The Problem of Undertheorized Agrarianism in Most Actually Argued LocalismBy Russell Arben Fox for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
That’s a terrible title for this post, I know. But hopefully it’ll make sense, if you actually make it to the end.
First of all, if any reader of this blog has missed out on my praise of Rod Dreher’s new book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern, A Small Town, and the Secret of the Good Life, well, let me repeat myself: it’s a great book, and I’m far from the only one to think so. It’s a powerful portrait and memoir, of a person and a place and the relationships which those two things both test and lend a kind of grace to; it’s a book that everyone ought to read and think about.
Now, having done my due diligence in urging you once again to read it, this post is about the thinking the book inspires. Specifically, I want to respond to, and add a couple of ideas to, Damon Linker’s thoughts about Dreher’s book. Damon thought the book was wonderful too; he calls Dreher’s depiction of his sister Ruthie’s life and death at age 42 from cancer “an emotionally gripping story,” but one that includes “bracing reflections on place and community, ambition and happiness that transform the book into something far more than a tragic autobiography.” It becomes “a powerful statement about how we live today–and more importantly, about how we should live.”
That “should” there is the rub. Because if you’re making any kind of normative argument–that is, if you’re making any kind of substantive case for a particular norm or principle, presenting it as something which ought to have an effect which is persuasive, if not conclusive, in our lives–then you’re going to have to make, well, just that: an argument, one which has substance to it. And Dreher’s book, very pointedly, does not do that. Instead it tells a story–which of course, through the way in which we can read, identify with, and be affectively moved by them, have their own persuasive power as well. In a long and powerful post on his blog, Dreher takes American conservativism to task for relying too much on arguments and not doing enough witnessing–as he connects it to a set of reflections he’s written about his return to Louisiana, his own conservative side of our national conversations has been too committed to libraries, and not enough to parades. That is, it’s been too interested in figuring out and advancing the best arguments, and not with tending to the humble everyday pleasures of community life, and letting that tending be an argument in itself.
This is, I should emphasize, something I am entirely in sympathy with–that is, with the idea that the communitarian principles which Dreher recognizes that his sister Ruthie Leming took as simply the default setting for a decent life are a superior way of talking about culture and how we should live. There is stronger and more persuasive witnessing in telling stories about the communities we have and build and leave and return to and change and keep the same than anything which the best libraries of policy or philosophy can offer. When he concludes that those who are concerned about preserving the cultural and civic and moral goods of community, “need fewer think tanks and more front porches,” I couldn’t agree more.
But let’s be clear about the consequences of that point of Dreher’s, and in a sense the point of his whole book: it robs him of the ability of the ability to say, in any kind of substantive way, that some should live in some particular way. He’s set aside his normative claim, in other words–all he can do is say that this is a way of living that he has found to be admirable and fulfilling, and perhaps you, the reader, ought to take it seriously. And, if you’ve followed Dreher’s book tour, then you know that many, many people have responded seriously to his story. But their response is propelled by their own affective interactions with the story he has told, not, or at least not necessarily, because he has shown them that he has a normative point.
Now presumably, Dreher wouldn’t dispute that–he’d agree that the story he tells, the story of Ruthie Leming, isn’t a normative argument. And yet, smart people like Damon Linker see his book doing so nonetheless, if in a confused way. He wrote that Dreher’s book left:
a pervasive confusion about what readers (or at least some readers) are supposed to do in response. If you already live in the heartland, the message is to stay. If you come from the heartland and have left, the message is to return. But what if you’re one of the tens of millions of people who can’t stay in or go home to the heartland because your home–your roots–are in the BosWash corridor of the Northeast or the urbanized areas of the West Coast?…If he’s a consistent localist, he should tell me to put down roots and immerse myself in community where I am–or perhaps in my “hometowns” of New York City and Fairfield County, Conn. But is this even possible in a place where paying my mortgage and other bills requires that my wife and I–like my equally striving neighbors–devote ourselves to high-stress work during nearly every waking hour of our days?….Things are different in rural Louisiana. And that’s why I can’t help but conclude that Dreher and his fellow Porchers must be advocating an anti-urban ideology of ruralism. If you live in a coastal city or suburb, the supremely unconservative message appears to be: Pull up your shallow roots and relocate to a region of the country where you can start over with a simpler, more humane, and happier life.
Dreher’s response to this observation of Damon’s is telling, I think:
As I’ve tried to make clear to audiences on this book tour, I don’t think everybody should move back to the small towns from which they come….Rather, my advice would be to do your very best to root yourself in the community where you do live, and to do your best to stay there–achieving “stability” in the Benedictine sense….But what do you do if you’re like Damon and his wife, and live in a place where just keeping up requires you to work crazy-long hours, and leaves little time for community life?….Maybe the lesson is that the good life is not possible in the Philadelphia suburbs, or any place where in order to keep your head above water, your job has to own you and your wife, and it keeps you from building relationships. There are trade-offs in all things, and no perfect solution, geographical or otherwise. Thing is, life is short, and choices have to be made. It’s not that people living in these workaholic suburbs are bad, not at all; it’s that the culture they (we) live in defines the Good in such a way that choosing to “do the right thing” ends up hollowing out your life.
