What Is to be Done?

By Patrick J. Deneen for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC


On Amtrak Regional Train 130 Daniel Larison has written a number of related postings here (and here) and elsewhere that have insistently raised and sought to answer the question: what is to be done? For those who are attracted to the basic gist of the arguments being presented here on FPR – “Limits. Place. Liberty.” – there is the vexing question whether these arguments are not simply so much nostalgic longing for a bygone era (or, alternatively, fantasy for an era that never existed), and, while charming and interesting and even at times exciting in its counter-cultural resistance, nevertheless is finally irrelevant to the main debates that lie at the heart of the real world of a globalizing, free-market liberal system that is here to stay.

For some, 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 naïve. 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.

Secondly – for most of us, I think, the process of coming to an understanding of what was wrong with our current way was an “intellectual” discovery. Speaking personally, while I grew up in a small town and was catechized in the faith of my fathers – and imbibed the values that were embedded there – I was also unconsciously raised to accept the dominant presuppositions of mid- and late-20th century American liberalism. For me, the process of reconciling (or ultimately properly ordering) those two parts of my upbringing ultimately was assisted through books and thinkers who had made various parts of that journey long before I was born. Much of this discovery has been remarkably and even regrettably recent, with much of the foundation having been laid long ago, but somehow the scaffolding only having been erected in recent years through a prolonged encounter with the writings of Wendell Berry and a mini-conversion (or re-turn) back to the faith of my fathers. More than ever, many of our countrymen will not have had the experience of growing up in small towns or on farms, or visiting grandparents or friends in such settings, as ever-more Americans lose all contact with a way of life now disreputable and transcended. Increasingly, those who seek to understand what is wrong in the world they inhabit, or even how to articulate vague misgivings, will need first the words to guide them to some possibility of an experience they will not have personally stored. And here, I and others hope, FPR can be a place where some of those articulations and arguments can be made.

Third, and lastly – and, potentially controversially within the FPR family – I am of the view that not only are the actions of individuals needed, but ultimately a change in culture and politics – and not necessarily or solely in that order (nor in the reverse order), but kind of mixed all up together. The connection between culture and politics is too mysterious and complex for me to unravel, but for many of us here, it is clear that for too long “conservativism” qua the Republican party has emphasized “politics” at the expense of culture. It is the view, I think, of every author here that culture is ultimately the foundation of a society’s mores and folkways, the source of its values and virtues. To turn to a Tocquevillian insight, “moeurs” shape the law, and, thus, politics is derived at the deepest level from the culture. However, Tocqueville also observed that “moeurs” (“mores,” or culture) is in turn shaped over time by changes in the law. It’s a mysterious process, and one that can only be excavated with the care and attention akin to that of geologic exploration. What we say and believe can and likely will ultimately have an effect on how we act. Thus, Tocqueville observed that, while Americans justify most of their actions in terms of “self-interest,” they frequently act in fact out of altruism and public-spiritedness. He observed that Americans “do more honor to their philosophy than to themselves” – they are officially Lockeans, but practically Christians. Over time, however, our self-understanding will influence even our “unofficial” behavior, and just so, over time, the nation has become ever-more officially and practically Lockean. How we understand ourselves consciously ultimately works itself into our unconscious actions as well.

So, this site is at least this much: an effort to change our self-understanding – the selves we are, the selves and communities we might be. Many observe rightly that its arguments are almost everywhere and always paradoxical, if not contradictory – arguing on behalf of communities and a culture in which choice and escape and individual self-assertion is subordinated, yet urging the embrace of these ways as a matter of choice and self-assertion. This paradox is forced upon anyone making these arguments by a culture that renders everything into a choice. Still, ultimately a people persuaded by the wisdom of such a course will begin to enact some of its basic presuppositions into law, and thus slowly create a “virtuous circle” in which the law emanates from culture, and culture is in turn strengthened by law. Some of us will act as individuals within communities, stepping out of the mainstream to preserve or create a distinctive alternative for our families or small communities of families. Others of us – and here, I would include myself – will call for citizens to begin to consider public acts large and small that will begin to offer us a different way to live.

Small changes might have large effects over time. Demands in changes to zoning laws, requiring more mixed use space – commercial, residential, educational, religious and otherwise – would begin to re-integrate the various central activities of human life. Demotion of the automobile is a major desideratum, and here a great coalition between the environmental Left and traditionalist Right is there for the picking. Libertarians, Catholics and traditionalists can make common cause in demanding more economic and legislative subsidiarity, although libertarians must chasten their dogmatic individualism and understand that the best restraint upon large-scale centralized institutions are not individuals, but communities. There is no “free market” – it is the fantasy of ideological purists – but there are markets that leave us more free as members of communities and relatively more immune from large-scale centralized institutions (public or private) than others. People might be persuaded to call for a different finger to be put on the legislative scales: not the one that now gives advantage to large-scale organizations, but a different finger that gives advantage to smaller companies, family-businesses, local enterprises whose bottom-line is not the benefit of absentee shareholders, but the life and fabric of good communities. Liberatarians are right that onerous regulation is to be rejected, but not because it represents an imposition upon profitability, but rather because it is desired by both big government and big business as an obstacle to entry of smaller players. Perhaps something so inventive as a dual regulatory system could be conceived, in which smaller businesses bear a lighter burden. Incentives to smalleness and localism should become the norm and default, and not the current set of incentives that favor the creation of entities that are “too big to fail.” Anyone who believes that the past year demonstrates our greater “freedom” needs to have their pulse checked.

There are many many other things that could be done, large and small. FPR’ers are not (at the moment) particularly well-versed in the kind of public policy that would be needed to help effect, or to support, a change in our current ways (and not all of us agree that a sane path includes a political or legislative dimension). I would think a fundamental change in subsidization of the automobile and trucking industry would be a good place to start (along with our more profound and troubling military and imperial subsidization of “cheap” oil), but don’t know exactly what that would look like. Before any legislative proposals can be launched, however, a change in mind must take place. And this is what I think needs to “be done” first, before any real political action of significance could get off the ground. Indeed, if we do our job well here, then I fully expect some much more interesting legislative and public policy debates to follow (not the impoverished debates between proponents of “big government” and “big business” – as if they were really at odds). For the moment, what is being done here on this website is the very thing that needs to be done.

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