New_American_Gothic

One thing that has amused me in these first three years of FPR’s existence is the tendency of some readers to single out one or two articles and lament that FPR was once a promising venture but has now taken a sad turn toward, well, the list is long: socialism, distributism, libertarianism, Catholicism, monarchism, populism, statism, and communism (remember the Commie-dems?).

The fact that FPR has been written off for such disparate transgressions is suggestive. Ultimately, I think this indicates more about the particular reader than it does about FPR. From the beginning we have been committed to a big tent approach. We decided early on that if we were going to err it would not be in the direction of exclusion, narrowness, or some dogmatic localist creed. We emphatically don’t want to be easily pigeon-holed; although, some have called us neo-traditionalists and new localists, and I suppose those hit fairly close to the mark.

The danger of a big tent is being so broad that there is no coherent center, but I think the attentive reader will find at FPR a genuine commitment to the ideals of place, limits, and liberty in various configurations. In more concrete terms, this amounts to the promotion of political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism. Of course, there is plenty of room for disagreement as these ideals are articulated, and these points of disagreement crop up regularly.

As I see it, we at FPR are exploring the limits and defects of liberalism in the context of contemporary America. In the course of that exploration, we’ve had a variety of individuals push in various directions. Early on we published a piece by Kirkpatrick Sale on secession. Does that mean FPR is committed to secession? Well, no; although, one of our editors, Bill Kauffman, has written an engaging book on the topic and anyone who reads it will be made aware that the subject is as old as the republic and does not simply refer to carving up the Union but can also indicate a desire to carve up the states within the Union. A legitimate discussion? I think so.

We ran a couple of pieces by an author advocating an American monarchy. Does that mean FPR is a monarchist site? The simple fact that no other writer at FPR bought the arguments and as a result we have not revisited that topic suggests that this particular foray fell decidedly flat. While some critics see the fact that we ran these pieces as evidence that FPR is a cabal of romantic monarchists, it seems clear that the exact opposite is actually the case. Outliers are just that, and to identify an outlier as the norm seems to be a careless error.

In this attempt to probe the limits and defect of liberalism, FPR writers often find themselves pushing against a political culture in ways that create real and difficult tensions. We Americans are, after all, products of a liberal society and to question both the grounds of liberalism as well as its ends is to question much about our own lives.

In November Joe Carter over at First Things published a piece critical of the distributist economic ideals often discussed at FPR. Indeed, from the beginning we have sought to explore the contemporary relevance of distributism (see, for example, here and here). Part of the problem with distributism (beside the lousy moniker) is the fact that few people take the time to define it carefully and this results in plenty of misunderstandings. For present purposes, we can define distributism as simply the notion that a healthy polity, especially a healthy democracy, depends on real property widely distributed among the citizenry. Of course, the mechanism to achieve this end is a central question that must be addressed, yet most would agree (certainly conservatives of a Burkean stripe) that property is one of the lynchpins of an ordered freedom.

Carter’s challenge to distributism (as an aesthetic ideal born of hobbits) turns into a criticism of agrarianism when he levels the following accusation:

Agrarian conservatives are charmingly anachronistic and mostly harmless since even they don’t take their ideas too seriously. (When the agrarian professors give up their tenure at Ivy League U, move back to the farm, and teach at Wendell Berry Community College, I’ll believe they mean what they say).

This snarky remark is beneath Carter and quite simply ignores the real tensions many writers at FPR have been wrestling with for some time. First, as I said before, we are all products of liberalism and to probe liberalism is to throw into question many basic assumptions about human flourishing and this translates into questioning many of the life-style decisions we ourselves have made. But “moving back to the farm” as Carter glibly puts it, is not much of an option if there is no farm to move back to. Even going home is not an option for many, for our parents are as mobile as we are and a hometown doesn’t exist. Thus, we are left doing the best we can in the places we inhabit whether that be a small town in Kansas, a college town in Illinois, or a suburb of Washington D.C. Moving again to recover some nostalgic sense of place isn’t necessarily the answer. Committing to a place and staying put is, perhaps, no simple ideal in a world where mobility is associated with success, but Carter should at least see that as a legitimate way of addressing a real problem.

Second, Carter conflates distributism with agrarianism and, while the two share affinities, failing to distinguish between them simply muddies the waters. A distributist can, of course, live in a city. Owning a small business is surely one distributist ideal. But, and here is where Carter could benefit from more reading in the agrarian tradition, agrarians do not, as a rule, argue that all people should return to farm and field. If they did, they would be the romantic utopians Carter accuses them of being.