Now what just happened there is obvious: Dreher has made a normative argument–a “should” claim. He starts out by saying that he thinks people just need to develop stable roots wherever they are; to attend to the parades in their own particular places, as it were. But immediately following that he takes Damon’s point: the living and working in some places makes the time and money and opportunity to seek out parades, much less actively tend to them pretty hard to pull off. He calls that a “trade-off,” but obviously is pretty convinced–and presumably wants his readers to be convinced too–that it’s a lousy one. And why wouldn’t it be, seeing as it leaves your life hollowed out?
Damon calls this an “anti-urban ideology,” and I’m not sure it’s exactly that. An “anti-suburban ideology” might be closer, but still isn’t quite right, I think. What Dreher is dancing around here is a humbler, more local, more contained, less frantic, less ambitious, simpler way of life. Can that be described ideologically? Not if you just tell stories about it, it can’t, not really. Those stories can work on people affectively and imaginatively, and by doing so might persuade them to see the value in such. But of course, not everyone will be moved by the stories, and thus won’t be able to see why Dreher speaks of “trade-offs.” Isn’t it, in the end, just another manifestation of individualistic, consumer choice? So first Dreher rejected his hometown, because he preferred something different than what his hometown offered; then later he went back to it to stay, because at that point in his life he preferred that which his hometown offered. (I owe this observation to David Watkins of the blog Lawyers, Guns & Money.) Dreher–and those of us who are in agreement with his communitarian sensibilities–will almost certainly what to challenge this formulation: after all, isn’t the entire point of embracing stability and putting down roots and learning to live within limits exactly to deny that we our entirely a product of our own preference maximization? Yes, says I! But if I want to say that “yes,” then I have to move beyond stories–I have to give an argument as to why the trade-offs which we face are (sometimes, anyway) bad ones, with one choice–the simpler, more local, more rural one–being obviously better. Why. Maybe because it connects us with deeper virtues, or maybe because it is more environmentally sustainable, or maybe because it better reflects our basic anthropology of being, or maybe all of the above, or maybe some other reason entirely? Whatever argument I make, it will be just that–an argument, a normative claim. And that means that I will have to be saying something that can be expressed theoretically, or ideologically.
In the case of the theory hidden within Dreher’s story, the one from which his argument for just what does constitute “the good life” emerges, I’d say the agrarian label fits best. This is somewhat of an odd fit for Dreher, since he confesses in his book, and has long reminded us on his blog, that he’s not the outdoor type. But, as someone who spends a lot of time reading and thinking and writing about these issues (too much time in the library, I know!), I’m relatively convinced that the only way all of this emphasis upon simplicity and locality and community can hold together is when you’re operating within a set of assumptions which privilege rural environments, producer-based economies, and agricultural work. And this, of course, invites in the whole tradition of agrarian and classical republican thought–about how to respond to the lure of consumerism, or the role of technology, or the threat of economic specialization and outsourcing, or the challenge to civic virtue and building a common morality. These are, to say the least, deep and complication philosophical issues–none of which Dreher’s book, or its powerful story about Ruthie Leming’s life and death, spend any time dwelling upon at all. And yet, those issues are there. They are significantly undertheorized, to use academic jargon, but they are absolutely present, as they are present in Dreher’s call for conservatives to care more about the routines of community life. Because, after all, you can’t really care about parades and the routines of community life if your job, and your immediate living environment, and the whole socio-economic world you move through is so characterizes by the transitory nature of liberal capitalism that no real rooted culture is even there to be tended to.
I just reviewed a smart book about conservative political ideas and theory by Mark T. Mitchell, and there was much in there which I found insightful. But even that book, aimed as it was towards the development of a theoretical language of politics that would bring back into our national conversations the sort of things Dreher and I both value, though in different ways–namely, a substantive defense of community, limits, and stability–was nonetheless (on my reading anyway) haunted by an untheorized yet recurring agrarian norm. Getting back to the garden, getting into the outdoors, getting away from technology, getting back to putting food we’d grown ourselves into our bodies–all of that and more was really the unstated assumption which enabled his calls for “gratitude” and “place” to hold together. And unfortunately, in that book, as in Dreher’s, as wise and as thoughtful as their insights are, I just don’t think they fully come together as a “should,” as much as they both obviously believe that the stories they tell and the observations they make really should add up to something. But to put such a substantive claim about local communities together, you need a theory, you need an argument (and that, not incidentally, means you’ll need a library).
And if you lack that? Well, that’s certainly no loss to the stories which localists like Dreher and Mitchell (and sometimes me) tell, or to the observations they (and I) make. That sort of testifying to the importance of community and simplicity (and parades) is vital. But it also won’t be able to escape the suspicion that it’s just a lifestyle choice–one that substantively isn’t much different from anyone else’s (after all, we can find community on Facebook, right? or with our grad student cohort? or with all our friends on the 16th floor?) unless it can be connected to a larger argument. Damon is right that there is an ideology at work here, one that deserves to be fleshed out. I suspect that, deep down, it’s an agrarian one, but perhaps I’m wrong. The story of Ruthie Leming, which matters more than any normative argument (that’s something Dreher is definitely right about!), unfortunately won’t tell me one way or another. And so long as there is a need to do more than witness to and tend to our experiences, so long as there is a need to, well, really try to figure out what we should do, then library work will be necessary too.