Communal Self-Reliance: A Tie to Bind Black and White

For All People, Against All Sarcasm (Buckley, Vidal, and Our Current Culture Wars) (3/2/18) by Pappy M. Sanchez

Photo by Mike Mozart, https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeepersmedia/

Last night I watched a documentary on Netflix called Best Enemies, about the debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal during the 1968 Democratic and Republican conventions (I also watched an episode of The Tower Looming, which is a riveting dramatization of the years leading up to 9/11).  The conservative Buckley squared off against the liberal Vidal as representative of the two armies of the American cultural war, with current alliances that were cemented and energized in the 1960’s.

 

I found the debates of Buckley and Vidal to be disconcerting.   They were disconcerting, because in spite of how much announcers of the their day, and those interviewed for the film, continually pronounced both men as geniuses, I didn’t hear them say anything of substance.  The entirety of their conversation used the veneer of political and cultural issues to lob sarcastic barbs at each other, each showing a sly Cheshire grin on their face as they did.  The debates were entirely about their own sense of self-worth, and not about the crucial and complex issues that were then, and are now, threatening to tear apart our wonderful country.  And I think much of the belief in their intelligence was attached to their patrician accents, with the implication that such upper-class accents must put them above the ordinary American. 

 

I have never been a fan of sarcasm, which is rampant among all classes in America.  I realize the need for levity to lighten the mood, break the ice, and enjoy life.  But I think there are much more elevated forms of humor, such as the self-deprecating, than sarcasm towards others.   It has always seemed to me, firstly, that sarcastic barbs are used as smokescreens to avoid the real issues, which may be uncomfortable to confront.  If you have been in a family, workplace, or other communal culture where there is always a great deal of sarcasm, you will realize that matters of substance rarely are discussed, and as a result, real issues rarely get resolved.

 

Secondly, even when under the guise of “just joking around,” sarcasm always inflicts pain.  Beneath the “I am just kidding” of the subject, the communal or individual object always at some level, feels hurt, even if they smile and laugh, because not to smile and laugh would make them seem sensitive and weak.  And such pain, the gut-wrenching feeling of being the object of an insult, remains and builds over the years.

 

And thirdly, as with Buckley and Vidal, sarcasm is the ultimate undemocratic conversational form, as it is endemically formed to make another group feel inferior to the group of which the one being sarcastic is a member.  There can be a much greaer level of respect in yelling than in sarcasm.  Sarcasm is belittling and polarizing.  In the very important recent article by David Blankenhorn in The American Interest called The Seven Habits of Highly Depolarizing People, most of the habits he lists, such as doubt, keeping the conversation going, and looking for common good, are squashed by the energy and tone of sarcasm.

 

In his New York Times opinion piece today, How Progressives Win the Culture War, David Brooks discusses the way the culture war is being waged outside of politics by delegitimizing and stigmatizing those who hold opposing views.  He brings his point home with the laconic turn of phrase, “illiberalism breeds illiberalism.”  This is to say, to ostracize and delegitimize the views of the opponent creates such a feeling of anger, belittlement and shame in those that are delegitimized, that the resultant pain lingers and festers to be returned when possible in kind.  Indeed, this is why we currently have Donald Trump in the White House.

 

Now, one might say, but Brooks is talking about yelling and screaming, not sarcasm in seemingly polite circles.  Yet, one only has the courage to yell and scream at the opponent, after countless times of belittlement of the opponent through sarcasm in tweets, Facebook posts, articles, and dinner conversations, where one is supported and validated by the smirks, likes, and laughs by those firmly within one’s bubble.  One needs to know there are others who think the opponent is inferior as well, before one is emboldened to lash out against the opponent.

 

And lest one think this essay itself is a form of politically correct illiberalism, let me be clear that I am not counseling the forced quelling of any speech, nor I am suggesting we limit the very important need to disagree and share opinions.  I simply think we would do better to take the long view of re-building relationships through the virtue of restraint and respectful discourse.  Sarcastic barbs will get you more laughs, more likes, and more re-tweets, but we are here on earth for a deeper purpose. We are here to love, even those we disagree with.  The greatest truth is not in the words spoken or written, but in the tone used.  I hope more of us manifest a deep love for our country by using a more respectful tone for all that live here.