Agrarians from the Twelve Southerner of I’ll Take My Stand to Wendell Berry identify a fundamental tension between agrarianism and industrialism. According to Berry, these are the only real options, and the differences are profound. “I believe that this contest between industrialism and agrarianism now defines the most fundamental human difference, for it divides not just two nearly opposite concepts of agriculture and land use, but also two nearly opposite ways of understanding ourselves, our fellow creatures, and our world.”[1] Where the model for industrialism is the machine and technological invention, Berry notes that

agrarianism begins with givens: land, plants, animals, weather, hunger, and the birthright knowledge of agriculture. Industrialists are always ready to ignore, sell, or destroy the past in order to gain the entirely unprecedented wealth, comfort, and happiness supposedly to be found in the future. Agrarian farmers know that their very identity depends on their willingness to receive gratefully, use responsibly, and hand down intact an inheritance, both natural and cultural, from the past. Agrarians understand themselves as the users and caretakers of some things they did not make, and of some things that they cannot make.[2]

The agrarian is guided by gratitude. He recognizes the giftedness of creation and accepts the great and awful responsibility to steward it well. Such a recognition “calls for prudence, humility, good work, propriety of scale.”[3] In the use of the land, soil, water, and non-human creatures, the final arbiter, according to Berry, is not human will but nature itself.[4] But this is not to suggest that Berry is some sort of pantheist. Instead, “the agrarian mind is, at bottom, a religious mind.” The agrarian recognizes that the natural world is a gift, and gifts imply a giver. “The agrarian mind begins with the love of fields and ramifies in good farming, good cooking, good eating, and gratitude to God.” By contrast, the “industrial mind “begins with ingratitude, and ramifies in the destruction of farms and forests.”[5] The implication here is striking. The agrarian begins with gratitude for the gifts of the natural world and this leads him ultimately to gratitude to God. The industrialist, on the other hand, begins with ingratitude, which precludes this upward movement. Where the agrarian mind is essentially religious, the industrial mind is essentially irreligious or even anti-religious. It is characterized by the will to dominate the natural world. This mind fails to recognize that humans are an intrinsic part of the natural world, and to be destructive of the natural world is to jeopardize human existence itself. Such a way of thinking seems patently foolish, but one must never forget the technological optimism lying at the heart of the industrial mind. If the agrarian mind is essentially religious, the industrial mind is animated by faith in technological innovation, which will solve the very problems brought on by the hubris of an ungrateful mind.

Since the agrarian mind and the industrial mind represent two fundamentally different ways of viewing the world, it is possible for a farmer to possess an industrial mind just as it is possible for an urban dweller to possess an agrarian mind. Indeed, there are examples of both in every city and in every farming community. Once this basic fact is acknowledged, simple mischaracterizations are far more difficult to entertain.

The agrarian model is, moreover, characterized by a particular view of private property, and here we can see the connection between agrarianism and the distributists. Echoing the views of both Belloc and Jefferson, Berry argues that

the central figure of agrarian thought has invariably been the small owner or small holder who maintains a significant measure of economic self-determination on a small acreage. The scale and independence of such holding imply two things that agrarians see as desirable: intimate care in the use of land, and political democracy resting upon the indispensible foundation of economic democracy.[6]

That we have become, by and large, a nation of wage-earners and the owners of mutual funds demanding our fair share of the collective pie rather than independent property owners signifies an important cultural shift with significant consequences worth exploring. Berry is not arguing that a healthy polity or a healthy economy is only possible when everyone owns land or that the cities be abandoned. These are silly objections that indicate an unwillingness to engage Berry and the agrarian tradition. As Berry puts it, “I don’t think that being landed necessarily means owning land. It does mean being connected to a home landscape from which one may live by the interactions of a local economy and without the routine intervention of governments, corporations, or charities.”[7] In short, Berry is speaking of liberty born of a commitment to a particular place limited by an acknowledgment of responsibilities to neighbors, to the natural world, and ultimately to God. These are the ideals–place, limits, and liberty–we are exploring at FPR. The fully persuaded, fellow travelers, and thoughtful critics are all welcome.

 


[1] “The Agrarian Standard,” Citizenship Papers, 144.

[2] “The Agrarian Standard,” Citizenship Papers, 146.

