Holland, MI

The recent dispute between Joe Carter over at First Things and various occupants of the Porch has already received a good deal of attention, but also demonstrated a regrettable level of talking past one another. This, in no small part, is due to a lack of definitional clarity. If political philosophy be about anything it’s about clarity concerning definitions.

In this instance, it seemed to me, there persists a lack of consensus about the meaning of “liberalism.” Mr.Carter seemed to indicate that liberal systems value human choice and place the onus of choice, and thus responsibility, upon each individual person, and that this freedom to choose for oneself, while not absolute, provides the measure of freedom that is essential to a life well-lived. The distributist ethic, he fears, requires restrictions on freedom, usage, innovation, and mobility that are corrosive of the fundamental good of freedom.

Choice of action can never be the measure of a good or well-ordered society, for human beings never find themselves in positions where they don’t have choices – a point clearly articulated by thinkers such as Solzhenitsyn and Frankl, who discovered this in the belly of the totalitarian beast.

For those on the Porch, “liberal” often connotes a mode of social organization that is atomistic, non-teleological, mercantilist or plutocratic, highly ambulatory, and destructive of intimate social institutions. Or maybe, alternately put, we fear that America is not, properly speaking liberal (being too concerned with national greatness), but in any case the particular set of liberal principles adopted in America, with their faulty anthropological assumptions, simultaneously elevate and isolate the self, abandoning us to our freedom, and fracturing the sorts of healthy communities required for human thriving.

To this, Mr. Carter, if I read him rightly, seems to be saying either “Would you have it any other way?” or, simply, “This is the price of doing business.” And, offering as evidence of Porchers’ bad faith, he suggests that so long as distributists, or their kissing kin on the Porch, live the peripatetic life of the philosopher, not only in ivory towers but also in suburbs, their actions belie their words.

Some dismissed Mr. Carter’s comments as snarky, but I think they ought to be taken seriously. Just as many conservatives would rightly, in my judgment, cast aspersions on limousine liberals, so also, I would think, the ethos of the Porch is susceptible to charges of hypocrisy in terms of whether we are actually seeking out and sustaining the sorts of communities we celebrate. And, with the recent announcement by one of our Senior Editors that he will be leaving his current community to seek out another which offered him better prospects of employment, it may well seem that the Porcher ethic fails at a personal as well as at a social level.

As I said, Mr. Carter’s suggestion that he will start taking Porchers more seriously when they leave the ivory tower and return home strikes me as a serious one worthy of our engagement. Then too, while I do not presume to speak for Mr. Deneen – and Lord knows he can defend himself better than can I – I am inclined to rally behind my friend and colleague, in no small part because I too faced the choice (Mr. Carter will take note) that he has, and made a similar move. Reflecting on this may help shed light on the issue and help us forge a response to Mr. Carter’s challenge.

There are at least two issues here to consider, and I think they both emerge from the Social Encyclicals: one pertains to the claims of distributism itself, and whether some of us on the Porch are distributists in good faith. Since I for one take a central claim of distributism to be that the wage-labor system of employment is itself a kind of restriction on one’s freedom, I’m not sure that Mr. Carter’s position amounts to the kind of defense of freedom he was hoping for. On this, I am with the distributists, for employment is indeed a kind of servitude. Operating in the modern academy with its consumerist, scientistic, banausic, and multicultural ethic frequently forces one (if that’s the right word) into compromising positions. I am routinely asked to sell the school to prospective students, trying to satisfy their questions, the demands of my employer, and my own sense of integrity simultaneously. This is not always easy, or possible.¹

Then too, distributism and agrarianism don’t require that one farm. It requires that one be attentive to the role of agriculture in a healthy and sustainable economy. The Popes frequently emphasize this. John XXIII pays special attention in Mater et Magistra to the role of agriculture, and Benedict also discusses it in detail in Caritas in Veritate. Farming is fundamental to all civilized life, and the removal of food production from our consciousness has many negative effects. The ethic of the Porch, as I understand it, simply asks us to be attentive to the relationships between rural and urban life, and to ask how to make these connections more sustainable and humane.

But my point here is not so much to defend distributism and its important assumptions about ownership, or even argue why I don’t live on a farm. My main concern involves the peripateticism of the academic life, and why I seem not to live up to the Porch’s highest ideas or aspirations about home and place.

