Alexandria, VA A few nights ago in Washington D.C., Wendell Berry was among the speakers at what turned out to be a pep rally for opponents of global warming. They struck me as an assemblage of D.C. cosmopolites, well festooned with iPhones and ultra cool glasses. Many noted how far that they had had to drive or fly to be at the event. Gazing out over this group, Wendell said that he had a good text for the evening, and proceeded to open – as is his wont – with a joke.
A friend from Berea likes to call witless people “wittees.” Well, one time there was a wittee who was walking down the road and came across a large hole in the ground. A fellow was at the bottom digging, throwing up dirt and dust and rocks and stone. Wittee looked down and said, “what’s the hole for?” The fellow looked back up at Wittee and replied, “It’s where we’re going to bury all the sons o’bitches.” Wittee regarded the hole for a moment and asked, “Well, in that case, who’s going to fill it in?”
The assembled masses of enviro-activists laughed with delight – which stunned me, since so clearly W.B. was telling them that they were “sons o’bitches” who deserved to be in the bottom of a big hole. He told them that his greatest fear was that someone might actually invent a plentiful clean energy source, as that would “wear out this tired old world within twenty years.” I don’t think many there wanted to hear that.
It’s easy to point out the hypocrisies of others – we delight in it. We do better, as Christ admonished us, to scrutinize ourselves first. “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew, 7:3-5).
Among this group here at this electronic outpost and like-minded fellow travelers, there is a fair amount of self-consciousness about the various ways that “traditionalists” (or “paleo-libs??) free-ride on the broader culture that they otherwise criticize, no more evidently by employing a medium that can, at best, create only a “virtual” community (Fr. J. Gassalascas said it best). Farmer’s markets, new urbanism, bike paths, “the Benedict option” – most all of the various ways that community is forged today is less and less a result of organic communal forces required by necessity (e.g., live near water and arable land, don’t live too far apart since we don’t have internal combustion engines), but achieved by our prosperity. In his at-times uncharitable review of Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons, Peter Lawler nevertheless was correct to note that not a few of the “crunchies” arrived at their destination by a circuitous, often well-travelled path, often ending up far from places of origin (or at least with many stops in-between departure and return), and benefit in oft-unacknowledged ways from the umbrella of security offered by America’s armed forces and the orderly world it largely affords. Few of us would survive very long in Augustine’s world.
I feel perhaps more keenly than most this paradox of free-riding, working as I do at an elite mid-Atlantic university where much of what I believe and teach is at odds with the broader ethic of the institution, wed as it is to the ideals of progress, research and deracination. Yes, it’s a full bore strip mining operation, removing largely inert human resources from varying far-flung locations and making them productive in the stream of international commerce. We provide many opportunities for “career counseling” but exceedingly little in the art of living in a place, including that great and daunting mystery, raising a family. I acknowledge fully and without hesitation that I benefit immensely in ways small and large from the position I occupy; and, moreover, that I fully seek to use the benefits, visibility and prestige of my position in an effort to criticize and even undermine the grounds for that institution’s prestige. I would like to argue that, were I successful, my institution could remain noteworthy because it would be part of a changed culture – or would be a major part in changing it – and thus be honored for doing so, but I recognize that the more likely outcome (assuming such a change of institution were likely, which it is not) would be a loss of prestige in a largely unchanged world. It’s likely that any success on my part would lead to a kind of failure.
This line of reasoning is clearly one of the most obvious, and oft-employed criticisms against arguments for localism in a world where to be local is simply one more “lifestlyle choice.” Yet, if there is any defense to be made, it is a keen self-consciousness of this paradox, an awareness that a culture of choice forces every way of life into its paradigm – even those ways of life in which there is an effort to constrain choice. Thus, its curiousness produces, to some extent, a salutary kind of perspective on one’s own life amid all of its compromises – not unlike that experienced by Augustine’s pilgrim – and thus, given the psychic distance and self-consciousness that it induces, the likely absence of the all-too frequent rigidity of the zealot or the ideologue. I would argue that this very paradox is one of the sources of the good cheer amid the broader pessimism of this group (aided doubtless by substantial quantities of bourbon), and why it has never materialized as a programmatic or fanatic venture. We are, in some senses, simply too self-conscious of the fragility of our own position.
That said, we are also generally aware of the ways that the culture we oppose – of mobility, deracination and placelessness – is also based upon widespread free-riding. The culture of liberalism – writ large – has always free-ridden on the health and vitality of a pre-liberal, even anti-liberal culture. Most basically it assumes the existence of, but does little to support or replenish, the culture of good families. It relies upon the virtues of children raised in those settings, even as it is suspicious of – even destructive of – what are necessarily “paternalistic” (or “maternalistic”) features of those settings. It has sought to open every closed association and civil institution, ultimately emptying them of the capacity to elicit loyalty, memory and stability. It relies on the good will and sacrifice of citizens even as it assumes that we are fundamentally rational actors driven by self-interest. Tocqueville wrote of Americans that “we do more honor to our philosophy than to ourselves,” meaning that although we explain all of our actions in terms of self-interest, we actually act out of a deeper wellspring of altruism and fellowship. Over time, he observed, our actions would begin to conform to our words, however, thus eviscerating the deepest and better sources of our behavior.
Similarly, over the past century and a half, liberalism has free-ridden on the millenia-long accumulation of “resources” that it has shown exceptional ability in accessing and utilizing, but very little capacity to spare or save. “Drill baby drill” is akin to the adolescent refrain of “it’s MINE, it’s MINE,” uncognizant of the work and fortune that went into every inheritance that we may have come into. We have been free-riding on the back of mountaintops removed, all the while congratulating ourselves for our hard work and accomplishment.
The difference in these forms of free-riding, I would suggest, is that liberalism seeks mightily to obscure or ignore the extent to which it’s riding on the cheap. It works diligently to disassemble the deeper sources of its own viability, convincing itself that it’s simply making the world more just and equitable (all achieved by its own efforts alone), all the while forging a world in which people will have fewer children and in which there will be less of the world’s bounty for the children that happen to be born. They increasingly do more honor to their philosophy that shapes their selves. In its willful (or ignorant) disregard of its free-riding, it permits itself a self-certainty and ideological rigidity, perhaps ironically – and ultimately – undermining its own basis for existence, but not before leaving some considerable amount of devastation in its wake, both moral and environmental.