotten Conservatives." My task: to recall the thought of Robert Nisbet and its relevance for the current moment. I'll be appearing under the auspices of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute along with such luminaries and friends as Peter Lawler, David Whalen and fellow Front Porcher James Wilson. Anyone in or around Seattle with a burning interest to hear what I have to say about Nisbet (or others about others) should consult I.S.I.'s announcement and this schedule. I'll be staying a few extra days, so may have some things to report from the great Northwest.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Magic Kingdom

A growing consensus - though far from unanimous - holds that the economic downturn may have hit bottom, and the financial system is now on the mend. Recent stabilization in the numbers of unemployment; repayment of TARP funds by a number of large banks; an uptick in consumer spending, among other recent data, point to possible signs of recovery.

Already, though, we are seeing signs as well of the "cost" of any such recovery. Built on poor foundations - mainly the infusion of massive quantities of publically-borrowed or recently printed money - a "recovered" economy will simply continue to hobble down a perilous path leading to a dead end. One sign of the times: the price of oil has risen from a low in the $40's to a price-per-barrel today of $72. If the economy does indeed begin to recover, we can expect a continuing and rapid escalation of oil prices back to pre-crash levels - levels that we seem to have largely forgotten. Now, however, we are a considerably poorer nation as a result of the economic purge, less capable of making the large expenditures necessary to prepare for our energy-constrained future. The "stimulus package" was a particularly foolish exercise in self-destructive "investment" in a past with no future, with large sums allocated on "transportation" projects - few, if any of which, would go toward supporting more local forms of living that will be necessary when oil shoots past its old highs. And now, a growing chorus of nations are indicating a hesitance, or even outright refusal to finance the boondoggle and Ponzi scheme called "America," meaning that any "investments" we will make in our low-energy future are going to come from a crash diet, not from a credit card.

Utterly expectedly, long-term interest rates have been rising, from near-historic lows after the announcement by the Fed and Treasury of a major Treasury bond repurchasing effort, back to levels that now exceed the rates before that announcement. From here - with foreign nations balking at the idea that the dollar should remain the international reserve currency - it can be fully expected that long-term rates will continue to rise, while the dollar will fall against foreign currencies and gold will continue its relentless rise to $1,000 an ounce and beyond.

The result of this "recovery": an overall decline in purchasing power; a rise of inflation, particularly the price of food (associated with rises in the price of oil and the continued idiocy of pumping our food into our gas tanks); the inability of average Americans to borrow, not now because of deflation, but steadily rising interest rates; thus, continued and even deepening weakness in the housing market (why do you think the Senate is now considering a $15,000 tax credit for all house purchases, in spite of claims of "green shoots"?); and, the hard truth be told, a worsening of the American economy that is now being masked by the band-aid of trillions of dollars of borrowed money.

Nothing that has been done has redressed the systemic causes of this economic crisis, because - in the end - as a nation we are fundamentally unwilling to change our behavior. We elected a man to the Presidency who promised "change" knowing full well that he would not discomfit us with any actual challenge to our complacency. Having seen the result of a decades-long binge of living beyond our means - including not only borrowing beyond the ability of repayment under the assumption of permanent and magical "growth," but consuming with abandon the world's remaining cheap "resources" in the belief that our generation was entitled to materials that required millenia to form - our collective response was to double-down and borrow even more.

Our post-World War II past was marked, among other things, by a collective delusion that found its most perfect expression in the the phenomenal rise of the Disney empire. The Magic Kingdom was less a tutor and origin of self-delusion than its greatest manifestation. Disney became embedded in the American psyche because it appealed to the self-delusive fantasy by which post-war America defined itself. A car-addicted America flocked to Disney because it held out the fantasy of two incommensurable attractions: the future would always be bigger and better - particularly through the magic of technology (e.g., Epcot); and America was defined above all by the old-fashioned values of its small-town, agrarian origins ("Main Street America"). Disney was the fantastical manifestation of national wishful thinking, the idea that progress and tradition could be magically combined, above all by the creation of nostalgic facades that masked the brute machinery. In short: we could have it all!