Part of this is my family’s history, and the dislocations caused by modern warfare. My parents immigrated to North America around 1950 as a result of their family’s perception that there was no future for their children and grandchildren in Europe, a continent ripped apart by two catastrophic wars. They gave up the family steads in small Frisian farming villages in fear that they might again be occupied, and in hope that North America provided a refuge from European wars.

My upbringing, then, was framed by a family narrative that involved high-risk moves and the fracturing of families. My mother’s family mostly stayed in the Netherlands, with the result that she didn’t attend the funerals of either of her parents, both of whom I never met. My dad’s large family spread out over the Canadian continent, with he and my mom later taking their children and relocating to Michigan, which they did just before my birth.

Under these circumstances a young person is not likely to question the appropriateness of moving. True, I experienced the lack of grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins as a loss, but it was hard to know what kind of loss it was. It is hard to miss something you never had, except in the abstract.

My parents, neither of them having schooling beyond the 8th grade, believed that education was going to be the key for their children’s future happiness. In part, they didn’t know the full story about what formal education does. And, in part, they didn’t know enough about this society to understand the consequences of educating children. So they encouraged the development of my intellectual gifts, even if they didn’t really know how to cultivate them. I was expected to go to college, and so I went. While there I had professors tell me I ought to go to graduate school, and so I went.

And none of this seemed ambiguous in any way. It was the accepted pattern, and I accepted it, not knowing any better. When the time came to leave for graduate school it seemed a sensible enough path to take, and frankly an adventure, leaving the “provincialism” of western Michigan for our nation’s capitol.

My first glimmering that all this education and its concomitant mobility might exact a price came when my wife and I had our first child. Now I began to sense in earnest what it meant to raise a child away from the nurturing support of loving grandparents, aunts and uncles, and in a highly ambulatory and rootless community such as Washington DC. It didn’t seem an appropriate human habitat. True, I had never thought of it as home, having seen it as a stop toward an academic career.

Not long after the birth of our third child we moved to Canton OH, having accepted an academic post at a small Christian college there. Two observations about living in Canton: first, we were constantly perplexed as to what to do if one of us were to die. Neither of us felt connected to Canton, felt it as home. Neither my wife nor I went there thinking we would spend the rest of our lives, and all of our deaths, in that place. This question – where should I be buried? – was a troubling one that opened up the sense that we were people without an axis mundi, and that we embodied, in some way, the lostness of modern man.

Secondly, it introduced a rupture between ourselves and our children, for while we never considered Canton “home,” our children clearly did. This is where they worshipped, played, learned, explored, and developed. They were “from” Canton in a way I never was and never could be. The place was in their marrow in a way it wasn’t in mine (as an aside, as a convert to the Catholic Church, I am also struck by this in terms of the difference between me and my children as regards being Catholic). This rupture made real the ways in which we had been unable to escape our freedom.

That sense of homelessness was a persistent tug on consciousness, and in some ways informed the work I was doing. But one also felt profoundly unfree to do anything about it. I had chosen to go to college, chosen to go to grad school, chosen to pursue an academic career, chosen to move to Ohio, and all those choices made me feel estranged from the most fundamental things in life, and in some ways they all seemed to lead to a life I couldn’t escape. In my sinews and bones I longed to return home.

When my brother and my best friend, both of whom live in Michigan, contracted cancer, the sense of estrangement deepened further. As my parents aged the sense of loss deepened, not only because the precious time I had left with them was slipping away, but because my children were being deprived of the very thing I was deprived. Not as drastically, to be sure, but seeing my children with my parents made me realize what a heavy price my siblings and I had paid for immigration, and it filled me with great sadness, and intensified my sense that my children needed their grandparents.

So I began to see that in this world one often had to choose between vocation and location. We are told that vocation should always triumph in such selections, and that one place is as good or as bad as any other. I gradually came to see the falseness of this, however, and that my choice of vocation had cut me off from family, friendships, and a place in the world. I had worn my calling like a cloak, but the world I lived in determined it become a shell made of steel.²

Lacking the courage or imagination to figure out how to return to my own shallow roots, I began to look for employment in non-academic venues in Western Michigan. Then, for reasons I still don’t fully comprehend, I was fortunate enough to receive an academic appointment at Hope College, a mere 5 blocks from where I grew up. My wife and I convinced ourselves that whatever the difficulties for our children would be more than offset by their newfound proximity to extended family. We have the satisfaction of knowing we are now “home,” and we know where we will spend the rest of our days. I pray our children will judge us mercifully.