Masculinity, Violence, and Class in America (2/26/18)

Photo by Stephen Paris from Pexels https://www.pexels.com/photo/man-wearing-red-dress-shirt-beside-water-buffalo-752398/

Some of the most interesting and salient analysis that has emerged since the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida, has been concerning the challenges of masculinity in America.  Commentary has rightly pointed out that the vast majority of perpetrators of mass violence in America have been male, and that there are strains within masculine culture that are a large part of the problem that needs to be solved.  Commentary has called for much greater conversation regarding gender roles, and greater gender fluidity to create a masculinity not tied to violence.  However, such commentary, I believe, is incomplete for the following two reasons:  1) It does not understand how culturally contingent is its own analysis, and that gender fluidity and emotional introspection will not have appeal in working class America; and 2) There is a non-violent model of masculinity deeply embedded in American tradition—the homesteader—that can have appeal, and needs to be rejuvenated.

 

In a very well written and insightful piece, America's Gun Violence Problem is a Symptom of Toxic Masculinity in Them.us, Bryan Epps relates that from 1982-2017, 3 mass shooters have been women, and 93 have been men.  The latest shooting incident in Parkland, Florida by Nikolas Cruz appears to continue this disturbing trend.  Epps calls for us to address and change the enculturation of violence as endemic to maleness, which he sees as a manifestation of white hetero-patriarchy.  Again, as Epps relates, Cruz’s fascination with guns, torturing animals, and apparent racist tendencies all seem to support Epps’ point.  And Epps touchingly shares personal anecdote of his experiential introduction to such masculinized violence, as he was taunted and threatened as a black boy in youth by violent white boys.  Such formative experiences are, indeed, a powerful aspect of masculine enculturation.

 

Comedian Michael Ian Black has been a strong voice recently in the call to re-examine masculinity.  In an article in The Huffington Post called How Gun Violence and Toxic Masculinity Are Linked, in 8 Tweets, Alanna Vagianos describes 8 tweets made by Black in which he ties the Parkland shooting to the ideas that “boys are broken” in America.  Vagianos relates language from one Black tweet:  “The last 50 years redefined womanhood: women were taught they can be anything. No commensurate movement for men who are still generally locked into the same rigid, outdated model of masculinity and it’s killing us.”

 

Black further expounds upon his tweet commentary in an opinion piece in the New York times, The Boys Are Not All Right.  Black describes the current confusion felt by boys growing into men, as they are not given space to voice and explore their frustrations, and they feel shamed if they do not acquiesce in supposed masculine values of sexual conquest, power, and acquisition.  Black feels such gendered roles are outdated, but that there are not possibilities for masculine discussion of more liberated roles.

 

Too many boys are trapped in the same suffocating, outdated model of masculinity, where manhood is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others. They are trapped, and they don’t even have the language to talk about how they feel about being trapped, because the language that exists to discuss the full range of human emotion is still viewed as sensitive and feminine.

 

I believe the analysis of both Epps and Black is brave, relevant, and insightful.  I am also fully convinced that a crisis of masculinity is deeply connected not only to mass shootings in American, but also to our crisis of leadership in politics and other arenas.  And I further agree that masculine norms are entirely too attached to sexual conquest, domination and violence.   However, I do not believe that the violent, repressed, conquering male is the only model for masculinity in American tradition.  Moreover, in some senses, the perspective of Epps and Black, though important, are not able to permeate through wide swaths of masculine—especially working class—culture.