[3] “The Agrarian Standard,” Citizenship Papers, 147.

[4] “The Whole Horse,” Citizenship Papers, 117.

[5] “The Whole Horse,” Citizenship Papers, 118.

[6] “The Whole Horse,” Citizenship Papers, 117.

[7] “The Agrarian Standard,” Citizenship Papers, 150.

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar M January 6, 2012 at 3:06 pm

Hear, hear.

avatar John Médaille January 6, 2012 at 3:28 pm

I think the proper understanding of agrarianism is not that everybody should go back to the land (which I, a city-boy, have no intention of doing) but that we should restore the proper relationship between town and country. Our first source of food and fiber should be local, and the town should be dedicated to the prosperity of the surrounding countryside, since that is the ultimate source of its support.

As for monarchy, I know of no writers on this blog that have ever advocated an American Monarchy, since a polity must arise from a people’s political tradition, and that is not in our tradition. But what is in our tradition, what is in fact enshrined in the Constitution, is the tri-partite polity strongly within the Aristotelian tradition. Of course, that was imperfectly realized, and died with the 17th Amendment. Further, the presidency was too short and insufficiently monarchial, so instead we have developed an imperial presidency, which is not the same thing.

All that being said, I commend the editors for allowing a series on monarchy to be published. I rather thought they wouldn’t and I think they showed both liberality and courage in doing so. They must have known there would be blowback, and they were right.

avatar Rob G January 6, 2012 at 4:10 pm

I’ve always thought of FPR as a sort of clearinghouse for decentralist thought. Needless to say, people have different reasons for being resistant to centralization, even different notions of what centralization entails, hence the variety of ideas here.

avatar Joe Carter January 6, 2012 at 5:39 pm

I don’t want to get labeled as a permanent critic of FPR but you bring up some interesting points, Mark, that I think are worth responding to.

The fact that FPR has been written off for such disparate transgressions is suggestive. Ultimately, I think this indicates more about the particular reader than it does about FPR.

I’m reminded of a magazine (that shall remain nameless) that also believes in taking a “big tent” approach and expresses a willingness to air views which they find “interesting” but which they may not necessarily agree with. Some of those views are what most of us would consider to be blatantly racist and beneath the dignity of the publication. But when that is pointed out to the editors they claim that the problem is with the readers.

This site has never published anything of that type, of course, but I think you similarly let FPR off the hook a little too easily here (and in other places in this post). If a wide range of readers believe you are making an unfortunate turn toward a specific ideology, it may be a sign that the site is getting side-tracked and not focusing on it’s core themes. It could also mean (my personal view) that the themes themselves are a bit too vague and lend themselves to just about any “ism” possible.

Outliers are just that, and to identify an outlier as the norm seems to be a careless error.

If a wide array of views are permitted on this site then how does the reader discern what is an “outlier” and what is the norm? As a long-time reader I think I can tell the difference. But the fact that no one wants to publicly distance themselves from the more outré views (out of politeness I suspect) means that the entire site is held responsible.

Also, if you are going to publish views that are outside the mainstream you shouldn’t be surprise when people assume that FPR’s views are outside the mainstream. That just comes with the territory.

For present purposes, we can define distributism as simply the notion that a healthy polity, especially a healthy democracy, depends on real property widely distributed among the citizenry.

I’d like to return to this someday because I think this is a key point of tension. FPR came about in the wake of the housing crisis—a time when the previous ideals of wide distribution of real property nearly bankrupted the economy. In fact, rather than make for a healthier polity, it made things much, much worse.

This snarky remark is beneath Carter and quite simply ignores the real tensions many writers at FPR have been wrestling with for some time.

The formulation was admittedly snarky but I think it presents a serious point. In fact, I think you are essentially ceding a key point of your most vocal critics (i.e., the Pomocons): If the people who advocate most vociferously for a position cannot (or will not) put it into practice in their own lives, then is it not hypocrisy for them to expect it of others?

But “moving back to the farm” as Carter glibly puts it, is not much of an option if there is no farm to move back to.

I think we all know that the “moving back to the farm” is not a literal farm (or at least I hope we recognize that fact). But the reality is that most of the contributors to FPR have a “hometown” (a place with real ties) that they voluntarily left in order to pursue their career ambitions. As you say, for some people “home is not an option.” But let’s not overstate that point. We are not completely a nation of wondering nomads. If you graduated from a particular high school, for instance you have a “hometown” you could go back to. The fact that we choose not to is a clear sign that most of us value “liberty” over the “limits” of “place”.

