Holland, MI

Over at the Postmodern Conservative, Peter Lawler has been writing quite a bit about Robin Williams, and specifically the movie Dead Poets Society (which, Peter and I agree, isn’t that good a movie). In this context Lawler has turned his attention to Whitman, and particularly Whitman’s reading of Lincoln.

Rather than getting into Lincoln’s politics, and our mutual distaste for Whitman’s public theology, Lawler uses the invocation of Whitman to note his greatest contribution to American politics: the refusal to accept limits as determinative. 

“For we followers of Whitman, there are no limits to what Americans might achieve through a free economy and technological ingenuity. America ‘works’ only with confidence in economic growth and technological innovation dissolving or at least ameliorating seemingly intractable human problems.”

An overt concern with limits is dismissed by Lawler as “old-world” thinking, recalling Tocqueville’s claim that a new science of politics is needed for a world that is wholly new, a world, presumably, where the problems of scarcity, if not solved, are at least domesticated. And while Lawler is careful to note that “too little concern with limits may be fatal too,” thus having it both ways, he chastises his “Porcher friends” with perceiving limits “that aren’t really there,” such as considerations about peak oil. The devil is in the details, of course, but I want to defend us against charges of blindness.

I think it is useful in response to defend a “Porcher idea of limits,” since the word does, after all, appear in our three-word tagline. The idea of there being no limits to what can be achieved by a free economy and technological ingenuity is, to say the least, unnerving. I offer this defense along two lines: first, with reference to the idea of limits itself; and, second, by suggesting that not all limits are created equal.

The comedian John Oliver has an entertaining bit where he  discusses the “fact” that America is deeply indebted and has high unemployment, and that things look bad for us, “but these are just facts,” he says, “and America has never been about facts. It’s about belief.” But facts, as it has been said, are stubborn things. We can keep pushing the limits, but eventually they’ll have their say.

It’s important to distinguish between the limits themselves and what we know of them. There is, for example, a limit on fossil fuels. I’m not sure exactly what those limits are – they’re probably somewhere between the predictions of the direst peak-oil expert and the most optimistic techno-salvation prophet, but in any case, it is a finite resource. As the finite resource becomes more scarce, it will have significant consequences for our politics and standard of living. What consequences? I don’t know, exactly, but when a whole economy, including a food economy, is based upon the availability of cheap oil, it’s a safe bet than the consequences will be severe.

Likewise, there are likely limits upon the earth’s carrying capacity of human population. What are those limits? I don’t know. It depends, in part, on what standard of living you want all those persons to have. If some global political and economic equality is important to you, the number is probably lower. I’m suspicious of neo-Malthusian fixings of the number, as I am of their predictions that overpopulation will be pared by war and disease. Like Lawler, I think not reproducing seems to be the bigger human problem these days. But in any case, it seems unlikely that the globe can carry 7 billion people at the standard of living of the average middle-class American.

There are limits to how much government can spend without getting into a debt death-spiral. The government is borrowing right now at anomalously low interest rates. As debt increases, so will the rates, and each percentage point increase will dramatically increase interest payments, meaning government has less to spend on other things. Economists often posit the 90% debt-to-GDP ratio as a tipping point where debt produces overwhelming drag on growth. Whatever the exact number is, “confidence in economic growth” is likely to be scuttled by the facts that growth has limits, and by the fact that not all growth is good growth.

Lawler acknowledges that there “natural limits” and “finite natural resources,” but it is not clear how this acknowledgement shapes his actual prescriptions. He places a good deal deal of confidence in technological innovations as ameliorating the problems posed by such natural limits.

But these innovations are not neutral, and as someone who has read more than his share of Heidegger, Lawler knows this. For one thing, innovations often create need for more innovations, creating a cycle that will ultimately lead us back to natural limits, such as the availability of silicon, for example. An example familiar to us on the Porch is technological innovations as pertains to farming. To increase yield, farmers will use larger machines, which compact the soil requiring ever-larger machines, short-term land-management techniques, which lead to run-off, and increased use of pesticides. All of these lead to serious soil degradation, the long-term consequences of which are somewhere between deleterious and disastrous. None of this even calculates how innovations might contribute to potentially catastrophic climatic issues.

Furthermore, these innovations are not innocuous. They reshape our social environment and, in some ways, even ourselves. As the distance between us and our techno-machines becomes ever smaller, so does the realm of human freedom. Consider the emerging literature on how “big data” will transform “how we live, work, and think.” Or consider how employers are increasingly using survey technology to monitor employees not only during the workday, but off-site as well. Consider how increased use of computers and cell-phones alters personalities, rewires our brains, and disrupts normal social comity. Lawler has addressed many of these issues in his writing, and I have sympathy for the “stuck with virtue” argument, but also see that as putting the best face on a techno-dystopia. It is not communal, humane living as Porchers understand it, and neither do we see it as ineluctable.