 

Black discusses the feminist push since the sexual revolution to re-examine femininity and calls for a similar fluidity in masculine roles.  This is, in many ways, a metro-sexual perspective.  I am using this term as in its full nomenclature—metropolitan sexual—a heterosexual maleness in metropolitan (urban, suburban, exurban) areas among, primarily the college educated middle and upper-middles classes, where, increasingly among younger generations, dating roles, fashion, and dialects are less rigid among man/woman, gay/straight. And Epps represents an important voice from the LGBT community critiquing the traditional association of violence with hetero-male norms.  And this voice is accepted with much greater comfort among the metropolitan sexual community than in many working class communities throughout America.  Please do not misunderstand me, I am fully aware that there are gay folk everywhere, in every community—my current point is simply about the comfort level of different roles in different communities.

 

I grew up in a mid-American rural working class culture, before moving to the coast to be fortunate enough to have the opportunity for many years of education at elite institutions.  Since completing my education, I have worked with many poor and working class boys and men in urban areas through educational efforts, and in the rural community in which I grew up, as a Pastor.  As important as are the thoughts of Epps and Black, I am firmly convinced that the models and voices they represent will not have wide appeal in working class and poor communities, and they do not have to have appeal to return to a non-violent masculinity.

 

The unintended consequences of the sexual revolution are actually having the opposite effect on working class (as well as poor, and non-metro middle class) maleness than those agreeing with Black and Epps would hope.  The sexual revolution not only has enabled more fluid gender and sexual roles, but it has predictably enabled the other side of liberty—the triumph of completely self-referential masculinity, in which sexuality is divorced from responsibility, and no longer embedded within commitment to the community.  Thus, men have become free to live entirely for their short-term impulse, as sexuality has become a personal, not a communal, responsibility. 

 

In short, boys are no longer raised to think of themselves as primarily responsible to family, religious institution and community.  They are raised for personal short-term gratification and, when they are not gratified, they are either self-destructive as with drugs and alcohol, or destructive towards others.  Thus, we learn that Nikolas Cruz’s shooting spree had some connection to an unrequited romantic/sexual attachment.

 

Indeed, there is one strain of American masculinity, that I call the “gun-slinger,” that runs throughout American tradition.  This model can be symbolized by the gold-crazed cowboy of the 19th century leaving family behind in the East to go West to claim fortune, and predictably becoming enmeshed in gun battle, prostitution and drinking.  The sexual revolution has increasingly left this gun-slinger model of masculinity—based upon sexual conquest, substance abuse, violence, and lack of responsibility—to be the primary American male model among the working classes, at least for those born after the sexual revolution.  One of the most troubling below-the-radar trends is that the vast majority of children among the working classes of all races are now born to a mother that has never been married.  As the Institute for Family Studies points out, this is an issue of class, not race.  The same trend does not hold for the upper middle class.

 

In my twenty years of working with working class white, Latino and black boys and men, there has been one constant among those either prone to violence, or who actual commit violent acts—none of them have had a consistent father in their lives.  This includes a young man I worked with last year in a New Jersey city, who shot and killed a family member of other young men I was working with.  Boys are growing up only seeing the irresponsible self-referential gunslinger model, and thus they know only to act according to their self-referential impulse.   These are boys raised on video games and ubiquitous pornography (see Ross Douthat’s important article Let's Ban Porn), who have no sense that there is a community to which they are responsible that is more important than their gratification.

 

A cultural stream that I have found fascinating in the past few years is that the skinny jean phenomenon was also entirely class, and not racially based.  I saw myriad of black, Latino, Asian, and white boys/young men wearing skinny jeans.  However, this metro-sexual phenomenon neither caught on in the rural countryside where I was working, or in the deepest “hood” among “the homies” with whom I worked.  Baggy jeans and boots remained the standard in both communities (although no sagging for sure in the country).  The metro-sexual model has no appeal in communities that still believe there is a definite and defined heterosexual maleness.

 

But there is another great American model of masculinity—“the homesteader.”  Not all 19th century males left their families behind.  Many stayed with their families, or took their families with them.  Many built churches, worked, hunted, prayed, and helped out any neighbor in need.  You can still see the homesteader male among some men, of all races, born before the sexual revolution.  They are married, care for children and grand children, volunteer in the community, and, many, regularly attend religious services.  But such men are increasingly rare among males under 50.