Committing to a place and staying put is, perhaps, no simple ideal in a world where mobility is associated with success, but Carter should at least see that as a legitimate way of addressing a real problem.

To some extent, I agree. But this is where the whole “limits” thing is supposed to come in. If no one has any intention of “staying put” when it requires them to sacrifice ambition or happiness then maybe we should find other modes that will lead to flourishing. If “staying put” is what parents do and then their kids go off to college, find a career, start a family and move off to “stay put” somewhere else, then we’re not really solving the long-term problem.

Second, Carter conflates distributism with agrarianism and . . .

Actually, in my post I make a distinction between the two. I only really brought up agrarianism in that post because I wanted to take an admittedly cheap shot at a point that has always bugged me.

Once this basic fact is acknowledged, simple mischaracterizations are far more difficult to entertain.

To avoid simple mischaracterizations it might be useful to simply drop the terms “agrarian” and “industrialization” altogether since in your formulation (which I like, by the way) they have no connection with their original denotation.

avatar Tony January 6, 2012 at 11:33 pm

I absolutely love this website, keep up the great work, I love First Things as well

avatar T. Chan January 7, 2012 at 3:31 am

“I’d like to return to this someday because I think this is a key point of tension. FPR came about in the wake of the housing crisis—a time when the previous ideals of wide distribution of real property nearly bankrupted the economy. In fact, rather than make for a healthier polity, it made things much, much worse.”

I’ll leave others to argue whether the housing crisis was due more to the banks or to poor people taking on more debt than they could handle. Needless to say, to use the market for homes as it exists in the U.S. as an example of “wide distribution of real property” is problematic, since reality is a bit more complicated than that, especially the problem of usury.

avatar Jacob Linn January 7, 2012 at 4:47 am

It really doesn’t seem legitimate to use the housing crisis as a critique of distributism . Buying non-productive property on credit (meaning, essentially, that the bank owns the property until the loan – and interest – is paid off) is about as far as possible from the distributist ideal of actual, independent ownership, especially of productive property. The distinction is a big one, as even a house that’s bought and paid for tends to be, with taxes and such, as much of a liability as an asset, in terms of financial independence.

avatar Peter S. January 7, 2012 at 9:06 am

As one of Dr. Mitchell’s former students, a fan of the Agrarians, Distributists, Pomo-Cons, First Things, and so on, I believe this little spat has every semblance of a lovers’ quarrel. Thanks, Dr. Mitchell, for invoking the underlying important themes and not getting hung up on scattered phrases.

avatar Marion Miner January 7, 2012 at 10:02 am

Excellent reply, I think, Dr. Mitchell. This article brings much more clarity (for me at least) to the subject at hand.

avatar Robb January 7, 2012 at 11:05 am

“We Americans are, after all, products of a liberal society and to question both the grounds of liberalism as well as its ends is to question much about our own lives.”

“Committing to a place and staying put is, perhaps, no simple ideal in a world where mobility is associated with success…”

These two quotes capture the main reasons I keep coming back to the Porch. FPR infuriates me at times but it never ceases to question my basic assumptions about how the world works.

And, as someone who sought snd found a measure of success by committing to a placeless lifestyle, I can say unequivocally that the Porch provides me with the encouragement I need to “keep living locally.” I say this because I have taken very seriously FPR’s call to live this way and the decision to do so has been among the hardest/best decisions I have ever made.

Whatever its failings, FPR is that rare place on the web where I am challenged deeply and encouraged greatly. Keep it up.

avatar Jason Fisher January 7, 2012 at 2:17 pm

keep on keeping on, FPR, and thanks for the nice exploration of Berry’s core themes and some of the common terms that are not always well understood (especially here, outside of academia)

avatar Rob G January 7, 2012 at 4:34 pm

“Buying non-productive property on credit (meaning, essentially, that the bank owns the property until the loan – and interest – is paid off) is about as far as possible from the distributist ideal of actual, independent ownership, especially of productive property.”

Precisely, as any reader of the Agrarians, Richard Weaver, or Wendell Berry could tell you. The modern abstraction of property is one of the very things agrarians and distributists would describe as a root of the problem.

avatar Rob G January 7, 2012 at 4:48 pm

By the way, First Things published one of the better things I’ve read on economics in the last year:

http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/05/the-emancipation-of-avarice

avatar Mark Perkins January 7, 2012 at 7:17 pm

Wonderful response, Dr. Mitchell. Thanks.

