What Is to be Done?

by Patrick J. Deneen on May 19, 2009 · 27 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Region & Place

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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.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Dan May 19, 2009 at 9:51 am

An excellent meditation!

A few questions:

1) Does the state make the nation? Does cultural formation depend on the law? I realize that what you propose in your meditation is that there indeed is cross pollination between the nation and the state but would it be fair to say that traditionalism must, in order to succeed, be a political success?

2) What of the stateless? Here I speak of the plain people of today, the Jews of yesterday, and countless ethnic or religious minorities who have throughout history maintained their autonomy (largely) despite exclusion from and persecution by the state? Did there way of life fail because they made no law? Were they not truly a polity because of it?

3) Why do traditionalists make a special effort to single out “libertarians” and liberals (of the left and right) for criticism? Is this the legacy of MacIntyre’s old battles? In terms of what is to be done don’t “libertarians” and liberals offer the best hope for political allies with the traditionalists? Is this a case of mimetic rivalry?

avatar Russell Arben Fox May 19, 2009 at 10:31 am

A great exploration and summarization of what this site has been all about for the past three months, Patrick. Bravo! When you say “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,” you have my vote–the vote of a fellow dislocated academic, for whatever that is worth.

Ah, but would (or should) that vote actually be for? There’s the question. Insofar as promoting public transit and other alternatives to the automobile, or in pushing for new initiatives in zoning and development policies that allow small business and intact, walkable neighborhoods to defend themselves against McMansions and sprawl, we’re in agreement. Beyond that, obviously, things get murky, with some of FPRers looking to libertarian-minded conservatives as our best ally for attacking bigness, while others see in the various populist and progressive (and socialist) compromises of our civilization’s recent history the only likely resource for moving society, however minimally, back in the direction of smallness, while still maintaining at least some of those (much valued!) collective guarantees to the weak and powerless which the modern liberal state was created to provide. As my words obviously reveal, I’m more on the latter side than the former, but I hope to be continually reminded to the varying choices here, as FPR and otehr places work to nurture a different kind of self-understanding.

avatar Patrick May 19, 2009 at 10:40 am

Thanks. This clarifies many of my own thoughts about rootedness. I particularly liked,

“For many, there is no “going home again” because many of us come from places that cannot properly be called home. ”

Having moved from suburb to suburb throughout the South growing up, I feel no strong connection to any particular place I’ve lived prior to my time here in Birmingham. But Birmingham feels like home, and I think we can use the principals of smallness and rootedness to make even cities like Birmingham open for real community. We rootless suburban children can also find a home.

avatar Aaron Schroeder May 19, 2009 at 11:13 am

Dr Deneen,

The similarities are uncanny between your political suggestions here and those of a few writers from Who Owns America? I’m almost inclined to think that you’ve forgotten to cite a source or two.

In “Big Business and the Property State,” Lyle Lanier offers the same analysis that you offer of industrial production and market manipulation, and he even goes so far as to suggest the same dual tax code that you’ve suggested. However, Lanier does have some love lost for the automobile, which he believed help to break the backs of the railroad monopolies, but from reading his essay, one suspects that his perspective would’ve changed after seventy years of car-enabled deracination.

Larger picture, if anyone doubts that political solutions will have to accompany the philosophical ones, they’re forgetting the words of a few of FPR’s intellectual progenitors. Ransom ended the Agrarian “Statement of Principles” with a plea to the (then) more rural, localist Democratic Party, and Who Owns American? is nothing if it’s not handbook for how an Agrarian nation , with a few national-scale interests, might do well to govern itself.

avatar ben May 19, 2009 at 11:44 am

I have to ask, did you intend to allude to Lenin and his 1902 article of the same name?

avatar Bill Kauffman May 19, 2009 at 11:45 am

Excellent essay, Patrick. Whether returning to (or never leaving) one’s hometown or sinking roots in a new place, Booker T. Washington’s advice is unsurpassed: Cast down your bucket where you are.