 

The roots of the homesteader model are explicitly Christian.  Whereas the characteristics of the gunslinger are explicitly based upon anger, stubbornness, gratification, domination and violence, the virtues of the homesteader are based upon gentleness, love, patience, forbearance, and support of the wider community.  Gentleness is explicitly used to describe proper Christian behavior more than 20 times in the New Testament, including Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount Teaching, “blessed are the meek”, which can more accurately be translated as blessed are the gentle.  And Biblical Christian male leadership explicitly requires gentleness as a predominant virtue (1 Timothy 3:3).

 

Now unfortunately, many Christians currently support leadership in our nation that is completely antithetical to this Biblical Christian model, which is part of the challenge of our current convoluted mess.  But this non-violent male model remains as part of our American context, and many men still embody its aesthetic.  But for the homesteader, gentleness is authentically strong, unlike the brutish and braggartly masculinity which is really just thinly masked insecurity.  But the homesteader is all out male, clearly defined, and is not fluid in gender roles.  The homesteader is not prone to expressing feelings, or doing introspection.  The homesteader is practical, concrete, and simple in the best possible way.  The homesteader works hard, prays, serves his community, doesn’t boast, is always there for those in need and, very often, owns guns.

 

 

And thus any true rebuilding of masculinity throughout America will have to involve religious institutions, community groups, the eschewing of technology, and mentoring of gentle responsible men for younger men.  I say this fully with many homesteader heroes firmly in mind, but especially with thoughts of Harold (I have changed his name for this essay).  Harold worked hard.  Harold didn’t say much, but what he did say was always kind.  Harold loved to hunt and was in church every Sunday (except when he was hunting).  When he wasn’t working, he was volunteering in the community, or helping out somebody in need in the community.  Harold was a veteran of the United States Navy.   When my interracial family first began work in Harold’s white working class community, Harold made everyone in my family feel completely welcomed—not by mentioning race or talking about Martin Luther King—but simply by being indiscriminately kind in the way homesteaders are.  Harold died way too young from a sudden accident.  Harold is no longer here on earth, but, of this I am sure—when we return to raising more Harolds, we will drastically reduce the gun violence in our country.

Culture War Pacifism, Gun Violence, and Patrick Deneen’s Revolutionary Thought (2/19/18) by Pappy M. Sanchez

Photo By: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lipstickproject/

            What do you call a political philosophy that identifies the locus of America’s current challenges as located in both a libertarian view of sexual mores, and in an unchecked greed for capitalistic consumption and acquisition, including a myopic need to dominate nature?  Is this republican or democratic?  Is it conservative, liberal, or perhaps socialist?  Refreshingly, the answer is none of the above.  Yet, this is the political philosophy offered by Patrick Deneen in his much discussed book Why Liberalism Failed.  Of course, in one sense such views are not revolutionary as they reflect the orthodox thought of the Catholic tradition from which Deneen emanates, including ideas espoused by Popes Francis, Benedict, and John Paul II, even though in America the first is considered liberal, and the latter two conservative.  And, as a reformed Christian, I would argue that such thought is also very consistent with New Testament Biblical values of the early church.  Yet, in our stringently dichotomized American context where culture wars dominate, and nuance and complexity are quashed or ignored, Deneen’s thought, at this moment, offers hope for culture war pacifists such as myself, who believe our only chance at healing lies outside what seem to be the sole two American options.

            Deneen views the challenge to the rule of law in the Trump presidency, the clouding of truth with noise, the discontent over inequalities caused by globalization, and the atomization leading to the breakdown of family structure and social institutions--not as a matter of which political party gains ascendency or which leader is in office--but as signs that the entire American social and political order are engrossed in deep pathology.  For Deneen, philosophical Liberalism's focus (the ideas undergirding both democratic and republican beliefs) upon individual liberty and autonomy, and its reverence for the market, has inevitably led to gross inequality and social breakdown, with a natural progression toward the grasping after anti-democratic authoritarian solutions.  For Deneen, the ethos of the American constitutional democracy, and the intellectual thought undergirding it, themselves have led to this very moment.  The sexual revolution and the centralization of economic power based upon globalized consumerism, have destroyed relational community, and have thus destroyed our primary means of supporting the development of self-governance.  We have increasingly become hedonistic creatures, living a false freedom in which we can express our anger and libido, consume, and click links at will, when in fact we are becoming increasingly enslaved to our lower human impulses.

