A few months ago Joe Carter of First Things said this:
Agrarian conservatives are charmingly anachronistic and mostly harmless since even they don’t take their ideas too seriously. (When the agrarian professors give up their tenure at Ivy League U, move back to the farm, and teach at Wendell Berry Community College, I’ll believe they mean what they say).
In a follow-up post he called it “poking gentle fun,” although none of the people being poked seemed to take it that way. Carter chalked it up to their humorlessness. This charge aimed at people who write for a site that posts Jason Peters’ essays – like this one titled “In Praise of Smartassery” – every week.
In any place, his post provoked Jerry Salyer to say, amongst other things, that:
Carter’s attack makes clear why I find it increasingly difficult to sympathize with conservative defenders of liberalism, who praise mass culture yet fret over socialism, who worry about relativism for a living yet dismiss concerns about uglification as reflecting the mere opinions of elitist aesthetes. A conservative liberal is somebody who encourages the prevailing progressive view that the past was benighted and is best forgotten, but then demands respect for the Ten Commandments and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — and to boot casually drops ten-dollar words like “polis” with unintended irony.
In response, Carter said:
For example, one professor (they were almost all professors) presented his localist bona fides by explaining how he bought his vegetables from a local food co-op. He was very proud of the fact that he paid a higher price to support a local farmer—despite the fact that the same vegetables from the same local farmer could be bought at Whole Foods. For most agrarians throughout history, food was considered fuel for survival and cheap food has made it possible for populations to grow and thrive. For the tenured agrarians, though, food is a totem, a symbol of how they are not only making the “right” consumption choices but how they are supporting the environment and the community in the process (a debatable assumption). The professor’s underlying message—though admittedly presented rather winsomely—was that if you bought bananas at Wegmans rather than whatever was in season from your local farmer, you were part of the problem.
Finally, FPR’s Mark Mitchell fired back with:
As I said before, we are all products of liberalism and to probe liberalism is to throw into question many basic assumptions about human flourishing and this translates into questioning many of the life-style decisions we ourselves have made. But “moving back to the farm” as Carter glibly puts it, is not much of an option if there is no farm to move back to. Even going home is not an option for many, for our parents are as mobile as we are and a hometown doesn’t exist. Thus, we are left doing the best we can in the places we inhabit whether that be a small town in Kansas, a college town in Illinois, or a suburb of Washington D.C. Moving again to recover some nostalgic sense of place isn’t necessarily the answer. Committing to a place and staying put is, perhaps, no simple ideal in a world where mobility is associated with success, but Carter should at least see that as a legitimate way of addressing a real problem.
(It’s worth reading all the posts in full, as well as the comments below where, it should be noted, a whole team of Porchers gangs up on Carter.)
Given the many different charges, it seems impossible to reduce a reaction piece down into a single point, so I’m not going to try. Instead, a la Wendell Berry (see, I’m already tipping my hand), a bullet point essay response:
1) I stand by my comment that the line in the sand has been drawn between the two sites. The annoying part is that I don’t think it needed to be. A significant number of writers on either side of the divide have strong sympathies with their opposites. But for all their ideological sympathy, both sides seem a bit prickly and prone to an unhelpful sort of snark that exacerbates differences instead of finding points of agreement. This isn’t to say we all ought to do our best impression of Rodney King, plaintively asking if we can all just get along. I’m a firm believer in Hitchen’s quip about sharp rhetoric: “We know as a law of physics that heat is the chief, if not the only source of light. Reducing the sun to room temperature would decrease light to nothing at all, as well as generating a definite chill.” Snark isn’t just fun, it’s essential to advancing the debate. That said, even in their snark, writers have an obligation to speak accurately of their antagonist. Derisively calling the FT crowd liberals or dismissing the FPR crowd as a bunch of poseurs doesn’t serve any purpose save massaging the ego of the speaker.
2) The greatest weakness of First Things – and the larger project of Christian conservatism that First Things represents – is their failure to attend to material and economic factors in shaping culture. The materialist theory of history (when articulated by more capable proponents, such as Terry Eagleton) has a great deal of truth to it. Put simply, material causes don’t determine the events of history, but they constrain the possible outcomes of an event. The Hundred Years War was not resolved when Henry V nuked Paris – and the world is considerably different than it would be if he had. Not coincidentally, this is one of the things that Front Porch Republic understands best.
The feeling one often gets while reading First Things is not dissimilar from the main takeaway of many Dickens’ novels: If people would simply behave decently the world would be a better place. That’s quite true and we neglect that point to our own peril. But if our critique stops there we end up trapped in a hopelessly-individualistic narrative that fails to account for the ways that material factors shape ethical behavior. The FT writers often come off as modern-day versions of Scrooge’s ghosts, using various arguments and images to try and provoke their viewer to extravagant generosity. Of course, it’s easier to be extravagantly generous (in the sense that it’s possible to be) when you’re extravagantly wealthy, like Scrooge. It’s more difficult when you’re a six year old boy working as a chimney sweep. In that case, your generosity will be extremely limited and could come at the expense of feeding your family or yourself.
Point being, its easy to speak of virtue as if it’s something hanging in the air that anyone can grab onto with an equal degree of ease. And there’s a significant truth to that. Indeed, the truth of that idea sits near the center of Christian faith. There’s a reason Jesus says that bit about the camel and the needle. There are psychological reasons that generosity is very difficult for the wealthy man. I don’t deny that. I just want it to be noted that there are material reasons that generosity is difficult for the poor man. What First Things says about virtue and ethics is usually good, so far as it goes. It just doesn’t go far enough.
