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Alexandria, VA. For many years now, “environmentalists” have sought to thwart the extension of forms of commerce and economic development that prove destructive of “eco-systems” or threaten the delicate balance of natural forces that allow certain species to thrive. Denizens of the Right have made it a regular practice to taunt the precious and insipid bleeding hearts of left-wing tree-huggers, people who would accord more value to the largely meaningless and instinct-driven lives of snail-darters and northern spotted owls than legitimate and pressing human needs.

Meanwhile, for many years now, cosmopolitans have sought to liberate humans from the narrow boundaries of unchosen communities, have urged a globalist ethic that regards humans as appropriately citizens of the world and at home nowhere in particular. Seeking the liberation of oppressed individuals from the depradations of local communities, cosmopolitans have sought to commend an ethic of “multiculturalism” often at the expense of culture proper.

We should see clearly that the modern ethic, in all of its forms – philosophic, economic, political, theological, artistic – aims at the elimination of culture. Culture is an eco-system with added presence of human beings. Culture springs up in local places based on local diversities and natural conditions. In a healthy eco-system, cultures are robust and can expect to thrive – like snail-darters or tree-frogs – into the indefinite future. Under threat from external forces, they prove to be fragile and with relative ease are rendered extinct: destroy the eco-system that gives rise to and sustains creatures or cultures, those creatures and cultures are eradicated with remarkable ease and alacrity.

The commendation of “multiculturalism” is everywhere the recommended stance of our time (while this is a position most often visible on the Left, it is also in fact the default position of many on the Right, particularly in their encouragement of “free trade” whose result is a polyglot commercial sphere. Readers should consult the work of Tyler Cowen for the “Right” version of multicultural enthusiasm). Multi-culturalism, we should see clearly, is fundamentally an anti-cultural perspective: all cultures are to be regarded as equally legitimate and admirable, meaning that no particular culture is worthy of anyone’s devotion.  We are all to be fundamentally the same in achieving the perspective of the tolerant and relativist liberal multiculturalist. We are called upon to celebrate an endless parade of diverse holidays, music, clothing styles and food types without the concomitant demands of adopting the formative cultural practices and constraints of which those now-portable practices were not originally intended to be detachable. Today the central task of education – once the very source of cultural transmission – is nothing less than the effort to disconnect young people from whatever cultural inheritance they may actually still have, to encourage the detachment of “multiculturalism” and thereby prepare them for lives of itinerancy and placelessness.

Conservatives have spoken for many years of the necessity of protecting “family values,” but have supported an economic system that everywhere destroys the eco-systems that sustain cultures in which families thrive. Seeking human liberation from (especially) the constraints on “opportunity” resulting from localized and limited economic circumstances, they have commended the disruption of those places in the name of “growth” and “prosperity.”

Liberals have spoken for years of the need for “sustainability” and “environmentalism,” but in their cosmopolitan and globalist guise have largely excluded human cultures in their defense of eco-systems. Seeking human liberation from the narrowness (especially) of sexually-repressive cultural milieus, they have commended the disruption of those places in the name of individual liberation. While they appear devoted to a form of “group identity” that would resemble commitments to particular cultures, those “identities” it turns out are supra- or anti-cultural – identities that exist only at all because they share the claim of victimhood within cultural settings.   Actual commitments of this “multicultural” impulse are to the encouragement of homogenization that will make those particular group “identities” ultimately irrelevant.

Both positions are equally hostile toward nature.  For the Right, nature is the resource base for our productive economy.  The mantra “drill baby drill” is a declaration that whatever exists for use is OURS NOW.  It is our birthright – our wanting of it is enough to justify its taking.  Future generations, it is assumed, if not blessed with plenty, will be blessed with sufficient inventiveness to overcome the scarcity and entropy that we will have voluminously produced.  For the Left, the pleas to leave nature unsullied by human manipulation stops short in the sexual domain.  There, technologies of control are similarly a birthright (pun intended):  constraints on our sexual freedom are tantamount to imprisonment.  Where the Left is deeply sensitive to every disruption of the eco-system of the snail-darter, they willfully deny any connection between our rendering of the sexual sphere into a realm for human liberation and the rise of various “pathologies” – like the sexualization of all culture (especially youth culture), a world of incessant pornography that reduces bodies to use-objects, and the close linkage of the twin instant gratifications of sex and consumerism.   That our destruction of the eco-systems of the snail-darter could have anything to do with our will to power in every domain is inconceivable.

