By Kim Daniels and Chad C. Pecknold
Wendell Berry might well be the patron saint of Front Porch Republic. Or at least –when we attended FPR’s first conference at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland this past September – many of the speakers seemed to want to make their world look as much like Berry’s as possible. That’s not entirely fair: Berry himself would surely tell us suburbanites to “drop our buckets where we are”, and conference speaker Caleb Stegall has said as much as well. Nonetheless, we can be forgiven for feeling a little sheepish among the agrarians, for we’ve dropped our buckets in Alexandria, Virginia and Bethesda, Maryland — in some ways about as far from Port Royal as you can get.
We’re all for “place, limits, liberty”; that’s why we were at the conference. But when our friend Patrick Deneen invited us to share our responses to what we heard that day, we found ourselves wanting to face head-on the common critique that our localist views might be merely a nostalgic niche sensibility. We know the localism expressed at Front Porch Republic is much more: it’s a cultural and political sensibility grounded in love of place, and the particular, and the personal. But for all sorts of sound prudential reasons, neither of us will ever live that sensibility in a place like Port Royal, nor can we retreat to the land in pursuit of something like Rod Dreher’s “Benedict option”. While we admire those exemplars of localism, we’d look forward to seeing more reflection on other exemplary ways of living in the Front Porch Republic. We’d also be interested in further discussion of the mediating institutions that can help build a real sense of place — even within spitting distance of the Beltway.
As Catholics, we think a lot about good exemplars, and we celebrate them in both their particularity and their variety. We have this great cloud of witnesses—the communion of saints—whose highly differentiated lives all embody patterns of Christian holiness that are each worthy of imitation. So we pay attention to their lives throughout the year, celebrating the saints on different days and giving some of the most prominent among them feasts. While Christ is the one true exemplar of holiness, for Catholics there are as many ways to be a saint as there are people prepared to conform themselves to Him. Often these saints have been nourished by living according to different rules, living in different kinds of places, and receiving their daily bread in different ways – one thinks of Benedictines committed to the land, or mendicant friars who are not, or Jesuits committed to highly mobile missionary work and to local institutions of higher learning — all prominent exemplars who nevertheless participate in the same reality.
In a similar way, we know that most Front Porchers live lives that seek to embody commitments to place and limits and liberty. But we doubt that many live the same kind of life. And we’re fairly certain that few live the life of Port Royal. We don’t think readers should lament that their buckets dropped where they did. Nor should any of us lament that our lives do not resemble the agrarian charism of Wendell Berry—as important as Berry’s vision is to our own vision of how to cultivate the good life. Rather, we know that there are FPR readers who live exemplary lives in different kinds of places and in different kinds of ways. We look forward to learning of exemplars who live in the middle of large cities, or in suburbs; we look forward to hearing from people whose front porches might not be bordered by pastures, but who nevertheless live a kind of localism that we’d all admire.
This leads to our second point. We’d also look forward to additional reflection on robust mediating institutions and the ends to which they’re ordered. Here as well we think Catholics have a lot to offer localists. As Front Porchers know, for Catholics, the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity work together – largely through sustained reflection on mediating institutions like the family, the parish, and the school—in ways that benefit places large and small, urban and rural. For instance, when Pope Benedict has spoken to Italian bishops about the global economic crisis, he’s recognized that “the problem is not only economic, but above all cultural”, and noted that in light of this, “there is a need to recognize and support forcefully and actively the irreplaceable social function of the family, heart of affective and relational life.” Similarly, in Caritas in Veritate the Holy Father discussed the role of local micro-lending practices originating in the Church and their role in helping respond to the global economic crisis.
Even more important than broad statements on these issues, the Catholic Church offers localists the example of mediating institutions not only rooted in place and in time, but also rooted in the sacred: the countless robust parishes that exist in cities and towns and suburbs and rural places across the country. In such parishes people live and move and have their being, and holiness is rooted in the everyday. By grounding the holy in a particular place, holiness is made visible in everyday life; by educating the young and helping the needy and supporting families across generations, our rootedness in the place of the parish brings us into solidarity with other families; by living out the call to love God and our neighbor in particular places, parishes can cultivate true communities—even in places like Bethesda and Alexandria.
Recounting his decision to return to St. Francisville, Louisiana, the place of his birth, Rod Dreher recently wrote that “I have been so busy theorizing about constructing an enclave to withstand the battering of the Dark Age barbarians upon us that I did not see, until now, that there is already a place on this earth where I can take my stand, if only I had the wisdom and the humility to see it and to know it and to make it my own once again.” That rings true to us as well, even if the places we live aren’t much like St. Francisville. We hope that by living out the discipline of place here where we’ve landed – by raising our families and building our neighborhoods and grounding our lives in our parishes — we can make these places our own for the time that we have been given.
Kim Daniels is a consultant on domestic policy issues, and resides with her family in Bethesda, Maryland.
Chad C. Pecknold, author of Christianity and Politics: A Brief Guide to the History (Cascade, 2010), is a professor of theology at Catholic University of America, and resides with his family in Alexandria, Virginia.
Thank you, thank you, thank you. This voices concerns that I have. I would love to see some people on FPR explore the things you guys mention and how living the good life can happen in cities/suburban areas. I grew up in NoVa and think the Catholic community there has some great traits that are relevant to FPR. I hope you 2, or others, explore this more.