In this, our education has been in some way its own gravedigger. It took us away from home, and we are among the lucky few for whom it has been the way back. But it is not always so, a proposition that becomes all the more real to you when your own children reach college age. My oldest attended Hope, and my youngest will attend Hope. With my middle child, however, I went through the gut-wrenching protocol thousands of parents go through every year: dropping her off at college hundreds of miles away and the realization that she is henceforth a visitor at home, and is unlikely ever again to live within walking distance. As for the other two: who knows whom they will meet while in college, and what relationships or careers will pull the. ever farther away from us? The thought of it fills me with sadness.

These observations, thoughts, feelings are often nascent in a busy young couple in their early 30’s. But as age and life and loss intrude on our minds, we seek to better understand and articulate our own condition. For me, like for many of us, reading Wendell Berry was a sort of cleansing of the intellectual palette, a bringing-to-mind and bringing-to-language of what I already knew to be the case.

Consider, for example, Berry’s telling of the story of Hannah Coulter. She was not a native to Port William, having spent her early years in Shagbark. She was encouraged to move to Port William to “make something of herself,” to find a place where she could deliver on her promise and native gifts, leaving behind her own family. Repeating this narrative, when she had children of her own she sent them to be formally educated, believing that she owed it to them. Berry writes:

“The way of education leads away from home. … The big idea of education, from first to last, is the idea of a better place. Not a better place where you are, because you want it to be better and have been to school and learned to make it better, but a better place somewhere else. In order to move up, you have to got to move on.”

And then later, when reflecting back on the absence of her children from her life, Berry has Hannah say something I could easily imagine my mom saying:

“When I think back to the childhood of my own children now, I remember that the thought of their education was always uppermost. … We wanted them to have all the education they needed or wanted, and yet hovering over that thought always was the possibility that once they were educated they would go away, which, as it turned out, they did. We owed them that choice, and we gave it to them, and it might be hard to argue that we were wrong. But I wonder now, and I wonder it many a time, if the other choice, the choice of coming home, might not have been made clearer.”

That, as well as anything, sums up the paradox within which many of us on the Porch operate. Education was not simply a way up, it was an appropriate development of our native gifts. But the way up led out, and we were never told there was a choice of coming home, only a choice of leaving – which is, of course, not a choice at all. The deep suspicion for some of us on the Porch is not that we want to restrict people’s freedom of choice, but that our choices aren’t as rounded, aren’t as full as we often believe them to be, for it is not our willing and doing, but that which happens to us above and beyond our willing and doing that is the proper province of our thinking.³ But knowledge always comes too late.

So we are inclined to ask whether there is a way that leads home again; or, if not, how it can help us make where we are a better place. For place matters. Asking those sorts of questions and relating them to the concrete formation of our communities is not an incidence of coercion but an expression of freedom.


¹The charge that distributists are socialists has dogged them from the get-go, but I think it an unfair one. Distributists certainly don’t argue for the abolition of private property, Quite the contrary. From another angle, one would have to look at the relationship between ownership and production. While some socialists might seek to redistribute property post-production, distributists seek a fair distribution prior to production. It is, after all, the concentration of wealth that allowed for large-scale capital investment that led to the wage-labor system and the tenuous life of the employee – a point Leo XIII makes rather clear.

²The reference here is to the famous, and mistranslated, passage from Weber’s Protestant Ethic: “The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into evervday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment’. But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.”  It was reading Weber that first gave me the tools to understand my own condition, and thus to understand my freedom or absence of it from the inside.

³A reference to the central idea of Gadamer’s Truth and Method.

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Jeffrey Polet
Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.


  1. Beautiful: thanks for that, Mr. Polet. And I agree with Rob G: Hannah was the perfect note to end on.

  2. You actually wondered where you should be buried? Before you actually died? Seeing it in print made be realize just how remarkable that is today. And I applaud you for it. I daresay that some advertiser somewhere would tell us it is “un-American” to wonder about such things.

    Stephen Covey would say you “began with the end in mind.” Now that I have left college and begun my real education, I have realized the importance of wondering about such things.

    Thanks to great pieces like this one , I keep coming back to this “porch.”