The destruction of cultures embedded in communities necessarily precedes the destruction of the world. Industrial commerce needs to eviscerate these communities in order to convert its inert materials – human or natural – into productive forms of value. The adoption of an ethic of individualist liberation is required to eviscerate such communities in order to displace its requirements of self-restraint, fidelity, limitation and continuity, replacing these instead with conditions of openness that permit constant self-creation and “experiments in living.” Liberals and conservatives alike – so-called – conspire against community in the name of progress. Its defenders are regarded as recidivists, or people on the wrong side of history. Names such as “Luddites,” “provincials,” “townies” or “red-necks” are employed to denigrate any legitimacy of their claims. Instances of limitations or repression of individual satisfactions are given wide play, while the associated costs of dissolution, deracination, placelessness, abuse of the environment, destruction of memory, annihilation of culture are perhaps bemoaned at some later point in time – when those same destroyers seek to erect a museum to the memory of eviscerated cultures or a habitat (or “reservation”) for displaced species or tribes. Associated costs of those prior actions are all viewed as separate and unrelated phenomena – most often to be dealt with by means of expanded government programs – rather than a direct consequence of our self-congratulatory acts of individualist liberation.

If, however, we begin to understand local culture as a form of eco-system, those on the Left may begin to consider local culture – for all of its limitations on our expressive individualism – to be as worthy of our consideration as the fate of the snail-darter. If we can begin to understand that local culture is the fertile soil of “traditional family values” – for all its limitations upon our economic “opportunity” – those on the Right may begin to acknowledge its rightful place in how we assess “prosperity” and how we evaluate a good economy.

What needs fundamental reassessment is the idea that the current Left and Right represent true alternatives on our political stage today. There are legitimate differences, to be sure, but it turns out that what makes them more similar undermines their points of legitimate difference. Asking us to choose between “the environment” or “family values” (for instance) while simultaneously demanding that we sign on to a more fundamental agenda that makes either – or both – of those commitments finally untenable is either the most brilliantly contrived political conspiracy of all time, or simply a reflection of yet unquestioned commitments to a modern agenda that will ultimately destroy the natural and cultural pre-conditions of its own success.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Brilliant. Mr. Deneen’s greatest talent is to take issues that seem to separate and show how they have common grounds, like he did in his “Deadly Vices” piece. I have long been an environmentalist and a supporter of local cultures, but the two issues are often thought to be separate, that you can have a position on one of them and a different position on the other and be consistent. The root instinct behind conservatism is desire to protect from change the things that ought to be preserved. We are accustomed to thinking this way when it comes to traditional values–conservatives are those who wish to maintain the traditional ways thinking that they believe are still valuable and ought to be preserved–while liberals urge reform. In the arts, the conservative temperament is that existing styles are good and ought not be abandoned for the latest flash in the pan. Kunstler and the rest of the New Urbanists fall into this category as far as architecture is concerned. Likewise, the environmental movement is based on the conservative impulse that the beauty of nature ought to be protected. In all of these areas the conservative impulse is the urge to protect something good from destruction, whether values, or art, or the environment. Now if we can just put together a new political coalition of environmentalists interested in localization and sustainability, and traditionalists looking to protect traditional cultures. Maybe we should just call the whole movement “protectionism.”

  2. The ideas in this post are why Deneen is worth reading, and why Wendell Berry has been worth reading for a long time. The neat dichotomy between left and right issues is at very best superficial; Deneen and Berry, who resist easy political categorization in any of the media-friendly and thought-free senses, know this and speak accordingly.