We are now faced with the price of our Disney-fied fantasy of the past half-century. Having borrowed and consumed with abandon, all the while demanding and receiving high-tech distraction, while self-delusively believing that we were virtuous and good-hearted citizens who loved apple-pie and baseball (what Chevy told us we were, though the apple pies were purchased courtesy of Monsanto and baseball was pumped up on steroids and television money), the bill has come due. The facades are torn off, revealing not a virtuous America of Main Streets, but clunky mid-century machinery that consumes without limit and cannot be fed any longer. Our great post-War institutions - such as the heavyweights of Detroit - are more than merely financially bankrupt - they were built on the same basic fantastical notion that something could be had for nothing - forever. Our entire edifice has been shown to be ridden with rot born of this fantasy come due. Its high-water mark was the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, who borrowed shamelessly from the Disney message, telling us that we were good and decent folks even as we expanded the empire, sucked ever more deeply from the last of the world's great oil wells, and shopped until we dropped. Subsequent decades - regardless of our "leaders" - have been marked by a desperate holding pattern, the filling in with epoxy and plastic of the growing number of cracks of this unsustainable and unwinnable contest with reality.

What our post-Disney future reveals most fundamentally is that a facade of Main Streets cannot provide what Main Streets - and the communities that made those streets worth caring about - were designed and built to afford. Main Streets were a commitment to the future, albeit a reality-based future in which continuity with the past, and responsibility to subsequent generations, was paramount. Main Streets were lined with stores owned by local merchants that sold actual goods that were actually necessary for actual life (visit "Main Street America" and try to find a "store" that sells something other than Disney paraphernalia; for that matter, visit nearly any Main Street of yore - e.g., Old Town Alexandria - and try to buy a loaf of bread). They were places of public gathering, public spaces that tutored old and young alike in certain behaviors necessary for the continuity of civilization. The tutor of our young is now the sarcasm and irony of "The Disney Channel," a curious culmination of a project that began with the earnestness of the Mickey Mouse Club.

Our current "recovery" is now being cheer-led by a President who realizes that the only alternative to continuing our national fantasy is reality - and reality means a rendezvous with one-term. While he - like Reagan before him - flatters us by speaking of our better angels, he finances our "recovery" with pixie dust and amusement park mirrors. Implicitly, our "recovery" will return us to a condition that we have so recently regarded as a "good" economy. Our delusive understanding of a healthy economy rests upon our ability to borrow, to spend, and to consume - a premise that neither he, nor any "leader," has ever bothered to challenge. Like the little boy who tried to stop the leaks in the dyke, he's finding that stopping one set of leaks (TARP, "stimulus package," etc.) is increasing the flow of water through other leaks (inflation, oil, the dollar's decline). What can't be acknowledged is that the dyke is unsound. Meanwhile the seas threaten incessantly, and we are not wise enough to understand that one must simply stop living below sea level.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Blessings of Pesticides

I learned tonight, courtesy of American Media's Marketplace, that there is a letter-writing campaign currently afoot protesting the organic garden that was planted and is tended by Mrs. Obama. The campaign's proponent is "CropLife" - an agricultural "media group" whose main mission, it seems, is the promotion of pesticides - which back in March wrote this letter objecting to the implicit disapproval of industrial and chemical farming by the official sanction of an organic vegetable garden at the White House. (A recent story in the Washington Post - pointing out that the Obama's restaurant choices have further signaled support for sustainable agriculture - must have the folks at CropLife ready to snort some of those pesticides).

These sentences from CropLife's letter were particularly noteworthy:
Technology in agriculture has allowed for the development of much of what we know and use in our lives today. If Americans were still required to farm to support their family's basic food and fiber needs, would the U.S. have been leaders in the advancement of science, communication, education, medicine, transportation, and the arts?

["Transportation"? Really? Good thing they didn't include finance on this list. But it does raise questions about the legitimacy of the overall claim, doesn't it...]