And please, for God’s sake, never consider trimming the outliers for the sake of a party platform or to appease the people who want a more concrete opponent to attack.

avatar Eric B. January 9, 2012 at 12:23 am

> …a suburb of Washington D.C. Moving again to recover some nostalgic sense of place isn’t necessarily the answer. Committing to a place and staying put is…

> it is possible for an urban dweller to possess an agrarian mind

The author here far too easily dismisses any serious call to set ourselves apart, to live according to a different set of values, to seek to provide for our own basic needs instead of throwing in our lot with the global, consumer economy. Let’s get real: the only way “an urban dweller” in “a suburb of Washington, DC” is going to afford any kind of connection to the land is by stepping on his fellow man to get to top of the industrial game of king-of-the-mountain. In other words, buying the “agrarian” goods will only be financed by working for and selling industrialism (and those “agrarian” goods won’t have much substance.)

If we seriously believe in any kind of agrarianism (and especially if we would put any real meaning to Berry’s words), then we’re going to have to recognize that our agrarian economy is fighting at the margins. How many armchair generals can the agrarian forces support? Let’s not pretend they’re actually part of the fight. Let’s have the honesty to admit that, especially in our present situation, supporting agrarianism means, one way or another, re-pioneering the ground level work. However long we decide to float above the working class in the consumer economy, living by it and trying to build the third story on an economy that’s still trying to re-build its foundation (which is to say giving our time and labor to supporting the same industrial economy as everyone else), is how long our agrarian talk is nothing but empty talk.

avatar Anymouse January 9, 2012 at 1:37 am

That is an excellent post. I do agree heavily. As I have mentioned before I have fantasies of a career in the academy as a Historian, but I do wonder if there is a better life elsewhere. I am getting my Bachelors in Geology, and am not really sure if I will have any job worth a damn waiting for me. I will still need some way to acquire the 5 acres I need to survive and feed a family if I do go down that route, but I am considering it.

avatar Eric B. January 9, 2012 at 10:28 am

Anymouse,
If you want to provide for your/your family’s needs in less consumerist fashion, there are lots of ways to deal with the land “problem.” I think my biggest recommendation would be that you consider working in stages. If you don’t even have a family yet, I wouldn’t let the amount of land needed to feed a family keep me from feeding myself in the meantime. And if you’re still at a stage where you’re likely to make beginner’s mistakes, better to make than on 1/2 or 1/16 acre before you try to manage 5 acres. And if you’re not realistically going to be able to earn the cash you need for your living from the land, and you need to work an outside job in the meantime, 1/4 or 1/2 acre might be all the land you’ll have the time to tend well anyway. My wife and I stayed very busy for several years “farming” on just a 2/3 acre lot (minus house, etc.), plus an extra 1/2 acre of garden space that a neighbor offered us once he saw what we were doing on our own place, plus some honeybees in another neighbor’s orchard, plus some sharecropping with another farmer friend. I was still working 4 days/week off the “farm” then and my wife was farming full time. But if and when the time does come to look for larger acreage, there are lots of people willing to rent (for very little money and often for free) land to young, traditional-organic growers/farmers, especially if they’ve demonstrated a serious interest already. There are even “incubator farms” complete with tractors, greenhouses, irrigation… Long-term leases and rent-to-own are other options. And, of course, there are lots of ways to partner with or work for other farmers. WWOOF’ing with your vacation time is a good way to explore possibilities. Talking to WWOOF hosts could give you a lot of ideas for how to proceed.

avatar Anymouse January 9, 2012 at 4:53 pm

Thank you for the suggestions. I will keep your advice in mind.

avatar Zac January 9, 2012 at 6:48 pm

Hello Mark-

I too am an agrarian, guided by gratitude, a caretaker of things I did not make, a caretaker of things I could not make. But the assumption that these things I care so greatly for were necessarily the creation of a God, an assumption I encounter all too often on FPR, is a sign to me that this tent is not quite big enough. Or, I should say, diverse enough, since bigness is not a value we Front Porchers aspire to.

And that’s a shame, because that was the original draw for me. I was in search of the strange bedfellows I read about in Look Homeward, America – and I found them – though now I often feel that I am the strange one, and everyone else bedfellows. If asked to choose between an anti-enlightenment argument and a localist argument, most would throw up their hands and say: ‘Is there a difference?’ I firmly believe that FPR has the potential to be the ripe marketplace of ideas I’ve always wanted it to be. But we are held back by myopic vision. Can you blame a localist for that? Presumably you cannot, or would not, when progress is the enemy.

