Two recent incidents have made clear to me how the culture wars can stultify the fecund complexity of our common life. Recently, my wife and I attended a lecture on James Baldwin, whom I consider a fascinating figure. The presenter, assuming the presence of only staunch liberals, made a passing comment on how Malcolm X would also be a great figure to study. And, in the next breath, the presenter stated that “even though he had conservative friends,” he felt that conservatives are evil.

Putting aside, for the moment, how demonized labeling of opponents, or of anyone, is at the base of many of America’s current challenges—I thought to myself, “is he remotely aware of how conservative Malcolm X was?” Malcolm X, for example, was committed to absolute marital fidelity, communal economic self-reliance, communal self-defense using weapons, faith, and, importantly, internal communal reform and responsibility as means of empowerment. Interestingly, this sounds a great deal like many white farmers, welders, and truck drivers I have known.

About a week after that presentation, a wonderful couple joined my wife and me for dinner in our home. Jeff saw a large black and white photo print of Richard and Mildred Loving on our wall. Now, such a portrait of the parties to the Supreme Court case declaring anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional was bound to have meaning to the two interracial couples there that evening. However, Jeff candidly explained that the Lovings were very different than he has thought they were most of life. I mean, as Jeff declared, “he was a redneck!”

Yee Haw! It is precisely because Richard and Mildred represent the deep earthy country roots of both whites and blacks in America that we love them so much. They were, in many senses, libertarians. They just wanted to be left alone to love and marry whom they chose, farm and cook, live simply without bother, and take care of themselves.

The Loving ethos represents America’s best hope. White self-reliant communalism is well known. It is seen in movements ranging from confederate succession, to white nationalism, to the Tea Party, to more beneficent renderings such as those by Wendell Berry, Patrick Deneen, and Rod Dreher. But black self-reliant communalism is just as strong and just as important—not only for American tradition, but for American hopes for future flourishing. It can be traced from Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, to slave freedom schools, to Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers. Consider the words of Booker T. Washington in Up from Slavery:

Among a large class, there seemed to be a dependence upon the government for every conceivable thing… How many times I have wished … I might remove the great bulk of these people into the country districts and plant them upon the soil—upon the solid and never deceptive foundation of Mother Nature…

But, alas, it can be easy for liberals to dismiss Booker T. Washington as part of an aberrant line of black conservatives leading up to Clarence Thomas and, I suppose, Ben Carson. And so it is important to also consider Malcom X and the Black Panthers, who are much more revered by both black and white liberals. And so it is fascinating to compare words of Black Panther Huey Newton with George Washington, both declaring the necessity for armed self-defense against outside centralized tyranny. In his tract In Defense of Self-Defense, Newton declares “an unarmed people are slaves or subject to slavery at any given moment.” And George Washington proclaims in his First Annual Message to Congress that “a free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined; to which end a uniform and well-digested plan is requisite. . .”

A more accurate narrative is to see egalitarian gains as a product of black communal and local empowerment—freedom schools, Rosa Parks, civil rights movement, the NAACP—which skillfully triggered helpful outside forces within particular historical contexts  

Perhaps this understanding of self-reliant communalism within the black tradition may change the way we view the African-American narrative and thus allow more of us to jettison the labels of conservative and liberal, leading to less cultural and political dysfunction and, perhaps, lay the foundations for greater civility. The black narrative is widely understood to have a philosophical commitment to the need for a benevolent exogenous force to eradicate local communal bias in favor of equality: thus, the central belief in the importance of Lincoln, FDR, the Supreme Court, Kennedy, etc. But, I would argue, a more accurate narrative is to see egalitarian gains as a product of black communal and local empowerment—freedom schools, Rosa Parks, civil rights movement, the NAACP—which skillfully triggered helpful outside forces within particular historical contexts, but which, for communal health, must not become dependent upon outside forces. The movement for greater racial equality through the arm of centralized federal actors up to the 1960’s was contextually pragmatic, and not a philosophical approach. Such a narrative could understand that in our current epoch, with the breakdown of family, community, and intermediate structures, it is time to lessen reliance upon centralized outside solutions (albeit slowly).

Culture war narratives continue to divide black and white middle and working classes, to the detriment of both communities. And the populism of each group is largely motivated by external enemies rather than a desire for internal renewal, which is the lifeblood of healthy communalism. However, local, self-reliant communalism, I would argue, is the central aspect of each community’s American tradition, and we should emphasize this commonality to build stronger coalitions. Of course, unfortunately, the self-reliant communalism of both blacks and whites has too often been xenophobic and parochial. We must never uncritically mine the past, but we must draw on the best of the past while forging forward. And thus we can emphasize a Loving ethic (obvious double entendre intended), in which our localism recognizes the beauty of all of humanity. There is need to outline further community and policy principles based upon such a loving self-reliant communalism. But the first step is to recognize that dysfunctional government is not the end of the world. Rather, it is the hummus in which vibrant human communities can take root.