avatar Patrick Deneen May 19, 2009 at 11:45 am

Dan,
1. Ideally, culture is local, so while I, for one, do not propose or support the idea of dissolving the union, I think a more confederal model is desirable. By confederal, think Switzerland, not the Confederacy. I think the only “culture” possible in a nation-state as immense as the U.S. is just the one we have now – an anti-culture that is actively destructive of local culture. Law has worked considerably to make us a centralizing, homogenizing system of law and economy; law can also be changed, if slowly and with a view to the long term.
2. Because cultures are and should be local, stateless people,etc., are apt (and usually have) a strong local culture, rendered stronger still by their exclusivity. That said, such a minority culture can only exist in a state setting that respects true and real local diversity. Ironically, the great ideologies of modernity – fascism, communism and liberalism – do not respect local diversity, and in various ways (some horrifically worse) have extirpated local cultures, whether by force or temptation to fantasies of autonomy.
3. I am a critic of liberalism and much of libertarianism because I believe its theories are based upon a false anthropology. This does not mean that I oppose the Left, per se (see R.A. Fox’s comment just below – there’s a tremendous overlap with a traditionalist communitarian and socialist populist). One of the hopes is that they will find some common ground here, politically and otherwise). It is possible by “liberals” you simply mean people on the Left, but not all of the Left is liberal. Again, look under “Fox, Russell A.,” or my teacher, “McWilliams, Wilson C.” Libertarians are usually liberals on steroids – believing that if the State were all but eliminated we would have paradise on earth – and generally aren’t to be taken seriously. However, some come with a more nuanced view of human nature (e.g. Doug Bandow), and would be, I think, strong potential allies.

Russell, we’re both students and ardent devotees of political philosophy, and hence, political things. My one beef with Wendell Berry is the absence of any real politics in his fiction (and very little in his non-fiction), or serious thinking through politics as a necessary consideration. I recognize that we all have blind spots, but I don’t think this is mere accident. There is the temptation to anarchistic romanticism that pervades the “libertarian” inclination among some FPR-sympathizers. I, for one, think (following Aristotle) that man is by nature the political animal, or (following the Bible) that our fallenness does not permit us to live outside law. Recognizing that, we need to think politically, and your sympathies are shared considerably by me as well, as you know. Much of a political program will involve urging the national State to act less; but some measure will require the national State to act – albeit differently – to at least reverse some of the damage it has done, and even beyond that, to tame the commercial realm to become far more friendly to local and community settings.

Aaron, it’s certainly true that we often invoke ideas that lie in places of our minds that have sources that we can barely remember, if at all. That said, I’ve never read “Who Owns America” (though it’s on my list), so I can’t be faulted for a missing citation. However, that I’m barking up a similar tree to the likes of Lyle Lanier is not altogether surprising, since I’m re-mining a the same vein already worked hard upon by good and better men and women than me. It’s comforting to know I’m keeping good company. Thanks for pointing out the similarity – the book has moved very close to the top of my summer reading pile.

avatar Patrick Deneen May 19, 2009 at 11:54 am

Ben,
Yes. It turns out we disagree on the answer, however.

avatar D.W. Sabin May 19, 2009 at 12:43 pm

First, to the Hairshirts who enjoy throwing rotten fruit and claiming their Hairshirt is scratchier than thou’s….well, so what. The folks who self-define as being in opposition to everything….a kind of Girls Gone Wild caricature of the Enlightenment, they are everywhere . We all dabble in hypocrisy from time to time, it is unavoidable and a part of existing within a civilization that is taking Irony to new heights.

I think Patrick in Birmingham is right. One does not have to either live within the home of their ancestors or in a small town to experience or promote rootedness. Community exists from Sydney, Nebraska to Fort Greene Brooklyn.

Political Action is the most nettlesome nut to crack and this site, and others are important forums for gathering a critical mass required to foster a mindset that is capable of exerting political force. We are a very long way from it. There are times when I think only catastrophe will cause the reckoning we need to tug off the ass hat. I think this is what Nader had in mind with the “None of the Above” gambit: induced political calamity. Washington still thinks it is doing what is in the interests of the citizen and to gain admittance to that hoary body, anyone elected is soon subsumed by the political realities of Empire. Watching the current iteration of “change”, one is struck by how easily the power structure bends agents of change to its will…whether the proponent of change was real or not. Just weeks ago, we were hearing the dulcet tones of restraining our military and recognizing the perilous state of consumerist profligacy. But now, a little change of face, a few reclaimed points on the DOW and the pundits and leaders begin talking a line of ‘recovery” and returning to the vaunted “American Way”, turning the other cheek on torture and the breaking of the law and winning a war with drones in Pakistan. Cheeky, I believe is what they call it.