    I particularly like the museum and reservation comment, since I’ve recently been working on an essay (available in Sacred Web) on the rise of a global market economy and the decline of Hopi culture, which revolves around the spiritual significance of subsistence high desert corn farming. If corn is a commodity purchasable on the cheap at Wal Mart, how can such a culture continue to exist?

  3. This is a fine essay. We have replaced a common ethos based upon accumulated wisdom with Regulation. Whether by legislation or the rather more tyrannical Conventional Wisdom, we become a willing spectator. Though I am glad they are there and believe that it is important to preserve places of “wilderness” on this planet, I have often thought it very odd that we display an understanding for the beauty of the natural world in our construction of parks and preservation of forests but usually check this impulse in how we express ourselves on the land in the built environment. This confusion reaches its apotheosis in suburban sprawl where one sees a schizophrenic display of nature imitation and urbanity attempting to occur simultaneously in a perfect evocation of “close, but no cigar”. We regulate and “save” certain aspects of nature to assuage our guilty conscience for trashing the landscape at will. “External costs” countenance the farrago for those so oriented. That we still respond to fundamentally better expressions of both nature and urbanity indicates that we have not abandoned a literacy as regards what is “better” in each but we still resort to perfunctory and crude regulation to affirm our urges. Hence, we think only of “development density” and not “nature density” and so remain very far indeed from a recognition of a rapprochement between humans and our surrounding “natural” world.

    The same ordering rules our cultural defacto imperialism and your linking them here is astute. Regulation is not an evil in and of itself but it becomes degenerative when it is based upon arid dogma rather than an ethic and aesthetic that reflects a reverence for and literacy of life.

    We possess a fundamental capacity to reach this conservative state but it will never come until we abandon the patently absurd either-or of liberal-conservative dogma characterizing our relationship to the planet. The interesting thing about this site is that it is exploring these issues within a discursive forum informed by both left and right sympathies. An intellectual ecosystem is perhaps under construction.

  4. Likely, because I would count myself on the conservative end of the spectrum, I found some of the comments about the capitalist way of dealing with the environment somewhat of a caricature. I live in a small community in which the dominant local industry is very dependent on natural resources–a paper-mill. I would say that their approach to the environment–while the tree-huggers would argue differently–is much more conscious of the need to preserve the local ecosystem than the article would imply. My sense is that this is not an uncommon stance for current industry–in many ways the bastion of conservatism/capitalism.
    I would say that the article’s point that capitalism is destructive of human culture is pretty accurate. I think Robert Reich’s book The Future of Success, and Friedman’s, The World is Flat, describe the track of regarding labor as just another resource. A trend also seen by going to almost any business and asking for the “Personnel Department.” You will, of course, be directed to “Human Resources.” (For you youngsters, businesses used to have “Personnel Departments”)

    I think there is a question that the article missed. Not all aspects of ecosystems should be preserve. Some should be eradicated. Would anyone want to return to the time when there was no flood-control, when diseases ravaged whole populations, or when the bulk of our population lived a subsistence life? Likewise, a case can be made that there are aspects of culture that ought not be preserved.
    Part of the problem with our current multiculturalism is that it assumes that all cultures are equally good. This is clearly false, since each of those cultures has within it core-values that condemn practices in other cultures.
    Being a believer in the Bible, I conclude that there is a standard that stands above culture.
    Is it possible that the Hopi might be better off to work to preserve more valuable aspects of their culture, than subsistence farming, and buy their corn at Walmart?
    Culture is not static. The culture of which I am a part is the result of millennia of adaptation, adoption, rejection, and evolution.
    If the point of the article is that we need to be more intentional about this process, then I say, “Amen!” For you folk who aren’t a part of the Bible-belt culture, that means, I agree.”

  5. Mr Merrell, the Hopi’s whole society, and religon is wrapped up in their culture of corn. Even their religous ceromonies use corn pollen, and the plant is sacred to them. It is also sacred to the other Pueblo societies of the southwest too. They can no more give up their corn culture, and remain Hopi, than the Old Order Amish can give up their horse culture, and remain Old Order Amish. To give up such a important part of their culture, to become just another member of the “Walmart” culture is missing the whole point of this blog. The Hopi culture is not static, either, most Hopi, and the Pueblos accepted Catholicism centuries ago. But they accept it on their own terms. Including their corn culture. It has served them well, for over a thousand years. They have lived on their 3 mesa’s that long. It obviously has worked well for them on the dry, cold highlands they live on.