6 COMMENTS

  1. This is great short essay, Craig. But there is, to my mind anyway, a single ambiguity about it that begs for some clarification. When you write of “the Loving ethic” and “the beauty of all humanity,” are you speaking solely of the personal choices of the Lovings themselves? Or is the actual court case Loving v. Virginia part of that ethic as well? Because obviously, if it is, the narrative of communal self-reliance is complicated somewhat. Was the national government declaring over a century of state anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional and thus invalid a “contextually pragmatic” action? Maybe it was; I’d be very interested in hearing that argument. My gut instinct, though, suggests to me that the interventionary, “philosophical approach” is perhaps more essential to the ethic you lovingly (ha!) describe than you may wish were the case.

  2. Thanks for your comment Russell. And thank you so much for your respectful and insightful tone. Your comment gets to the heart of the tension I am outlining. And, as my essay suggests, this tension needs to be drawn out, which I hope to do in an additional essay, and in a book I am writing.

    Ultimately, I would argue that there is a necessary role for the federal government (exogenous force) in certain circumstances: 1) to ensure equal choice–thus, in Loving v. Virginia, to intervene in state law to ensure true liberty for any citizen to marry who they want.; 2) to regulate matters that affect local communities but which cannot be controlled by local communities, and for which there are market externalities–such as environmental concerns (there is global interdependence among the source, and costs of pollution are not internalized, without intervention, by polluters; and such as as risky economic behavior where costs are not internalized, such as credit default swaps and other investment vehicles of large banks which caused the 2008 crash, hurting many in local communities.)

    However, I would see these as contextual, and not philosophical, if one matches them with the acute awareness of the disempowerment dangers of reliance upon the federal government. Thus, I would match this with an understanding of the negative effects of wealth redistribution, entitlements, government managed education, etc.

    I think the “Loving Ethic” is one which understands the dignity of all humanity (will save until another time the argument that this “Loving Ethic” would be decidedly pro-life), seeks common Americanism among all racial and religious groups, and sees a baseline role for outside intervention to create the context for true liberty for all people–but is very aware that such powerful outside force is not to be trusted to have the interests of common folks usually in mind, and thus sees the role of local community to provide mutual support, production of food, genese of values (thus eschewing government and multi-media generated culture.). In short–living on a farm or being part of a farm system, loving everyone in the community, going to church, and being a supportive part of local organizations.

    It is the idea of trust, I believe, that is at the heart of the idea of contextually using the federal government. I think local white and black communities would be most empowered to think that there may be times pragmatically that government can support them–but, as a matter of principle, there is simply too much power there for the government to be trusted. There is too much power for us to think that a democratic, or republican, President or Congress will consistently be motivated by our interests, instead of theirs. Ultimately, we have to solve our most pressing problems on our own.

    • “I would argue that there is a necessary role for the federal government (exogenous force) in certain circumstances: 1) to ensure equal choice–thus, in Loving v. Virginia, to intervene in state law to ensure true liberty for any citizen to marry who they want”
      I think it’s helpful to take care not to write things you clearly don’t believe. You can’t possibly believe what you wrote there. I’m sure you believe in restrictions based on age, family relations, etc., as everyone else does.
      Saying government policies need to be based on “loving” is as destructive as saying they should be based on “fairness”, “equality”, etc. Government policy based on bumper stickers leads only to ruin.

  3. Brian:

    Thank you. This is a fair comment, and I should be more careful in my words. I do think there is a more in-depth analysis available in which the fundamental governmental role is to ensure equal consenting choice. Such an approach may leave value-determination to local private institutions such as religious organizations. So, for example, yes the idea of consenting individuals would allow age restrictions, and potentially family relations (although, I understand the idea of consent can be very slippery). I also believe government should allow homosexual union–but that churches and non-governmental institutions should be allowed to determine their own belief and values on such things. Thus, it is very possible to believe theologically that homosexual union should not be sanctioned, but that the government should protect it. For an interesting theological take on this, see Stanley Hauerwas.

    I did not mean to suggest that government policy should be based upon love. I would not trust such an approach. But I do think various levels of government may serve as checks on the abuses of other levels of government. The loving part, is the part I very much do think we need to revive American culture and American communities. I believe the best of local American communities do have a strong ethic of love for all humans. I have very much seen it in action.

    Thanks you again for your help with me in all these very nuanced issues.

  4. Some rambling thoughts.

    Unfortunately the self-reliance “narrative” of interracial harmony in localist settings clashes with the paternalistic “narrative” of white liberals that the underdogs, regardless of race or culture, must be cared for, whether they like it or not. I cannot decide if their attitude is a perversion of Disraeli’s One-nation Conservatism, or its logical conclusion (elites looking after the peasants). In either event, since the aforementioned white liberals firmly believe they are the most moral and intelligent creatures around, they must be obeyed by lesser breeds without the Law (white, black, or chartreuse.)