Yet I still identify as an agrarian, albeit an atheist one, often at odds with FPR. I agree with most of your argument, even as I disagree. And that’s a success. Because I can come in this tent (at least as a commenter) and tell you:

My gracious mind recognizes no God, no religion, but still accepts and loves the great and awful responsibility of being a steward of (what you call) creation. To me, a God concerned with the act of creation is nothing more than an industrialist Himself. And if we are made in His image, what does that make us? My faith is in the immensity of those twin forces of change: environment and time – forces that have created a world that I must care for, that I could never make myself.

avatar D.W. Sabin January 10, 2012 at 9:13 pm

Perhaps “agrarianism”…if we must resort to isms is an altogether insufficient benchmark. We should be more interested in the broad definition of “husbandry”…or “stewardship” if you like. The prevailing zeitgeist in this technocratic age of compliance is all about exploitation and domination. The neo-conservative meets this bet and raises it through pretensions of cultural conservatism. It pant-hoots and denies the existence of the ape within.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins January 12, 2012 at 8:24 pm

“tri-partite polity strongly within the Aristotelian tradition… was imperfectly realized, and died with the 17th Amendment.”

It died long before that. To the extent that the Senate was intended to be a chamber of deep thought, where enlightened gentlemen philosophers kept a reign on the passions of the masses, it had already degenerated into the chamber where seats were available at wholesale prices rather than retail prices.

My “home town” isn’t there any more, unlike, say, Rod Dreher’s St. Francisville. My home town was a mix of paper mills and the white collar businesses that sustained the population working in the mills, with a college or two mixed in. Now it is a post-1980s affluent educated white collar city that has sprawled out onto perfectly good farmland, while a proto-ghetto (still mostly “white”) has a hazy presence on some of the older streets. At least it now elects Democrats and supports public transit. There are several places I’ve lived since that give me a sense of place — I wish I had homes in all of them.

I think this has already been said in a few different ways, but when the bank owns most of the house, and you get to live in it as long as you can make the payments, we haven’t really redistributed property ownership. When easy credit inflates the market, all we get is inflated prices, not wider distribution. Homes are primarily objects of consumption, and only secondarily investments. Distribution of the property that generates primary income is essential to a real approximation of economic, political and social equality. That’s why I always lean toward the more Populist and socialist implications of distributism.

avatar Anymouse January 12, 2012 at 8:34 pm

“At least it now elects Democrats”
That isn’t much of a plus. :)

avatar djr January 13, 2012 at 10:02 am

I am surprised that nobody has addressed Zac’s complaint about the invocation of God in FPR and agrarian rhetoric generally. Perhaps many readers of FPR will think that agrarianism requires the kind of traditional dogmatic religious belief that Zac takes himself to reject. I’m not so sure. It seems to me, rather, that agrarianism as Mitchell portrays it here requires only a view of the world that can sustain the attitudes that are central to it. It is plain that there are versions of self-proclaimed Christianity that do not promote and cannot sustain those attitudes; it is at least worth a nod, for instance, that Wendell Berrey has to make a point of arguing that his vision of nature is part of a properly Christian view of creation rather than at odds with it. The more important question, though, is whether agrarianism *requires* Berrey’s sort of Christian creation theology. Zac’s theological ideas seem to be about one inch more sophisticated than an ordinary 15 year old’s, but lurking behind his caricatures of traditional theology lies a serious point: the sense in which a person may be “religious” in the way that Mitchell’s post rightly makes central to agrarianism probably have no essential connection to traditional theistic religion, but can be supported by a wide variety of views that overlap in generating agrarian or at least agrarian-friendly attitudes. If so, it may help agrarianism to make that more apparent. I can almost guarantee that a great many people who are otherwise attracted by agrarian thought are turned away by the sense that taking it seriously will require them to start believing or at least entertaining a whole range of things that they at least currently cannot (in just what senses is God omnipotent or not? can God be acted upon? does the divine unity preclude the literal attribution of any positive qualities to God?).