  6. brierrabbit3030, thanks for the eloquent reply. But one correction: the Hopi have never become Catholic: they are nearly alone (I’m not sure of the Zuni) in the pueblo cultures in this. An interesting fact: the other pueblos accepted Catholicism, but in no way felt that this undid their previous allegiances or beliefs and practices. Rather, they fit Catholicism into a larger whole, of which it is a valuable part.

    An example: I spoke to an Irish American Franciscan priest in 2006 who told me that at Santo Domingo pueblo, in between Albuquerque and Santa Fe that is known for its cultural conservatism, the residents will sometimes just close the gate on Sunday and tell him “Father, we don’t need you today; we’re doing something else.”

    The Hopi adapt; they now have what I call “symbolic cornfields” which I argue are different than subsistence or “metaphysically transparent” cornfields. But Howard Merrell, even in your (from my point of view somewhat narrow–sorry, but that is what I believe) Christianity, why should large market forces dictate what culture they do or do not follow? Why should it be okay that impersonal economic forces be culturally coercive? I would understand it if you said that the Hopi should become good Protestant evangelicals; but why do you believe that they should become interchangeable fixtures in a commodity economy? Is this part of your form of Christianity too?

  7. Prof. Deneen gives a most excellent defense of the Shire.

    As for the lamentation of “capitalism” and “free-trade”, I also think these have been caricaturized. Before criticizing the licentious behavior that has developed amongst the business elite for the last 30 or so years, one must ask, who is bringing about the conditions for such licensure? Is it the “free-market”? Or is it a highly centralized state of organized production?

    Think about the regulatory bodies, like the SEC, that effectively destroyed the possibility of local means of capital formation. Do the Securities and Exchange Acts really protect the commoners? Or do they drive the vast lot of capital formation into the hands of Wall Street elites? In thinking about that answer, think about how Bernie Madoff had a substantial role with the SEC. Also, think about how regulatorily impossible it is to set up a a new competing local stock exchange in your neighborhood, which deals in capital formation of the local companies (the bakery, the drug store, the mom & pop…). The rise of Walmart is not due to an unbridled free-market, rather it is because of the rise of the regulatory state where only sufficient economies of scale can get around the regulatory burdens it takes to both raise capital and operate. Walmart operates on such an economy of scale. Walmart can afford the investment bankers and lawyers necessary to navigate through the maze of regulatory strictures required to raise capital. As for mom & pop, they’d be lucky if they could afford a lawyer to do their own will. Walmart begins to lose its competitive advantage as soon as the administrative state declines in its effectiveness and barriers to entry are either broken down or ignored. Until then, expect to see mom & pop shops eviscerated by Walmart, Applebees, Home Depot, and the NYSE.

    So is it the free-market? Is there really a free flow of capital going on?

  8. Casey Khan,
    I fervently agree that we have not witnessed a “free market” – mainly, because there is no such thing. While you aim rightly at the unholy wedding between big government and big business (like any large bodies, they are gravitationally attracted to one another), there’s a certain underlying set of unstated or implicit hints in your argument that what would be desired would be a true free market – the market that might exist in a state of nature, one might say. If so, any such belief is hokum. Markets are themselves creations of human beings – requiring law and custom, courts and practice, prisons and memory – for starters. As such, we do indeed shape markets, and the question becomes to what end? For what purpose? With a view to what conception of the human good? Getting beyond the canard that there is anything that exists by nature as “a free market,” we can then begin to raise legitimate and ever-more pressing questions about what kind of society we should rightfully envision, and what kind of market would best serve those ends. Here on the Front Porch, I believe it’s widely held that we would favor markets that are local, populated by people who own their own means of production, who are gainfully employed in doing the good work that is necessary for stable and good communities. The market that has been supported by our system of laws and other incentives has been designed to be destructive of those ends. While our political leaders argue over some of its secondary features, they are in strong agreement that this is the kind of market they desire – one that promotes bigness, concentration and anti-localism in one form or another, private or public. In the end, they end up being the same thing.