We are surrounded by these natural limits, the nature of which are occluded to us by our own ignorance and our willful denial. But, reality doesn’t care whether we acknowledge these limits. They will have their say. Sometimes building a better mousetrap just means you are going to get bigger and smarter mice.

Not all limits, as I said, are created equal. Limits on population, wealth generation, fuel availability, climate change, and food and water supplies are of a different order than arguments concerning the limits of educational resources, health care, or home sizes. One can go further down the pecking order and find limits that are real, but inconsequential for the life of the nation. But the first list is not. Part of a conversation about limits involves determining what are the limits that really matter, what are their limits, and how we can live flourishing lives within them. But a key is mindfulness of the fact that technological innovations might be short-term solution while they create demonstrable long-term complications. Additionally, and more importantly, such innovations have unintended or unknown consequences that can make them net losses for the social good. Even if they seem to have immediate benefits, the unknown costs might be too high. This is one of the reasons Oakeshott suggests that conservatives are always skeptical of innovation.

Finally, there is the issue of metaphysical limits. Knowing yourself means, in part, knowing that you are human and not a god. It means accepting the limits imposed by things out of your control, finitude, and death itself. But I don’t think Lawler and I would disagree on that.

It is foolish to reject change: it’s part of life. But it’s equally foolish to accept innovations and material prosperity because of the promises made, or because we are dazzled by their apparent brilliance. Living within limits requires careful discernment of the finite parameters of our lives that create the richness and meaning of a life well-lived, and an appropriate skepticism of anything that threatens to alter those parameters. If someone is going to disrupt life on my porch, they better have damn compelling reasons for doing so. As Oakeshott said, I’m not inclined to trade off certain loss for uncertain gain. And I’m in any case pretty content with the simple pleasures of music, conversation, and mutual engagement, so long as it isn’t interrupted by idiot TV and cell phone texts.

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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. Excellently said, Jeffrey! Your distinction between different types of limits, and your insistence upon the need to be cognizant how those different sorts of limits (some circumstantial, some structural and environmental) may or may not be ameliorated or transcended by technological innovation, and at what cost, captures one of the primary underlying themes of so much Porcher writing. The only thing I would add is that I think there is a very real sense in which your description of a conversation about limits as something that “involves determining what are the limits that really matter, what are their limits, and how we can live flourishing lives within them” also describes the heart of all political projects. What polis, after all, can exist without limits? A state without boundaries, a court without a jurisdiction, a community without an identity, a person without defined needs: all of it leads us invariably to a kind of cosmopolitanism that, whatever it’s arguable benefits, can’t really be said to be a “political” condition at all, at least not as it has been understood for centuries. Defining who one is and where one lives and what one can (and cannot) do about it is part and parcel to the very notion of government; to disparage the idea of limits is thus to, on a certain level, disparage political thinking as it has developed all the way back since Aristotle.

  2. Indeed, very well said! I understand the caricatured curmudgeonly stick-in-the-mud, who looks at any bid for change and improvement as something to be immediately quashed – end of discussion! He perceives and draws limits where none need exist.

    But in our current cultural climes, I don’t think our stick-in-the-mud is anywhere near our biggest problem. Ours is what has become a fundamentalist religious faith in the good of endless growth and innovation; any discussion of limits, therefore, is tantamount to heresy and cannot be tolerated.

    But as you point out, Reality will not ultimately be denied.

  3. So this is a good article, and I’m not sure how I disagree. “We followers of Whitman” is meant to be a bit ironic, and I certainly didn’t say “any discussion of limits…is tantamount to heresy and can’t be tolerated.” I’m not quite sure who says that, with the exception of extreme libertarians and nutty transhumanists. Not even the actual Koch brothers (who are out there, I admit) say that. Most Democrats prattle on about Al Gore’s inconvenient truth. If I do disagree, it would be on a more balanced view of the costs and benefits of technology, and that the real challenge to our free will is to subordinate technological progress (which, as Solzhenitsyn says, probably can’t be stopped by anyone) to properly human purposes. And of course I do disagree with Heidegger that the modern world or modern America or whatever is mainly a techno-wasteland that grows.

  4. Mr. Lawler:

    What I meant was that a world without limits may not be articulated specifically, but the overall tone of those who are at the forefront of the culture, and certainly their subsequent actions, bespeak no-limits.

  5. Thanks. My own view is that dominant view is to see limits in all the wrong places, and that’s true even if there are limits of some kind here, there, and everwhere.

  6. I have, for the most part, taken to breezing by most of the academic nonsense that gets bandied about here by what amounts to a group of largely irrelevant intellectuals, in the hopes that Peters has once again written something entertaining and full of spleen. (My apologies to Russell Arben Fox and John Medaille who also write some excellent stuff.)