No urban -exurban dweller who understands that thing called “localism” should feel any embarrassment that they do not live in the country. Brooklyn New York is one of the most intensely local places I know….it hung black bunting when the Brooklyn Bridge was opened. With so much of the country increasingly urbanized, it is vitally important that localism should make increased inroads into our more cosmopolitan areas. A prosaic cult of rural bigots is of no benefit.
“We don’t think readers should lament that their buckets dropped where they did.” I disagree, but carefully. I think we should lament, just like we lament everything that is the fruit of the seed of this age until the age to come. However, that lament should neither lead us to despair, nor to the abandonment of the only life we now know.
As you say, without sentiment we should live as all good men have lived, by the example of those who went before us. I am told that some scholars believe the record of Daniel was the first such guide. Personally, I think they are fools, but believe his example survives their foolishness. We must live “by the waters of Babylon” without forgetting Jerusalem. Not a figment of our imagination, but the real homeland.
Thank you for this word and for FPR.
As an old hymn puts it, brighten the corner where you are. This involves not legalism, but asceticism, a concept which is increasingly hard to sell in a consumerist, narcissistic age.
Sounds like a cheap excuse for embracing industrial consumerism, overlaying the way of life Berry decries with some superficial spirituality, which in any case fails to challenge the idols of our age. Sure, suburbia needs redeeming, but glossing over (if not outright ignoring) suburbia’s consumerist gods leaves no prospect for redemption.
Berry: “The modern specialist and/or industrialist in his modern house can probably have no very clear sense of where he is. His sense of his whereabouts is abstract: he is in a certain ‘line’ as signified by his profession, in a certain ‘bracket’ as signified by his income, and in a certain ‘crowd’ as signified by his house and his amusements. Where he is matters only in proportion to the number of other people’s effects he has to put up with. Geography is defined for him by his house, his office, his commuting route, and the interiors of shopping centers, restaurants, and places of amusement—which is to say that his geography is artificial; he could be anywhere, and he usually is.”
Major cities may have more historical remnants of localism to distinguish them from the suburbs, but their utter dependence on hopelessly unaccountable and irresponsible supply lines reveals those fashionable historical remnants for what they are. When asked how a city like NYC could operate sustainably, Berry’s short answer was that we look to much smaller cities.
Big cities have always relied on the countryside for their provendor. And truly major cities have cast their nets very wide since ancient times. Consider that Athens’ grain supply came from the shores of the Black Sea, and Rome’s from all over the Mediterranean, notably Egypt.
JonF, what’s the significance of that history to this discussion? This essay started by claiming a place in a Berry-an economics. That’s what I don’t see any basis for. Berry-an economics means, at the very least, shortening supply lines in order to re-define the mining, farming, forestry, and fishing, etc. (i.e. our use “by proxy” — if not directly — of the earth) that provide our material living. The problems Berry decries in industrial consumerism are, of course, exacerbated by the extent of industrialization (in comparison, particularly, to ancient Greece/Rome), and thus the need for tighter supply lines has likewise become so much more important. I think ignoring the imperative for accountable and responsible supply lines leaves little room for any true allegiance with Berry.
What does your argument have to do with the notion that cities are somehow alienating and culturally unhealthy places? All too often that assumption goes unchallenged on this website. Another poster pointed out that there is an astonishing amount of localist attitude in even some of our biggest cities (and I would second that because I have noted the same phenomenon in Baltimore). Meanwhile the globalism that you are (rightly)_ concerned with is hardly limited to American cities or suburbs. Long supply chains are as much a fact of life in boondockvilles as they are in NYC and LA. And I would suggest that at least where there are large nexuses (nexi?) of population the prospects for sustainability are greater since you don’t need a lot of extra transportation capacity– density solves for much of that. Every place I customarily travel to here in Baltimore (work, church, most shopping, doctor’s, vet’s, Friday nite fun) is within a three mile radius of my house. I have friends in rural western New York state and their commuting distance for just about anything is an order of magnitude greater.
JonF, there’s practically no limit to the ways in which we could compare the relative merits of urban and rural living, but the appeal to Berry calls for a framework that the authors of this essay seem to badly neglect. If the authors want to make an honest appeal to Berry, then the discussion isn’t open-ended any more. Are they just using Berry’s name to disguise (and misrepresent) their consumerist argument? I think your questions are fair questions in a broader context, but the authors ought to admit that they have no fundamental agreement with Berry if they’re going to dismiss Berry’s fundamental economic framework. So we can entertain all sorts of arguments, but let’s not pretend that we’ve begun with Berry or that we’re all allies of Berry-an economics. That said, your argument for the efficiency of urban living seems to likewise dismiss the possibility for a fundamentally different kind of economy. You seem to assume a bad economy where goodness is measured in how little of the bad economy we can use. Sure, there are rural people that live just as integrally in the industrial economy, but I think our real hope should be in “an adversary economy” (Berry’s term) built from the ground up. The obvious challenge, though, is that the adversary economy is very small, very marginal, and only very minimally developed. It’s not an economy that allows (certainly not at present) for a class of retailers and consultants and merchants and professors and service-people. If we wish to maximize our membership in the adversary economy, we must join an economy that exists almost entirely at ground level, which means (at least for now) that we must work and provide for ourselves as close to ground level as we can. If we’re living higher on the economic pyramid nowadays, we can take it for granted that we’re founded on the industrial economy in all but very token ways. There’s just no getting around that.
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