    Alas, almost all sides in the present debate operate from the same set of prejudices, (for which see T. S. Eliot’s “Idea of a Christian Society, Chapter One, or Patrick Deneen’s older essay (http://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/07/unsustainable-liberalism) or his recent book on the failure of Liberalism.) Alleged Liberals and alleged Conservatives have both bought into the notion of the necessity of individual happiness, the supremacy of individual whims, and the smashing of all ancient barriers to individual liberation. The inevitable result has been the atomized and isolated individual, who must be coerced by the totalitarian State into correct behavior (having no other compass than a government regulation to guide him/her.)

    Matters of the secret sexual relations of husband and wife, the rearing and education of children, the public expression of private opinions, the particular effect of and mode of worshiping God (or not), earning of a livelihood – all these and more are believed to be subject to the necessary oversight and regulation by the government, on some level. (Even a laissez-faire economy is a matter of government fiat.) And while it is possible to escape much of this in sparsely settled rural society, in overpopulated urban settings, it becomes impossible. How then, do we live?

    Human beings are (I believe) naturally communitarian, but as noted this leads to tribalism. However, attempts to crate artificial community inevitably flounder. (I grew up near the ruins of New Harmony, the site of TWO failed social experiments.) Nor are close-knit rural communities any more “free”. There may not be prescriptive regulations by the town elders, but the social pressure is intense. One can be more ruled by custom than by all but the most invasive Stalinist tyranny.

    And, how we get mixed up on these things. Firearms regulation became a hot-button issue on the Right after Bobby Seale and some Panthers inadvertently wandered through the wrong door into the California Legislature one season. Later, the Right swapped sides on the issue. At the time of Huey and Malcolm, the Left was all into armed citizens. They also flipped to the other side. Further examples are redundant and pointless, they show merely the same pattern.

    As one raised in rural America, who chose to work and live in rural America, and who has retired into rural America, I am content. I even have a front porch and an old-fashioned swing to sit in. (As a bonus, our area is near the border, and we have more racial harmony than many places, “Hispanic”, Black, Japanese, Anglo, Amerind, etc. For the values I love, the life I desire, it is wonderful. But what of the poor souls in the big city a relatively short drive from us? In the social churn and economic isolation of urban life, how can they develop localist values separate from tribalism? It is hard to be “left alone” when you can hear your neighbor’s TV, and have to place your garbage in the correct bins for pickup. It is more than difficult when your groceries come from the store and not your garden. It is nearly impossible to avoid trouble when rival gangs (whether Crips and Bloods up to Republicans and Democrats) demand your allegiance. There may be an answer. I wish I knew what it was.

  5. David:

    These are all very wonderful and insightful thoughts. Thank you.

    I have lived and worked in Harlem, Brooklyn and Newark, as well as growing up and living in rural Pennsylvania, and now in rural upstate New York. As you do, I find Deneen’s insights very valuable. But I am not ready to give up on the value of the Liberal state, nor the good intentions of those (liberals, I suppose), who see centralized government as a necessary check on local prejudice and tyranny. The thing I find fascinating about many folks in the black community that I have loved, is that they maintain a strong belief in self-reliance because of the misuse of power for paternalistic purposes, as you rightly mention, without giving up on on the evidence of history which shows they are not slaves because of centralized intervention, and that they have rights because of centralized intervention. However, I do believe the current climate has pushed many towards only understanding the need to “re-take” centralized power, with a loss of the need for introspection about how to re-establish cultural independence.

    But there are other currents beneath the surface, and these are the currents I am attempting to tease out. I think I have a slightly different view of communal self-reliance, as I see it as a goal of self-determination, but not a goal of isolation, or being left alone. In fact, some of the most vibrant self-determination movements I have seen very intentionally look outward to be engaged with others, and with government. There are definite movements for urban self-determination. For example, I have worked in organizing urban farmers, community gardeners, and cities building “resiliency measures.” In all these things, there is a strong undercurrent of both the uncertainty of life, but also a mistrust that centralized forces can solve such uncertainties, and, a mistrust that the federal government will come bail them out when things go down.

    I also think there also are elements of the self-reliance narrative in the urban education reform movement since the 1980’s being led often by charter schools. Some of them have had great success by tapping into the conservative values deep within the tradition of Latinos, blacks, and caribbean and African immigrants. They have emphasized hard work, responsibility, and service of community, instead of victimhood, which is often taught by much of the public school system.

    I think of self-reliance not as a matter of urban or rural, but as a dedication to reject mainstream values and narratives. Thank you again for your comments. The life you have built for yourself sounds beautiful.

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