  3. I really appreciated this article. As one who is in the beginning stages of an academic career, as well as one who believes in the importance of home, it is exact dilemma I face. I love home, and want to go back, but fear that it’s impossible.

  4. Our family story is different, but every bit of your story touches home.

    A question: After you went back to Holland, did it ever seem that the Holland you knew as a child then (and only then) disappeared and you could no longer get it back? If so, does it matter?

    A side note on “But the way up led out.” It seems that was the problem faced by all of the land grant colleges in the 19th century. They were expected by some people to educate farmers’ sons to be better farmers (economically and socially/culturally) but what they ended up doing was taking them up and away from the farm. It created long-term tension among colleges, legislatures, and citizen farmers, and caused much self-examination within each of the land-grant colleges. Were they different in mission from other more traditional colleges or not? Why did striving for excellence (as well as for increasing enrollment) make them be not so different? But if they were not so different, why did they need to exist? They did carve out niches for themselves, but it wasn’t an easy process figuring out what that niche should be.

  5. I’m not a Porcher, so to speak, but care a lot about some of these themes (maybe that makes me one….). But I never understood “Place. Limits. Liberty” to take precedence over all else in one’s life, specifically doing what it best for one’s family. And indeed, putting place and community over that would be silly, and probably unfaithful to one’s vocation as a father/mother, husband/wife. Wherever one lives, that place and its community, etc. should matter. If one’s vocation and family permits that place to be the same place one is from, then all the better. But the idea that the “Porcher ethos” so to speak is brought into doubt by individuals moving for what’s best for their family seems off to me.

  6. That was impressively frank and open. Also had a familiar feel to it.

    One unasked question, though, is whether higher education, as it now exists, is really worth it (the price in roots, leaving aside other considerations). I feel a move away from the social norm of telos-free education would be salutary for everyone, even those that belong there. Easy to say, I know. I know what my wife expects for our one-year-old. I sometimes hope that the next decade or two complicates the picture a little, though.

  7. This is great. I posted (a rather angry, and accidentally anonymous) comment under the Homesick Nation essay about the criticism we receive from our peers for trying to raise our kids in our hometown. I was very critical of our friends who moved to better employment and nicer weather. I should have been more charitable. I think our town is actively trying to drive people away. On a larger scale, it’s like when you try to go to your local hardware store or other local shop and the service and quality is so bad, you wonder if the owners WANT you to go to Lowes or Target. Our friends do not share our philosophies, most of them don’t have kids, so why should they stay here? Plus, many of their parents will move away when they retire. I can’t blame them.

    But we’re still here. And my husband has met many, many talented people our age (we’re 28) who are staying here and fighting it out and trying to make a living for themselves. It’s harder for us because we have 4 kids.

    So I began to see that in this world one often had to choose between vocation and location

    I know Dr. Polet mean vocation in the career sense, but vocation can also mean what God has given you, where you find yourself, not just your professional calling or interests. So my husband’s vocations are Christian, husband, father, programmer, friend to neighbors and colleagues, etc. It’s a balancing act, and often the vocations compete or seem to contradict each other. As a father, part of his vocation is to provide a home (in the wider sense) and education for his children. A big part of this is staying in our hometown and near our parents, in a state friendly to homeschoolers. Because my mom and mother-in-law help me out so much, I am better at my vocations of mother, wife and teacher. He is spiritually responsible for his family, also, and we are members of a really good church. We know it would be hard to find a church elsewhere with as good adult and child catechesis. But he also needs to provide for our physical needs. If his business can not do that, we may need to move away. But how high really does our standard of living need to be? It is all very difficult.

    Although where we will be buried isn’t forefront in our minds (how has definitely been discussed), my sister-in-law is buried here, and my inlaws both own plots near her. We visit the cemetery with the kids often, or try to. That would not be possible if we move away.

  8. > Then too, distributism and agrarianism don’t require that one farm. It requires that one be attentive to the role of agriculture in a healthy and sustainable economy.

    Fair enough in the abstract, perhaps, but how in today’s does one be attentive to the role of agriculture without seeking one’s way out of the consumer economy? It seems to me that our economy is blind to “the role of agriculture” and that accepting the choices that are presented to us as consumers is as blind a choice as going to college was for you (and me.) I see these problems spilling over into the next generation, too. If we live by a global economy, what choice is there for our children to live in community? But we won’t make any more than token headway trying to living by a local economy as consumers today. (We can’t all live as consumers!) I think if we’re content to live by the global economy, then we’ve already gone most of the way to sending our children off into it.