I think it would be a mistake to constrain or delimit a return to an over-arching theme of authentic community with those who farm or spin yarn or live in remote sanctuaries. This would be as escapist as the consumer escapist melange. Stegall likely relents and pens his trenchant spears because he likes to think he’s part of both his locality as well as a larger locus of the like-minded or near-minded or even opposite-minded that he can engage. The great and abiding joy of this country has been the ability for a citizen to , in essence, create their own reality within the opportunities of their community. Personally, I think the goal is throwing off this heavy cloak of the artificial and meaningless spectacle and in the process, ejecting the growing climate of paranoia and ennui, two oddfellows on a weird double-headed beast that eats itself for our entertainment. There is a prevailing cult of hostility behind virtually everything now and this is turning the astringent of skepticism into a clotting agent of disaffection that makes hate a recreational endeavor for the building of thick scabby carapace. The War Machine even owns the Boy Scouts now, former province of camping or the lad helping his grandmother across the street. What is it to have a reverence for life anymore within the prevailing climate of fear and loathing?

As to change…it comes on whether one likes it or not. In 1760, Generals Braddock and Wolfe were regarded as heros and England was referred to as “the wise mother”. Five years later, we get the Stamp Act and within a span of 10 more years, a radical shift occurred where the world was indeed “turned upside down”. In the 70′s, the Soviets were “the Evil empire” and now even small regions in the Caucasas give them fits. The great ally the citizen always has is the entrenched foolhardy presumptions of those who exist in a vacuum-packed bubble of power. Our political and business class do not have any real idea, beyond the abstract, how close chaos really is. They have tasted it but think they can print money and keep ahead of it. At this juncture, a few of any number of things could happen to pitch this edifice into a real default en masse and then we’d see what several years of dysfunctional hubris and entitlement have wrought. Back in the sixties when there still was a fundamental regard for the little guy against the bully, it might have been easier but I still think that there are two Americas; the artificial America of the vicarious agora, consumerist abandon, fantasy, vicarious violence and empire and the real America of people coping with their neighbors as best they can. I am so foolishly romantic as to believe that America is still quite strong and would respond well to a re-ordering . This is where sites such as this one become important venues not for the fantasist or fatalist but for those who want to actually dissect and explore what community is and what it is about the current era that is so deracinating and inauthentic. This information will be an important bulwark in case some nut were to be embraced by a public in fear. Odd bedfellows often create remarkable things together.

All bets are always off. Luck is increased by diligence. 15 years ago, there was no significant independent film community and it is now a rich forum of narrative. 10 years ago, nobody aside from perhaps Chalmers Johnson complained the costs of Empire. About 2 years ago, nobody would have uttered words like “the failure of capitalism”. i really don’t think we can plan for the change that surely must come…it will be more a matter of having the prudence to respond well to what is being imposed upon us, self-destructively or otherwise.

avatar Dan May 19, 2009 at 1:20 pm

Patrick,

Thank you for the responses.

I believe the respect for local diversity is precisely what one finds in liberalism. The example of the plain people is a telling one, only in liberal states were there folkways respected by political authorities and allowances made for their way of life.

I tend to think the question of anthropology tends to become a bit inflated here, no doubt due to the intellectual rigor of many of the contributors, but in addressing what is to be done I think the question is of little practical importance. You have pointed out that within the bounds of liberalism there are more nuanced views than the standard caricature and I appreciate this. This is of course also true of socialism and it would be another mistake to characterize their anthropology as strictly Marxist. And that is the rub. It seems that what holds the traditionalists together as a movement is a pathological fear of liberalism and this is why opposition to it is stressed so much here. As Henry Adams wisely observed politics is merely the systematic organization of hatreds.

This is incidentally why I reject the label “libertarian”. The philosophical and anthropological baggage is just too ridiculous. This is precisely what I fear will happen to traditionalism with its fixation on liberalism.

avatar Thomas G. May 19, 2009 at 2:30 pm

Patrick,

Wonderful essay. You are right. There is no textbook first step to changing a culture other than changing yourself, and making common cause with other like minded souls.