We live in a very different world than that of our grandparents. Americans are juggling jobs with the needs of children and aging parents. The time needed to tend a garden is not there for the majority of our citizens, certainly not a garden of sufficient productivity to supply much of a family's year-round food need

On the one hand, it seems, our "liberation" from the farm has permitted us unparalleled freedom to develop advances in every area of life. On the other hand, it seems, we are so damned busy in our liberated lifestyles - "juggling jobs with the needs of children and aging parents" - that there just isn't time to tend even a family garden, even if one wanted to. The beautiful chains that adorn us all - from commuters to soccer moms - freed from the necessity of farming, yet having no time to garden!

I compare these sentiments to a several passages written in 1853 by Henry Lester, a Vermont farmer. The essay is entitled "Man Made For Agriculture" and won the award of "Premium Essay" at the Rutland County Fair of that year. It is reproduced as an appendix of a fine book written by Professor Charles Fish - a person of long acquaintance, but whom I have not seen in some time, alas - entitled In Good Hands: The Keeping of a Family Farm. (Read a wonderful review of Fish's book by my teacher, Wilson Carey McWilliams, here. Carey introduced me to Charles Fish more years ago than I can count, half-appropriately enough at the New England Political Science conference). Just over a century and a half ago, Henry Lester wrote,

"To make a man long-lived, it is necessary that he should have pure air, pure water, wholesome food used in reasonable quantities, a regular systematic diet and habits, temperance in all things, be cheerful and contented with his occupation, rise early and be industrious, and never complain of his hard lot, his poor occupation. In fine he must not sigh for the fleshpots of Egypt. He must [be] thankful that the supreme being created him and ordained him for an agriculturalist, placed him on goodly soil in a good country, surrounded by a good society of his fellows in genial clime where hill, dale, and mountain forest, the grasses, fruit and grains make the scenery both desirable and beautiful....

"Young men and maidens, agriculture is your most safe employment, the most sure of competence, long life, and happiness. But few fail that pursue this with alacrity, when in the mercantile and other professions, but few are prospered, and those few mostly, whether statesmen, jurists, or merchant princes, retire at last to agriculture that their last days be serene and happy. Again, agriculture not only being the most useful, healthful, and independent occupation, tends more than any other to lead the mind to religion, morality, and virtue, and make man feel and act towards his fellow man like the good Samaritan, and how few educated in the rural districts in schools and high schools, and learn and follow the agricultural profession through their minority, fall into vicious habits and are [a] curse to themselves and community thereafter....

"Further, the agriculturalist, raising most things for their own use and for the support of all, is the most independent class. They have the creator's promise that seedtime and harvest shall not fail. They are the grand conservators of freedom and democracy throughout the world. On their will rests the continuance of this republic. "

Yes, one can only marvel at CropLife's claims that we have gained so much in leaving the land - that great freedom to juggle jobs and burdened with children and old people whose care many seek to farm out to low-paid labor. Thank goodness we are all so "free."

Monday, June 1, 2009

Against (Gay) Marriage

My musings today on the Front Porch, excerpted here:

Marriage is a condition in which individuality is subsumed to the larger considerations, demands, and obligations of culture and commonweal. At the most basic level, we sacrifice our autonomy on behalf of the good of a "unit" now defined as a couple, not two individuals. At a basic level, that unit is the source of future generations - the very source and conduit for the conveyance of human life and particular cultures. But the unit is itself an expression of, and draws from, the community as a whole. Thus (as I've written elsewhere), marriage is entered into through the blessing of and in the presence of community, not (as Las Vegas versions would suggest) as a contract of individuals. Marriages derive from, exist for, and are legitimized by the community and culture from which they derive. Thus, in their earliest instantiation marriages had nothing to do with the wishes of the individuals who composed them. They were the arrangements by families who looked to the continuity of a way of life (and, yes, family status) rather than the individual wishes of the partners.