In other words, it might help if people like Zac could more easily be led to see that they are already “religious” in the sense that agrarianism requires. If, at any rate, I’m right about what it requires.

avatar Matt Weber January 13, 2012 at 1:44 pm

I have long been annoyed by the hypocrisy charge. Seeing value in a rooted or agrarian or whatever-you-want-to-call-it lifestyle does not imply that you must live one. By the same tack, agreeing with a leftist about something does not mean you are either a leftist or some sort of insincere hypocrite.

There are benefits to a Front Porch lifestyle, but there are downsides too, and there will always be rootless cosmopolitans like myself along with the more connected types. The trick is to make sure that both groups have an environment that is basically functional, so the choice is a real one, rather than today where small town and rural America is dying out and the cosmopolitans rule the day. This is very good for me, you understand, but no way to run a society.

avatar D.W. Sabin January 13, 2012 at 3:44 pm

djr’s comment may be at least partially addressed by reading the new book “The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry” and in particular, DG Hart’s cogent meditation on Berry’s relationship with mainstream Christian conservatism. Schiffman’s following chapter positing a dys-oikonomia will expand upon the idea.

It is difficult, in this age of branding to find repose in any idea, let alone any institutionalized form of the prevailing culture. Berry plows a steady furrow that may not be comfortable for all but it produces an undeniably verdant harvest. My mornings these recent days, are warmed by the meditations of those attempting to poke at his steady , convivial ideas.

All the various contributors to this stirring volume should be justly proud of their work. It is, for this just-not-yet pagan, epiphanic. However, given Mr. Berry’s deft rendering of feminine characters, I am left wondering why there is not a woman’s voice in this fine volume. Not, of course, because of any pedestrian feminist compliance but more importantly, because I damned well like wimmin and thoroughly enjoy the sound of their voice, until I don’t.

avatar Mark T. Mitchell January 13, 2012 at 3:54 pm

Sabin,
Anne Husted Burleigh (Chapter 2) is most decidedly a woman. I’m glad you like the book.

Mark Mitchell

avatar D.W. Sabin January 13, 2012 at 4:05 pm

You’re right, amidst the middle of a bunch of men, I had forgotten.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins January 13, 2012 at 5:43 pm

Electing Democrats is indeed not MUCH of a plus, but I prefer Penny Bernard Shaffer, and Steve Kagen to Fat Harold Froehlich, Joe McCarthy, and going 10-8 for Barry Goldwater.

avatar Anymouse January 13, 2012 at 9:26 pm

I agree that Goldwater and his ilk have definite problems.

avatar Owen Jones January 14, 2012 at 10:41 am

It seems to me that a consistent thread throughout our society is the experience of alienation. People react in different ways to this experience. The most typical reaction is to blame God for screwing things up and then positing a second reality that is to be imposed on the reality that is so uncomfortable to live in. Another reaction is to seek some sense of harmony and equilibrium in one’s life, but without some serious resources this typically leads to all sorts of quackery. My view is that before one can find what one is looking for in an attachment to place, one first needs to find it in the heart. I think of Jesus’s statement that He has no place to lay his head. I really don’t think that He is whining and complaining about it, although there is an element of lament. But my point is that rootlessness is first and foremost a spiritual condition that then prevents people from forming attachments. Having a cause is no solution to that problem. For many of us, having a particular church (or Church, really) solves most of that problem. Unfortunately most pastors and priests are not sensitive to the issue and are incapable of evoking the experience of pathos in their listeners regarding the problem of rootlessness as a spiritual malady. I don’t mean to argue thereby that forging a new political economy is a fruitless or misguided endeavor. I just don’t see how it can be a rational exercise without attention to the spiritual details.

avatar Dwight Lindley January 14, 2012 at 5:38 pm

Long live FPR!

avatar Philip Bess January 14, 2012 at 10:55 pm

In reply to the concerns raised by Zac and by djr about the “invocation of God” and its centrality to the “agrarian vision:”

Gratitude for being is *the* fundamental religious insight / emotion; and some acknowledgment by human beings that we are not self-made or self-sufficient or a law unto ourselves is the sound logical inference for human beings to draw therefrom.

The task of giving that insight / emotion coherent and true articulation—whether the insight / emotion comes from some extraordinary personal religious experience or from revelation mediated by a community—is part of the task of philosophy and arguably the entire task of theology. The former gives us ideas such as “natural law,” the latter better and worse ideas of the source of natural law itself; and both are ongoing conversations entailing disagreements unlikely to be resolved before the eschaton. But, djr asks, are these conversations important to what “agrarianism requires?” I would say: only if it matters that human beings understand our place in the world truly—which is to say: Yes.