  9. To Bierrabbit & PDGM,

    The point on which I was commenting relating to the Hopi is: “If corn is a commodity purchasable on the cheap at Wal Mart, how can such a culture continue to exist?”
    It may be that the best choice for the Hopi is to continue a culture based on the cultivation of corn. That is a decision that needs to be made intentionally. The multi-curturalist viewpoint that because a given culture regards something as sacred, that therefore it is worthy of preservation is faulty. I totally respect the comment about my views being narrow. Just because I believe something, or because my Evangelical culture regards it as sacred, ought not to end the discussion. I did not say the Hopi ought to discontinue their agrarian based culture and become Walmart consumers. I asked, might it be better? You seem to imply that the very consideration is wrong.
    As to the comparison of the Hopi to the Amish: It seems the ready availability of John Deere tractors and Ford pick-ups has not hindered them from maintaining their culture. I disagree with their conclusions on such matters, but I admire the way in which they intentionally maintain a culture (which in many ways overlaps with mine) that is contrary to what is going on around them.
    And, yes, though I would likely express it differently than you did, I would like to see not only the Hopi, but all the peoples of the world come to my faith. I happen to believe it is true. Why would I want someone else to live based on what I conclude is falsehood?

    For convenience, I grouped the 2 of you together in my reply. If I misrepresented either of you in that way, please forgive me.
    hm

  10. “Getting beyond the canard that there is anything that exists by nature as “a free market,” we can then begin to raise legitimate and ever-more pressing questions about what kind of society we should rightfully envision, and what kind of market would best serve those ends.”

    To which we ultimately ask what is the kind of market that serves the common good? I would answer the “free-market”. But what the heck is a “free-market”? I think Prof. Deneen gives a good broad definition of markets when he says: “Markets are themselves creations of human beings – requiring law and custom, courts and practice, prisons and memory – for starters.” But what kind of market is “free” and does that market serve the common good? Does free imply a lawless market where license reigns. Or does a free imply the ability to choose the good and avoid the evil, where man participates in the natural law to find ways of interacting with each other economically? Also, is there a definition of the “free market” that avoids the problems that arise from state of nature arguments that hold insufficient and erroneous views of human anthropology?

    The answer to the questions, I’d have to say right now, I don’t know.

  11. Howard Merrell,

    I am not a multiculturalist in any accepted sense. But if a person thinks (as I do) that local cultures are valuable, and that a healthy nation or society allows for local cultures to develop along their own freely chosen lines, then it seems absurd to wish ill upon the very basis of that culture, which in the case of the Hopi is the farming of corn.

    I believe that this variety is something that evangelical Protestantism has trouble with, and thus tends to flatten human experience upon certain culturally and historically limited American, capitalist lines. I believe that this problem is worse with such forms of Protestantism than it is with either Roman Catholicism (which reluctantly allows some cultural difference) and Orthodoxy (that actually sometimes seems to have willingly embraced cultural difference, as in the missionary work among the Inuit in Alaska). For whatever reason, Protestantism is a more specifically Euro American phenomenon than either of these other two.

    Your comparison of the Hopi to the Amish (the John Deere and Ford 150 bit) doesn’t fit, since the Hopi and other such groups are in a very different relationship to Euro American culture than are the Amish, and for historically obvious reasons.

    Despite being a Christian and very much a believer, I would dread a world where everyone in some simplistic way (my categorization, not yours, of course) believed and acted exactly as me. I think God’s own variety, God’s own glory, would not be served by such a narrow world. I think local variety of culture reflects the glory of God just as different ecosystems do; and losing cultures removes one of “God’s mirrors” just as does losing a species or an ecosystem.

  12. I read this again today after reading it numerous times in the three years since it was written, and still a chill passes up my spine from its resonance within me.

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