3) That said, FPR also has feet of clay: The dirty little secret behind a lot of counter-cultural localism is the strong yuppie streak running down its back. Localism, just like any other ism, lends itself to packaging and faddishness and FPR seldom addresses this issue. As Carter rightly notes, many of FPR’s contributors are professors who can embrace localism more fully because of their professional situations. Though he’s one of their academics, this is why I think Jason Peters’ private localism is one of FPR’s greatest triumphs: Peters walks to work every day, he grows his own food, he does everything he can to get students at his school farming and cultivating the best kind of self-sufficiency, etc.. This is localism on a budget, which is a concern often neglected by the FPR crowd.
One of the biggest struggles Joie and I have had living in Lincoln has, ironically, been with finding affordable local food. We don’t have a ton of money so shopping at a boutique grocery store specializing in organic food isn’t an option for us. We purchased a membership at the local coop and have found that if we watch for coupons, shop there once a month (when we can use our 10% member discount), and avoid buying a lot of their pre-packaged foods we can make it work. Plus the membership gives us 10 percent off every time at several other places we frequent, so that helps. That said, it’s tight. Adding to the problem is that Lincoln’s farmer’s market scene is very different from what we knew in the Twin Cities. In Minnesota, the farmer’s market functions as a regular grocery store for many every summer. In Lincoln, farmer’s markets function as more of a gathering point for the yuppies of southeast Nebraska. Obviously the farmers that come aren’t yuppies, but the way they price their produce… it either costs them a lot more to grow it here than it does in Minnesota or they know their clientele and price their wares accordingly.
All this is to say that localism often becomes a trendy shibboleth embraced by people whose lives are enabled by everything a good localist ought to hate. Carter is right to point this out and, frankly, I found the glib response of some Porchers a bit distressing (and I say this as someone whose feet are planted firmly on the Front Porch).
4) That said, it’s easy to champion the purity of one’s lifestyle when the hub of your intellectual project is virtue: Don’t do objectionable behavior x and you’re good. But if you’re a social conservative and you aren’t having extra-marital sex or looking at porn, it’s hard to charge you with hypocrisy in any major way. When you’re concerned more with material causes such purity is much more elusive. As some of the FPR writers have noted, “You can’t go back to the farm when there wasn’t one there to begin with.” This is especially true for generation x onward, I think. Even if Joie and I wanted to, we couldn’t pull a Wendell and Tanya Berry and move back to our family’s farm in Kentucky. The best we could do was move back to the city we both love best and resolve to preserve and improve the city wherever we’re able. But life in that sort of materialist world is far more ambiguous than in the rarefied air of academic discourse regarding topics of virtue and ethics. This doesn’t excuse Porchers from inconsistency, of course. We ought to strive to be as consistent as we are able, but it ought to contextualize our efforts a bit. After all, we have to start somewhere. And “somewhere” might be the simple step of purchasing organic in bulk at your local chainstore super market instead of buying the latest round of pre-packaged food like substances rolled out by General Mills.
Example, do I shop at Wal-mart? Hell no. It’s a predatory corporation that destroys the best kinds of jobs, replaces them with mindless drone work, threatens the stability of the domestic economy, and encourages a consumerist mentality toward the world. That said, do Joie and I sometimes shop at Target? Yeah. We try not to shop there a ton, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Do I like that? Not really. I wish I could buy clothes from local companies, buy kitchenware from local artists (something Joie and I do plan on doing one day, budget permitting) and grow our food in a garden. But we aren’t perfect. Consistent localism is a more ambiguous, long-term goal. And in the meantime, when our hand is forced we have to pick the lesser of two evils.
(It should also be noted, briefly, that the hypocrisies of Porchers will generally be more apparent than the hypocrisies of the First Things crowd. It’s not hard to find out if a Porcher is being consistent. A brief perusal of their kitchen or even, in some cases, a look at their address will tell you all you need to know. Being a hypocritical First Things reader is easier. Your browsing history isn’t a matter of public knowledge. You can affirm all the right conservative platforms and be doing all sorts of things on the side that are decidedly opposite your principles. But unless you’re a prominent politician or televangelist, you’ll probably get away with it. That’s a cynical note, admittedly, but it’s something worth keeping in mind. Porchers live in glass houses, so it’s much easier to throw stones.)
5) A final point, both sides do a disservice to the other when they exaggerate one of the other side’s views to the most extreme degree possible and then criticize that. The FPR crowd doesn’t want to abolish modern medicine. They’ve never said they do and a more charitable reading of their writers would’ve picked up on that. (It’s worth nothing that FPR’s patron saint, Wendell Berry, is not as extreme as he’s sometimes made out to be either. Reading his novels and short stories reveals a more pragmatic side to his thinking that those who read only his essays might miss.) Likewise, First Things isn’t just a group of big government liberals who happen to hold a couple socially conservative views. (That’s Rick Santorum you’re thinking of.) At the end of the day, these two sites hold to very similar values. The difference is in their primary concern: FPR is interested in more materialistic issues and decentralization. FT is interested in recovering virtue. The two projects go hand-in-hand and, I think, need each other. A movement toward decentralization and a smaller scale of life will help toward recovering virtue and recovering virtue will help the movement toward decentralization and a smaller scale of life. The two sites don’t need to be at odds. That’s the most frustrating thing for any politically-independent conservative looking for some signs of life in the movement.