Community can be found anywhere. The geography is secondary. It is the humans who make it wherever they may be. Suburbs, Exurbs, Small Towns, or the great Metropolis’ of Meritocracy. Plant roots, get to know your neighbors. Walk somewhere. Ride a bike. Buy local. Drink local. Be local.

Your piece reminded me of a quote from George Weigel’s excellent biography of JPII, “Witness to Hope”;

“As a Pole who had reflected long and hard on the fact that the Polish Nation had survived when the Polish State had been abolished, he was convinced that culture drove history over the long run. The realists were wrong, not because military and economic power were unimportant, but because culture was more important.” – p.296

Culture exists in the intermediary organizations, between the individual and the state. As Nisbett points out in “Quest for Community”, the communists and national socialists both knew this, which is why their first order of business was to strike out to break up the Union, the Co-op, the Guild, the fraternal organizations, and co-opt them into the apparatus of the state. The path back from where we are today as atomized individuals ruled over by the Leviathan is the reverse. Build up the local, the small group, the parish, the human scaled business and organization. They are the places where a cultures “values”

avatar Jason Peters May 19, 2009 at 3:06 pm

I see my boy Aaron is hard at work on his thesis (minus break-time to check FPR). Let’s hope I get to see the FPR (Final Polished Revision) soon. There’s an FPR (Fermentable Potable Refreshment) at stake.

avatar Katherine Dalton May 19, 2009 at 5:08 pm

Thanks, Patrick, for the essay and for addressing some of our internal contradictions head on.

avatar Casey Khan May 19, 2009 at 9:43 pm

Excellent. We also must consider that in building communities that seek the true, the good, and the beautiful, we must be patient. Just as Moses did not live to enter the promised land, and David did not live to build the Temple, so to are we… Therefore, we must throw substantial focus on Joshua, Solomon, our own children, and grandchildren.

avatar Carol May 20, 2009 at 12:25 am

Others have mentioned this, but a sense of place is possible even in the urban environment. And the State can help with creating a sense of place and community. In Boston, there is an excellent program to help first time home owners buy in areas “less” desirable, as long as a commitment is made to live in that home for a certain period of time. We ended up having to move, and now live in No. Nevada in a neighborhood that might be defined as suburban, except there isn’t really an Urb nearby.

One of the ideas that was missed is the connection to the land, to food, that is essential to a sense of place. We have chickens, and a thriving garden in our little house with a little yard. We hang our laundry on a clothesline. (I checked before we bought the house that there were no onerous regulations.)

And, lastly, the internet can make it possible for those in more remote areas to have businesses that allow them to stay in those rural places; I know numerous stay at home moms that can stay at home because they sell their handwork over the internet. Its the modern version of taking in washing or wetnursing. It ought to be celebrated, as well as patronized.

avatar Bob Cheeks May 20, 2009 at 5:00 am

What is fascinating is that Voegelin confronted the same problems the thinkers here at FPR are addressing; problems alluded to in Dr. Deneen’s excellent essay.
The key, I think, to recapturing that which has been lost by the deculturation of the West is to understand that we have to “go back” centuries, to get beyond that which initiated the destruction. Voegelin, quite rightly I think, went as far “back” as Euripides and examined the meaning of the symbolism expressed in his phrase:

“Who knows if to live is to be dead,
and to be dead to live.”

Voegelin was not only participating in a noetic analysis, restricted by existential consciousness, but also in examining the Christian/gospel movement that penetrated more deeply into metaxical existence by making man’s tension toward the Unknown God the truth of reality. In a way, Dr. Deneen did the same thing when he reveals to his readers that he “returned” to the faith of his fathers. In essence Deneen experienced the “pneumatic irruption” that presented the possibility of a ‘metaxical’ existence, an existence established within a tension defined by the poles of immanence and transcendence, and an existence that defines what it is to live as a true human being. To make a point, those that do not exist within this Platonic metaxy live a deformed life, a life that supports and exascerbates the deformations and deculturations of the West.

It is this direction, toward an explication of the transcendent pole of existence, that I wanted the Rev. D.W. Sabin to go in an earlier thread. I should note that Brother Sabin may be the sharpest mind among a group of very impressive intellects.