    But lo and behold, the mention of something that matters a great deal to the broader culture stopped me in my tracks. Dead Poets Society. It came as no surprise that the entirely dim Jeffrey Polet is a critic of that excellent movie, but my curiosity couldn’t resist finding out what this Peter Lawler fellow thought of it.

    Of course Mr. Lawler turns out to be as tone deaf as Polet, despite reassuring us that he is smarter than the average moviegoer because he is a “close watcher”! Like so many over-thinking intellectuals he seems to be completely without imagination or a basic understanding of good storytelling.

    I almost don’t know where to begin Lawler is so dumb.

    First of all, of course Christianity is not an explicit part of the narrative. The entire narrative of Dead Poets Society is implicitly Christian! This story is rooted in the mythos, and its secrets are kept shrouded, and are not dragged out into the logos where everything beautiful and mysterious is made lewd, explicit and eminently forgettable. Thankfully Peter Weir is a first rate storyteller, and not a third-rate intellectual, and understands how to make a powerful movie rooted in the mythos.

    So no, “Oh Captain, My Captain” is not a reference so much to Lincoln , but to Christ himself. (I know, it’s pretty hard for Americans to think it might not be all about the U-S-A!) Perhaps what is most ironic is Lawler’s dismissing of Keating “own solitary sadness, lack of real life, inability to contribute a significant verse [to the play of life].”

    Does he not recognize Christ’s solitary sadness in Keating? His lack of a “real life”? (read: happily married with kids growing vegetables on his hobby farm) Does he not recognize Christ’s “inability” to contribute a significant verse with his leaving behind no writings of his own and his obscure criminal’s death on the Cross? Christ is the seed that dies and falls to the ground like Keating. That is the archetype of the suffering servant.

    And in Todd Anderson (who is really the central figure of the movie), we have the disciple who eventually sees the truth and understands. He is the one, who in the end, ushers in the kingdom by standing up to the authorities for his Saviour.

    Do you know how many of my non-Christians friends cry during that last scene? Do you not understand the power of the story of Christ to reach people’s hearts? If you watched that scene without a knot in your throat or tears in your eyes I question how much you love God or understand the life of Jesus.

    I’m sorry, I thought I was past these petulant rants, but sometimes you guys are so dumb and wrapped up in your narrow interpretation of the culture around you it makes my blood boil. Dead Poets Society is not about prep schools and academia you narcissistic dipsh*ts. It’s about Christ and his command to come follow him. And you are supposedly our intellectuals. Our Christian intellectuals. We are well and truly f**cked.

    I can well imagine Lawler dismissing Jayber Crow for his sadness and lack of a “real life” if the book were instead a popular movie and not a character penned by the almighty Wendell Berry. I should think at times Berry (a great storyteller and no great lover of the the Apostle Paul and his logos) would be ashamed to be associated with some of the nonsense that gets posted here.

  7. I enjoyed the screed. I went in a different direction, reading the post. I don’t think there is much innovation. We desperately need it, but we’re focused on the new. These two things are not necessarily the same.

    I think it’s telling Silicon Valley seems to prefer the word disruption to creation. Reminds me of a time past- well, way back – I was looking at all of the derivative art some decades ago. The metaphysical critique of derivative works was complex and amazingly intelligent and yet always seemed achingly vapid. I remember thinking it really was not a good reflection on our culture. Seemed to me to say we have no new ideas, that there are no new ideas, that creativity was no longer possible. These days, if I look for innovation, I look to tech companies, such as Google and Facebook, but all I see are advertising platforms. They follow us around, keep track of what we do and sell the information. That’s it. And the difference between them and the old ad platforms – newspapers, for example – is that the old produced content. The new don’t produce anything, they just follow us around. Disruptive, yes, novel, certainly, but I don’t consider that innovative. What we do now is produce novelty. And novelty has no sense of limits. Novelty is repelled by limits in the same way that two magnets repel each other. I think innovation, on the other hand, is stimulated by constraint. Innovation lives in the world, in context and relation. Innovative to me is something like figuring out how to increase your topsoil when farming. At the least, let’s say positive innovation- creation versus novelty.

    In the movie The Matrix there is one scene where two main characters are sitting in ornate leather chairs in the middle of a wasteland, and that’s the image coming to mind, reading these posts about the movie. I’m just picturing you all in chairs arguing back and forth. Meanwhile, I’d say maybe the movie to think about here is The Fisher King.

    So I’m walking on wondering what it is – I think there is a manic response to the wasteland, a frantic search for stimuli. It’s quite possible to fail in this quest. It’s an odd, ambiguous story with no clear answer that I can see. And no, we don’t want to be alone with our thoughts – any stimuli, even pain, is better than that. Maybe this is what you end up with when you strip out all contexts from our selves, kind of a grey thud of existential boredom and ennui and a desperate plea for something new. I don’t know. Seems like however I look at it, I’m in danger of wandering off topic. First things first, I say, and that means picking the right movie.

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