  9. The garden – be it the vegetable garden for nutrition, the flower garden for beauty, or the cemetery for the final baptism of the saints – reminds us of that Garden out of which we have been cast and that Garden which may yet be our home in a new idiom.

    In the 1850’s, in the uplands of north Louisiana, my maternal ancestors, the Maddens, established a homestead for their household: great great grandfather and great great grandmother, ten children, and about twenty slaves who had along with other households made the long journey from North Carolina to Louisiana.

    In the journal of a member of another family which had made the trek with the Maddens, it is noted that the writer passed the new Madden place and saw the entire household working in the fields.

    This Madden household built a church and established a cemetery which yet today carries the ancient name Madden. There the entire household, slave and free, worshiped. In the cemetery, lie, again slave and free, the members of the household.

    My earliest memories record our annual trip to the cemetery for the “graveyard working,” at which almost always four generations of the family, with various last names from marrying off, gathered and still gather to clean the cemetery and to feast on a spread of home-cooked food: squash, stewed potatoes, fried chicken, squirrel dumplings, peach cobbler and to feat on the stories, told year after year, stories whose objective correlative go back to at least 1830. My mother, who is now ninety-five knew and sat by the side of her great grandmother who was born in 1831.

    This past year at the graveyard working I took some banana pudding which my mother had taught me to make. To my surprise, I found, there on the table, another banana pudding which in texture looked just like mine. I tasted it, and it tasted like mine. An old cousin, somewhat younger than my mother had made it. Her grandmother was the daughter of Reid Right Madden and Samantha Worsham Madden. Her grandmother’s name was Tennessee. My mother’s grandmother was Tennessee’s sister; her name was Alabama. The common origin of the pudding was then my great great grandmother, Samantha Madden; therefore, the clan now refers to the pudding as Madden puddin’.

    My mother also has a quilt made by Samantha Madden, my great great grandmother, likely sometime after 1866. It is still, despite its age, in very good condition. It was likely made from cotton grown, spun and woven on the upland homestead.

    The cemetery is surrounded by huge oaks, mostly red oaks and large hickory trees. The Church is small but in the shape of a truncated Latin cross.

    I have plots there, in Madden ground. If Providence allows, it is my will to be buried there, to be escorted by kith and kin through my last baptism. When my old preacher, Moses Eli Mercer, baptized me at the age of nine, I was scared to be immersed; I did not like water in my ears and nose. He took that opportunity to teach me a lesson. He said that it was good that I had apprehension about my first baptism; for my final baptism would be my burial, and all men fear death. He also said that the Christian walk would be a daily baptism, daily dying to self and daily being raised more like Christ. He assured me that as certain that it was that he would bring me safely out of the water, even more certain was it that Christ would raise me from the dead.

    So, my last graveyard working will be the digging of my grave. My last baptism, after a brief pause in the Madden Church for the Lord’s Prayer, the recitation of the Creed and communion, will be my lowering into the good sandy soil, which also grows great watermelons and a pea which we call “Madden peas,” for my final burial with Him anticipating that day when I will be raised to walk in newness of life with Him.

    Until that day, there I will lie with generations of the Madden household, slave and free. On my gravestone I hope to have one word: WAITING.

    Meanwhile, there will hopefully be new generations of the Madden clan cleaning the cemetery and spreading the good food grown or hunted in the uplands of north Louisiana.

    In nooks and crannies, ties to home and hearth, to kith and kin and to blood and earth are still nurtured and carried out. One such place is my heart nurtured by a little farm somewhat south of Madden Mill Creek, Madden Church and Madden Cemetery to which I have been inextricably tied since early childhood.

  10. I was under the impression Dr. Deneen left his position at Georgetown, not in spite of his FPR convictions, but because of them.

  11. “Fair enough in the abstract, perhaps, but how in today’s does one be attentive to the role of agriculture without seeking one’s way out of the consumer economy?”

    One way to start is, as Wendell Berry has said, is to eat responsibly.

  12. Thank you for so eloquently putting into words what I have been struggling with. After 11 (!) years of post-college study and numerous cross-country moves I have finally launched my career. I have a great job that makes a positive impact on the world and have fallen in love with the town and the land where I now live. Unfortunately, my family is on the other side of the country and for this reason my new home will never feel like home.

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