The writers here have successfully explicated the deformations inherent in modernity and initiated the call for, or the discussion of, a “recapturing” or a “return” to a human existence. What is needed, I think, is a thorough philosophical/theological examination
of the truth of reality that has its center “not in the cosmos at large, not n nature or society or imperial rulership, but in the presence of the Unknown God in a man’s existence to his death and life.”

Dr Deneen, thanks for the essay, much enjoyed. I look forward to reading and thinking about the essays that appear here at FPR.

avatar Steve K. May 20, 2009 at 11:44 am

Patrick,

“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.”

That sounds incredibly creepy, the faculty sounds more like a cult than anything else.

Which I suppose they are.

avatar D.W. Sabin May 20, 2009 at 1:35 pm

Cheeks, now you’ve done it…..calling me “Reverend” is like calling a Gypsy Organ Grinder and his crazy monkey: “Maestro”. Not that I don’t heartily appreciate your kind words but I listen to too much Iggy Pop , Hendrix or Mingus in between my late night Gregorian chant or Beethoven to be allowed any pastoral office with the innocent. Not a good idea.

Any sharpness in my prolixity is a direct result of the company here…who are kindly indulgent enough to let me erect my soapbox and start yawping every now and again.

Organized Religion is tax exempt however but then, like the Indians of pre-settlement Ohio, I’m (to quote those who argued against Federally funded missionary education for the Natives) “dangerous enough already”.

avatar Kevin J Jones May 20, 2009 at 4:54 pm

I’ve seen other stories backing up Deneen’s account of college faculty uncomfortable with local connections. Imagine how many higher ed *history departments* reject locals who have grown up with all sorts of background knowledge about the area.

Deneen: “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.”

To push back against this criticism, I’ll note that lots of people are by no means living in a “culture of choice.” Circumstance, health problems, and lack of opportunities encourage many people to stay put without ever having to make an explicit rejection of “choice and escape.” While George Bailey almost left Bedford Falls several times, some of us never even became near-escapees.

FPR writings and other localist works help those of us who, because of forces beyond our control, have been extricated from the meritocratic amoeba but wonder why we are nevertheless content.

avatar Steve Nicoloso May 21, 2009 at 2:25 pm

Mencius Moldbug, reactionariest reactionary of them all, and proprietor (and poet) of Unqualified Reservations takes as a central thesis that democratic politics basically puts the left in the Left-Right divide, and, as such, can not only not get us out of our current mess(es), but is, precisely, what got us here in the first place. His basic view, and it is quite compelling (as compelling as my brief restatement probably fails to be), is that leftism in all its forms is a highly adaptive, and even more genetically successful, social virus that emerged in 16th century Calvinism. Though over time, this virus slowly lost its theological trappings (through brief stops at Congregationalism, Unitarianism, Abolitionism, Prohibitionism, F/N/WCC, &c.), the stuff which yields little or no survival advantage, the earthly-oriented dogmas continued to be refined and grow stronger. Various political theorists have labeled this phenomenon different things, but an urge to imanentize eschaton is as good as any.

The point is that this is a religion (Moldbug calls it, aptly, “Universalism”), and moreover that it is the thoroughly entrenched American State Religion (infecting not merely agnostics and atheists, but “moderate” members of virtually every religion). The PCUSA pastor and the Unitarian Universalist minister might well disagree on the number and nature of the godhead, for example, but they surely won’t disagree one iota on the primacy and goodness of the UN Human Rights Charter. Universalists don’t sweat the small stuff (e.g., the godhead), but will brook no dissent on doctrinal purity where it really counts. [For a full explication of Moldbug's theory, start here and work your way forward.]

That Universalism is overwhelmingly dominant may be seen from the progress of history over the past 500 years. The Left always, in the long run, wins. The right, even where occasionally successful, always ultimately fails. Now this hits close to home because, in truth, the American Revolution was a leftist one (revolutions always are). Of course “we” won, only because leftism had, at the time, almost completed its victory in Britain as well. The Whigs, who held power in Commons, didn’t really want the Brits to win, and if they had, Britain would have (kinda like the US in Vietnam). But the American Revolution is only the tip of the iceberg; you can look to the Civil War, WWII, McCarthy-era, Rhodesia, South Africa, etc. WWII is a very interesting case study since, as it is well-known that Stalin (leftist) was just as bad a bad guy as Hitler (rightist), and by body count alone, moreso, yet the Allies demanded and got complete destruction of Hitler’s Germany (and equally rightist Japan), whereas Stalin’s USSR picked up half of Europe. (Sure, they had to work for it, but still…).