Even when the consent of the individuals became a central feature of marriage - an innovation of Christianity, as Remi Brague reminds us (see the last paragraph of the interview that Mark Shiffman kindly linked for us) - it was still understood by all parties that marriage was most fully a union by and for the greater community. Blessings of parents and the publication of "the banns" was a necessary precondition for a wedding. This was especially because the married couple - by committing to marriage - was not merely joining to each other in an official capacity, but was in fact becoming a constitutive unit of the community and the conduit for the continuation of culture. Marriage was thus essential to the life and future of culture, and could not be permitted to take place between two individuals who happened to love each other but who were culturally unrelated. Rather, and necessarily, marriage was the union not simply between individuals, but between two people who would convey the lived traditions of a culture - most obviously (for instance), a man and woman of the same religious faith (this is one of the main points of Fiddler on the Roof, where Tevye can brook the choices of his two older daughters - even marriage to a communist - because they are both Jews. It is only when his youngest daughter proposes to marry a Christian that he withholds consent). Marriage was most essentially a commitment to a community, not the sum of personal choices of individuals.

What can it possibly mean to defend marriage when one cannot also defend or even conceive of a culture in which individualism is not the reigning basis for self-understanding? Our "debate over marriage" is emaciated and unsatisfying precisely because the contending parties - Left and Right alike - are not even capable of discerning the more fundamental issues at play, and are content to play out the drama in the most deracinated and culture-less venue imaginable - the legal brief. At the distant end of a broken connection, we debate over an institution - marriage - that carries ancient connotations but for which the cultural preconditions have ceased to exist. We debate over a dried and dead husk.

For proponents of gay marriage, marriage is a right, a personal entitlement of full individual expression. Just as heterosexuals sought to be liberated from the constraints of marriage in the name of individual liberty, so now gay individuals seek access to the positive connotations of the word marriage (even where they currently have all the rights and privileges of marriage other than the name, as in California) in the name of rights. Yet, it is this very underlying set of justifications that have eviscerated the actual significance of marriage: by making marriage into an option - a "lifestyle choice" - as an institution it does not possess in fact what it is thought to represent in theory. What gays desire, then, is the imprimatur of an institution whose positive connotations derive from a pre-liberal inheritance - its essence a culture-bearing institution - and which has been in fact largely emptied of those features as the primacy of demands of individualistic self-satisfaction have trumped its culture-bearing features. Ironically, at the point at which gays may achieve legal access to the word marriage, marriage will largely have ceased to be in any way the institution that was so desirable in the first instance. But I suppose that's the point. One doesn't see gay marriage advocates demanding a reassessment of no-fault divorce laws, or calling for the introduction of "covenant marriage," for instance. Marriage - ironically enough - is yet another expression of individual autonomy, a lifestyle preference.

Meanwhile, conservatives largely defend the institution of marriage in two ways - either as a traditional organization that should not be so easily or blithely remade, or an institution based in the natural features of humans, namely, focused on reproduction and basic facts of human sexuality. While I am sympathetic with both of these arguments, they do not seem to me to get to the core of the matter - namely, that marriage as an institution is simply the crowning part of a culture that must necessarily reject individualism as its basic feature. Contemporary conservatives have largely endorsed an economic and political system that places individualism at its core (again, it's worth noting that those parts of the country that are most mobile and where divorce is highest typically vote Republican, and it was, after all, a Republican president - the great hero of the Republicans, Ronald Reagan - who was the nation's first divorced President). David Brooks (and Peter Lawler) have embraced the exurbs as the natural place for "conservative" values to flourish, when in fact this particular living arrangement has contributed profoundly and perhaps irrevocably to the erosion of residual conservative impulses that are closely connected to place and memory. These "conservatives" basically adopt the "haven in a heartless world" viewpoint, defending marriage as a locus where nature, self-sacrifice, duty, obligation, submission of personal autonomy must be promoted - but, the ONLY place where that is the case. Any such view, of course, is pure fantasy, dooming marriage to failure if only by asking it to bear too much weight, to carry to much of the load of an otherwise radically individualist society.