Nevertheless, presuming that such conversations both should and will continue, I hope it is not presumptuous of me to suggest that gratitude for being is sufficient to get inside the agrarian / FPR (and traditional urbanist) tent. But, of course, that—for better or worse—is just my “Inner-Catholic” (i.e., me) speaking . . . .

Thanks to Mark Mitchell and all the folks at FPR for raising and hosting (and linking to) this most important discussion.

avatar James Banks January 16, 2012 at 12:41 pm
avatar Zac January 18, 2012 at 11:50 am

DJR- Thanks for your comment, I appreciate your thoughts. Though I don’t see how taking a pot shot at my grasp of theology is constructive – I hope you understood that my ‘caricaturing’ was intentional. If not, I think you know it’s condescending, which is perhaps why you didn’t address me directly. Patronizing the nonbeliever is exactly the kind of derision I’ve come to expect from FPR’s audience. This is not how we win allies. So I’m hoping you didn’t mean it in the way that I interpreted it.

You are right to suggest that I am religious in the sense that agrarianism requires. Obviously I believe agrarianism is more a sensibility than a doctrinal ideology, and I’m thankful that Mark Mitchell’s post made me realize this so acutely.

Sabin- thanks for your comments. I’ll check out the book.

avatar Eric B. January 21, 2012 at 9:07 am

Matt Weber, I want to respond to your comments about the hypocrisy charge, about valuing agrarianism but not living that lifestyle. I think the peace you’re trying to make is rubbish. How can you say you think it’s good for Mr. Otherperson to hand-harvest wheat or work his land with draft animals while less than 10%–probably much less than that–of your income makes its way to farmers? The only real world way for 2% of the population (or for that matter 10% or even 20%) to feed the remainder of the population is with an agriculture defined by fossil fuel powered machinery, huge monocultures, nonrenewable fertilizers, labor-saving pesticides, and animals (insofar as there are any) raised in feeding operations defined by all the above and dependent on pharmaceuticals. One can’t believe in agrarianism and be content with that. And especially in our present society there’s even less room for living off the agrarian base. The “agrarian base” isn’t very well even providing for itself, let alone a class of big city cosmopolitans.
Agrarianism in any meaningful sense isn’t a hobby. If it has any real meaning at all — in other words if it’s not a hobby subsidized by even greater participation in the economy of global consumerism — it’s something that convicts and compels, not something that some people enjoy. No one simply chooses to make 20% the income that all his neighbors are making so that he can have the pleasure of hand hoeing cotton all day. One can sentimentalize the cotton field, but nowadays no one makes his living in cotton fields apart from believing in a kind of agrarianism that would NOT permit him to live the lifestyle you reference. In other words, it’s absurd to suggest that people make ethically neutral choices between agrarianism and consumerism. NO ONE chooses any kind of meaningful agrarianism when the choice is ethically neutral.

avatar Brendan McHugh January 25, 2012 at 10:22 am

Do not go gentle into that dark night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins January 25, 2012 at 3:59 pm

If any proposal, plan, or current of thought about how best to organize human society resurrected the notion of imposing religious practice on all citizens, I would be opposed. However, that many of those committed to a reasonably sound, beneficial, sustainable, pattern of human community are inspired by faith in God, should not be a problem. An atheist might say, “Well, I’m not convinced by this talk of God, but, this is a good way to live, whether there is a God who approves of it or not.” An atheist might even concede “This God thing is probably an illusion, but most of these people wouldn’t be motivated to do all this fine work if they didn’t believe it.”

Likewise, a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a Baha’i, among others, should be able to recognize that “my atheist neighbor Joe is a hard-working, contributing member of this community, and really adds something to life that nobody else quite does the same way.” Maybe he’s merely the most skilled plumber available, or maybe he’s good at a particular horticultural specialty.

On the other hand, it is possible that at atheist could be so absolutely selfish, hedonistic, and opportunistically exploitive of their neighbors and the community that people of faith might wonder whether “had not the fear of God before his eyes” is a reasonable portion of the indictment.

AND, a religious zealot might impose avoidable discord by insisting that EVERYONE must follow a prescribed canon. Roman Catholics, Muslims, Calvinists, and ultra-Orthodox Jews have all given us historical examples, and it was an army defined by Buddhist culture that recently won a bloody civil war in Sri Lanka.

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: