Sunday, October 9, 2016

O Brother Where Art Thou?

The Steeple of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and the Gold Dome at the University of Notre Dame

I am a localist who is far from his locality. The hills of Arkansas with the Greater Appalachian culture of its people is home for this heart. Honest, direct, peaceful. And just as essential, beautiful on its own. Beautiful in a way which man can only accentuate. It is not a blank slate on which he is free to impose a beauty of his own making.

It is a great place to live, but it has not always been a great place to make a living. So I find myself  and my family spending most of our time these days on a medium-term project in the Toledo area. It has its own pluses, but they are polar opposite to the ones which I identify with. The whole area was built up on a miasmatic swamp. There is beauty and order here, but its human component is much greater. This difference in the land is reflected in the attitudes and character of its inhabitants. I am a sojourner.

I cannot quite remember how I first stumbled across The Front Porch Republic folks other than it was by way of the work of Bill Kaufman. At some point I had an interaction with James Matthew Wilson, an earnest young poetry professor at Villanova. Wilson strongly reminds me of my nephew Zachary Harrod, who as near as I can tell has the same job and function at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He suggested that I meet with Jefferey Polet. I traded a few emails with the latter, but we never got around to meeting. Still, here were people not that far from where I was who freely used the term "Localism". I had written two books with that word in the title, and its not a word one hears often. I was very curious as to what they had going on.

I forked over the $53 attendance fee to their annual conference to be held on the campus of Notre Dame, and sent a message asking about the expected dress. On receiving a reply emphasizing that comfort rather than formality was the general rule, I set out my jeans, t-shirt and sweat top. I then set the alarm for o-dark-thirty.  The next morning I made the drive from Toledo to Notre Dame.  With no time for breakfast, I stopped only to pay the execrable tolls. Even though I took I 90 all the way, I had to stop four times at toll booths. There is not a single toll booth in the entire state of Arkansas. Most Arkansans have only heard of toll roads in books about the Middle Ages.

Once at the campus I asked the attendant for directions, and made my way to a parking lot near Bond Hall. As soon as I got out of the car a pleasant woman about my age introduced herself and said that she was told by the attendant to follow me. On the short walk to the hall we discovered that she and I had lived in the same small Arkansas town for a few years in the 1990s. "Well, OK" I said to myself, "this may work out after all."

I checked in, putting my name on my name tag with large, friendly letters. Then I went to the auditorium. The nice lady was lost in the crowd. I decided that our connection was not substantial enough to seek her out and took a seat more towards the back. I did not know anyone there, but they all seemed nice enough. Clearly they had a different idea of what constituted casual dress than I did. Some habits were in evidence. Many wore jackets. Most wore slacks. There were a lot of jeans there, but few tee shirts. Mine was the only sweat-top I saw.

The first session had three speakers. The first gentleman spoke of shifting property (and other) taxes to land taxes.All land in an area would be taxed the same regardless of the amount of capital improvements put on it. I heard much derision of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders from the podium that day, but this seemed like an idea that both of them could love. Sanders for its seamless integration with the attenuation of property rights and Trump because his Trump Tower would be taxed in the same amount as the one story chocolate shop down the block. Plus, speculators will always find ways to game the decisions of central planners, and this idea needed regional authority to pull off. I thought it was the exact opposite of localism. The scope of his lesson was far too great for the time allotted, and his time ran out long before he reached its natural end.

The next speaker was a young lady. I had read some of her stuff on FPR and she is a talented writer. She was not however, a talented speaker. Her voice was soft, indistinct, and did not carry well. Her New York pace of speech was too rapid for my middle-aged southern ears to comprehend. I was able to make out about every other word, which was really not enough to follow what she was trying to say.

The last speaker of the panel was Elias Crim. He was more engaging. Not in a barn-stormer sort of way, but he was thoughtful and what he said made sense. It was a little short on specific solutions and conclusions, but he did describe why local economies were worth saving.

As we took the first break I was a little grim. Mingling with strangers in a crowd during short breaks is not my strong suit. I was hungry. I wasn't sure what to make of the presentations either. I decided to take a little walk around and  get a couple of photos of the more magnificent buildings on campus. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart and the Gold Dome were prime examples of "papist" architectural splendor. I had to admit that the Baptist churches back home looked like tin barns by comparison. On the rare occasions southern Pentecostals get enough money to build a fancy building, it often comes off looking garish and awkwardly colossal. But then all modern architecture seems to be in decline. Government buildings constructed in modern times can't hold a candle to some of the old court houses either. Its a part of the cultural decline that these people were talking about.

 It was time for the next session. I took a seat next to another stranger and settled in for the panel on "Populism and Place." OK, now this was more like it. The speakers were orders of magnitude better, in particular the aforementioned Bill Kaufman. Apparently it is a proverb among these people that you do not want to have to follow Bill Kaufman at the podium nor be introduced by Jason Peters at the podium.

As the day went on I realized that what I saw that morning  was not representative of the event as a whole. Rather it represented a problem that small-school football coaches were familiar with. A coach may have twenty-five players, but only eight or nine athletes. Regardless, there are eleven slots to fill. What we all do (I coached just a bit) is work in players who are not as developed where we think it will hurt us the least. A day-long conference needs a certain number of slots. They are almost to the point where they can put a natural "athlete" in every one of them.

The second panel consisted of Michael Federici, a dead-ringer for Bill Nye the Science Guy, who argued against populism and in favor of elitism; Bill Kaufman who elegantly and with good humor spoke in favor of populism, and Jeff Taylor (who Jason Peters claimed won the Elton John look alike contest) helped show the audience that populism was not really one thing, but that several strains of thought could be lumped under the heading "populist". Whether it was good or bad depended heavily on what one meant by the term. If Taylor had gone first instead of last it would have been easier to see how Federici and Kaufman were talking past each other vis-a-vis definition of the subject at hand. I could tell by the questions from the audience afterward that the I.Q. of this room was stratospheric.

This was a subject on which I had already thought long and hard and while the presentations sharpened my thinking it did not alter the substance of my previous opinion. If to be a populist was to believe that the voice of the people was the voice of God, then a faithful Christian cannot be a populist. But nor can one be an elitist, if that means substituting the voice of the "wise" or powerful for the people in the metric stated above. Neither group unfailingly speaks for God. Rather, God has spoken for Himself, and sometimes the Elites are furthest from His voice and sometimes the People are furthest. To make either group the standard is idolatry, but to have reflexive contempt for either group is to disdain their Maker as well.

The nature of man is such that class is no protection against sin nature. That is why we need both the elites and the people to serve as a check and balance on one another. This is just as certain as the idea that we need the branches and levels of government to check and balance one another. When the elites are closer to the heart of God, I am an elitist. When the hearts of the people are closer to God, I am a populist. Neither term should be considered a permanent identity, but as a permanently provisional label of convenience to reflect the belief that we follow those who follow Him. Our allegiance to these groups should shift as their relative acknowledgment of the truth and justice of God's law might change. As such, we should be the moderates on this issue. Also, the issue of local elites vs. national elites was barely touched on. I think at the stage we are in, it should be the focus of the debate.

Lunchtime came. I was famished. There were box lunches from Jimmie Johns stacked on the table. I took a #12, which comes two ways, in the hopes that they would have sprouts instead of lettuce. It had lettuce. The crowd had lunch on the steps outside on what was a glorious day of October weather for South Bend. I did not know who to sit with, and I did not want the refined and cultured catholic Yankees about me to be presented with the unsightly spectacle of my tearing into this big sandwich. I walked to my car and ate there. Then, with insulin levels properly reset, I went back to Bond Hall to listen to the Keynote Address.

The Keynote was by Patrick Deneen, but Jason Peter's side-splitting introduction was a tough act to follow in itself. Deneen made the case that modern liberalism is a failed ideology. He made the sell to me. But then I view all evil as ultimately self-defeating, because it makes war on some aspect of God's truth. Political theory is just a particular case of that broad principle. The ideology may be failed, but those who hold it still control the machinations of the state, including legal force even if that force has been denuded of its moral underpinnings. Meanwhile the left has been busy constructing an new morality, founded on ether, by which it might animate its more ignorant subjects into desired action against those of us whose faith in God has produced an unacceptable level of moral inflexibility.

That led us to Rod Dreher, he of "The Benedict Option." He is a former Catholic, and current Eastern Orthodox. In spite of some talk of the ecumenicism of the group, the whole thing seemed very Catholic to a southern protestant like me. I wondered if I were the only southern protestant in the room of 200-300 people. Back home, most people could not tell you the difference between an Eastern Orthodox church and a Roman Catholic church. The two would be sufficiently alike, and different from most of the rest of their religious experience, as to be lumped into the same category.

But if the ecumenicism of the room was a good deal narrower than my hosts imagined I lay the blame more at the attenuated intellectual condition of the Protestant Church than on any real or imagined error on their part. Protestant scholarship has suffered greatly by their running the machinery of the state for so long. They simply had the state house much of their intellectual institutions. When the protestant church lost that part of the culture, they consequently lost their scholarship too. What was left mostly retreated from the field with an unfortunate anti-intellectualism. The Catholics were never in a position to have the machinery of the state reflecting the nuance of their intellectual life. They had to preserve their own parallel institutions. In this respect there is a lot that the protestant church could learn from such a group, but I don't know that there is the interest. Satisfaction from hard thinking has given way to pursuit of good feeling. It grieves me to write those words.

Dreher spoke with grace, humility and sincerity. Dreher said it was time for Christians to admit that we had lost the culture war and we should give up on using the state to force outward conformity to a moral code which the population no longer adhered to. My wife has said much the same thing for years. He was somber in the certainty that increased persecution of the church is coming, and that we should prepare for it in every manner. He gave two historical examples of dealing with persecution in previous times- Czechoslovakia in the waning days of communism and of course the Benedictine monasteries during the decline of the Roman Empire. The focus was on preserving the essence of our western Christian culture through times which might otherwise destroy it.

After he finished his speech I finally got the nerve up to ask a question- my first and only of the day.. Since most members of the audience were asking high-brow questions full of nuance which assumed the listener understood the most tenuous of connections, I decided to be less blunt than my usual redneck self. I asked if he might be essentially "fighting the last war" in using the monastery model and wondered if the Czech experience might be more germane? After all, the Roman Empire had nothing against the monks. Roving barbarians were the problem, not the state. In the Czech model the failing state was the enemy. And in that case the resistance had to very quickly step into the public arena when the state's failure became obvious.

Dreher is too honest to claim that he has all of the answers, and he did not try to do so here. But he replied by way of giving an example of how the monasteries helped re-launch civilization by teaching the locals farming techniques, even in the face of roving bands of barbarians. Apparently to someone from religious traditions that have monasteries, the way you preserve cultural knowledge is to have monasteries. That is the way they did it in the past and so emulating them in principle is the way to do it going forward.

The Front Porch Republic tackles localism by answering the fundamental question of why we should preserve local cultures. It also gives us a good idea of what that means. What is to be preserved and why we should preserve it are the most seminal questions of localism. My area of interest, and expertise, is more derived. This is the question of how we might preserve what we preserve in localism. It has been said that the person who knows how will always work for the person who knows why. I accept the truth of that statement, but Dreher's presentation seemed to be the only answer they even considered to the question of how. It is the answer one might expect from their cultural viewpoint, but I am not convinced that its the right answer. Or rather I should say its only the middle part of the answer, which leaves the first and last parts without the great thought and discussion which had been given to other aspects of localism.

Our culture should be preserved not merely from wandering hordes of barbarians seeking easy plunder, but from an increasingly pitiless and totalitarian state which will brook no rivals or any universal truth claims by which the validity of its actions might be judged. They will not just be after our goods, they will be after the very culture which we wish to preserve. The great Chinese strategist Sun Tzu who wrote "The Art of War" said that to win battles we had to know ourselves and our enemy. The monastery model, as a stand-alone answer, does not take a proper account of who the enemy is and what their goals and capabilities are.

It does not fully account for our own capabilities either.  Yes I agree that we have lost the culture war and that we are going to have to face persecution. But Dr. Deneen was correct, liberalism and the leviathan state, is doomed to fail. There are other ideas about the state which can and have served mankind better. Those ideas too deserve preserving. The Republic has failed, but when we come out of the ashes we need to be able to tell whoever is left more than how to farm between barbarian raids. We need to be able to show them why it failed and what can be done next time to sustain a benign Republic. Since we agree the modern liberal state will fail, we should produce an alternative model to rebuild from. One which is based on an accurate view of who God is and who man is. One that takes into account the painful lessons learned from our history, and truly honors diversity as a pre-condition of freedom.

That is on the back-end. But I would also say that we need to talk a little more about the front end. That is, what if anything can we do before the darkness falls to lessen the severity of its impact? I agree that engaging in national politics at this point is a waste of valuable energy. I agree that engaging through the means of the utterly corrupt and captured major political parties is worse than useless, it is actually harmful to our cause. But can it really be that it won't matter in the coming storm who our sheriff is? Who our mayors are? Perhaps it will be that due to the vestiges of our federal system that the severity of the persecution might vary from state to state- as it did from province to province in the times of our Roman forebears.

There are other levels at which one can engage in public life besides the national. There are other offices at stake besides the Presidency. And if there are no worthy political parties available to participate in, perhaps we should have our own loose network of friends to promote moral candidates in local offices. People who would not owe their office to any national label, but to the people around them. When the courts of Rome became corrupt, our spiritual forebears did something similar- setting up their own parallel system of courts. In time even the unbelievers turned to the ecclesiastical courts for justice.

Jesus said "If they persecute you in one city, flee to the next." If we followed His command it would not be too long before there were critical masses of us in a number of cities. We cannot exclude the possibility that the monasteries should try to save the cities, and if they do so they might find that the cities will become instrumental in saving the monasteries. And when the season of darkness for this nation ends, as they all must end, the faithfulness we have shown in a small thing may help make us ready for faithfulness in larger things.

The last panel saw Wilson and Peters being joined by Andrew Balio. They did a fantastic job of answering the what and why of localism in the fields of poetry, music, and vocation. We have values that are real and true, even if temporarily out of vogue. We have beauty, which the post-modern state wishes to replace with ashes. Only our view of the world can produce beauty in the liberal arts and satisfaction and belonging in the utilitarian arts. Those are among the whats that we should sacrifice to preserve and some whys we should preserve them. This is what FPR does so well. I recognize the pre-eminence of that mission over the part of the equation where my own primary interests lie. Perhaps their part in this question is not the same as my part. It does not make either of us wrong. It does make both of us incomplete, but I knew that of myself before I hit the first toll booth.

On my way out the door I noticed boxes of cookies, untouched. "Take them please" said a young blond lady who had been assisting with the event. I grabbed three cookies, one for each child I had given up a Saturday with in order to attend the event. Then I walked back out to my car and began the lonely ride back to not-home.

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