To this day, it is non only not an impediment to express some sympathy for socialism in Western halls of power, but positively fashionable. Conversely, to express any degree of sympathy (beyond perhaps an ironic suggestion that Mussolini got the trains to run on time) for Facism will be met with complete anathema: it may be one of the few ways (along with perhaps prepubescent child molestation) for a tenured university professor to lose his tenure. Why? Because the left has won, is winning, and will, being so thoroughly entrenched, will continue to win.

This power of Universalist religion over the United States Government (USG) is maintained by what Moldbug calls the “Cathedral”, which roughly equates to the American University System plus mainstream media outlets. Since the USG is governed by popular opinion (i.e., democracy), and the Cathedral controls (almost absolutely) popular opinion, the Cathedral therefore controls the USG. And politics, therefore, do not. Most of the actions that USG actually takes are decisions of unelected and permanent officials in an elephantine bureaucracy. And the nine people who occasionally have to make a judgement call are equally insulated.

So I say all this to say that I, as a generous supporter of Ron Paul last year and of various “real” conservatives this year, don’t have a lot of hope for democratic politics, especially those on the national level. The best we can hope for is to turn back the clock, but unless we’re willing to turn back the clock all the way to the mid-1600s or so, and drive a spike through the head of whiggery in all its manifestations, what good can it do if the ideological machinery that led (inevitably I think) to our present troubles remains? The severance of the American Union would be a great starting place, but only that. Then, and only then, would hard work of restoring humane culture even start. To say this is generational work, is to put it very mildly; it is to put it in terms that offer no actual hope of restoring public, but only of restoring virtue to their own lives, and those for whom they are responsible. Either that or root for financial and/or environmental apocalypse, which hardly seems Christian.

Which, in a far more roundabout manner than I had envisioned, leads me (and perhaps fairer and stronger minds than my own) to ponder one glaring success story in this otherwise fetid swamp of modernity: The Amish. They have basically checked out of modernity to a sufficient extent (not totally of course) that the present ills seem not to affect them; they appear, in fact, very well positioned for any potential apocalypse, and maintain (again, as near as I can tell) a humane culture largely uninfected by modernity’s convincing heresies. They are notoriously fertile, become relatively rich by their virtue, and do a decent job of bringing up their children to follow them in their (admittedly strange) faith? So what about the Amish? And to what extent are they a model for traditionalists, localists, and small-A anarchists everywhere?

avatar Mark May 22, 2009 at 6:32 pm

Is this is the core of what you’re proposing as the ideal?

…living lives of deep commitment to places that are at once home and outside the cosmopolis

I understand the importance of place (a concept which I consider distinct from location) but I don’t see how it’s more important than the relationships and commitments we make to other people.

avatar Sean S. May 22, 2009 at 9:15 pm

Zoning boards and commissions are the single biggest decision makers in the creation, or destruction, of businesses and communities. Their ability to decide land-use, density, and annexation/provision of public utilities means that if one wants to affect how one’s community expands (or whether it does) you have to be become intimate with the machinations of zoning. Depending on your municipality, zoning boards may be elected, or may be appointed by city councilors.

In my city (Columbia, SC) there is a clear division in council chambers between those in favor of rampant development (with some of the council members actually being developers) and those who steadfastly oppose the increasing attempt to drain the city out into cookie cutter suburbs. Ironically, while the races are officially non-partisan, its overwhelmingly the liberals and minority community members that stand against development that creates white-flight. The ability to hold such decisions to a stand still has kept Columbia from seeing its urban neighborhoods written off entirely. As all council members (plus the mayor) get a zoning board official (if I remember it correctly) that means a vote for a developer is a vote for more development. So keep that in mind at the local voting booth.

Depending on the size of your city, unfortunately, city council seats may be a ward-politics affair. And that makes things significantly harder. But certainly in smaller towns its not un-reasonable for individuals to potentially win a seat.

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