           

Liberalism was thus a titanic wager that ancient norms of behavior could be lifted in the name of a new form of liberation and that conquering nature would supply the fuel to permit nearly infinite choices.  The twin outcomes of this effort—the depletion of moral self-command and the depletion of material resources—make inevitable an inquiry into what comes after liberalism (Deneen, p. 41).

 

            Yet, the means of this inevitability is where, perhaps, Deneen departs from traditional Catholic thought and exhibits his fascinating eclecticism (and it is perhaps this eclecticism which is misleading his critics).  Deneen does not portray republican and democratic power brokers serving the Prince of Darkness with a grand master plan to produce economic inequality, family dissolution, and community breakdown.  Instead the values and assumptions of the essence of individuals realized as free agents removed from culture, race, religion, and local context, permeate down to create beings that are unable to self-govern.  And, ironically, relates Deneen, because we are unable to self-govern, an expansion of government influence is necessary.

 

Thus, for liberal theory, while the individual “creates” the state through the social contract, in a practical sense, the liberal state “creates” the individual by providing the conditions for the expansion of liberty, increasingly defined as the capacity of humans to expand their mastery over circumstances.  Far from there being an inherent conflict between the individual and the state—as so much of modern political reporting would suggest—liberalism establishes a deep and profound connection: its ideal of liberty can be realized only through a powerful state (Deneen, p. 49).

           

 

Such theory of operationalized consequences almost seems to echo ideas of hegemonic cultural domination delineated by Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci, which describes the great prestidigitation of wealthy capitalists as socially constructing a cultural and political order which simultaneously disempowers the working class while convincing them that such order is natural and inevitable (boy, could we go off on a tangent here and apply this to the current American context, and using the culture wars to divide the black and white working class!)  Forgive me if this excites me too much.  For many opt-out culture war pacifists (not necessary one that believes violence is never justified, but instead one that is a conscientious objector in refusing to participate in the culture war) such as myself, we often describe ourselves as simultaneously so far to the left and so far to the right, that the far ends of the continuum bend down and touch each other while creating a circle (The New Testament, after all, both suggests common property ownership and condemns sex outside of marriage.  How un-American is that!)

 

To make this more concrete, let’s consider our latest American screaming match resulting from the horrible and tragic mass shooting in Parkland Florida.  Both sides of the culture war are, understandably, angered and fearful from this event (although perhaps not enough pure sadness?)  However, given that our nation really has only two cultural languages, with few bi-lingual citizens, the two sides of the war are speaking two radically different dialects in response.  Conservatives feel safer with more guns, as it allows the majority not prone to unjust violence to defend them-selves when no state actors are there to provide such defense.  Liberals feel safer with less guns, as they feel the violence is part of a “gun culture” in which the very ubiquity of guns leads to masculinity run amok, vengeance, and violent impulse.   Liberals are arguing for assault weapons bans to quell future acts of mass violence.  Conservatives yell back that criminals will obtain illegal guns just as criminals obtain illegal drugs, that the only defense for law-abiding citizens is to have guns themselves, and that the real problem is the breakdown of family, community, self-discipline, and church going.

 

The revelation that I am an existential alien on American soil is that I think there is logic on both sides of this argument.  Ultimately, the phenomenon of mass shootings is so complex that it seems to be an empirical issue, but the level of emotion and vitriol in the debate makes empirical inquiry impossible, just as reality and truth are becoming increasingly irrelevant throughout American society (will save for another time the argument that spirituality is our best hope for empiricism restoration).  But perhaps a Deneenian application can help us.  Perhaps the issue is not whether we will solve the problem through government regulation or whether limiting government will allow for individual liberty to solve the problem.  Perhaps government regulation and individual liberty are part of the same problem.  One application of this belief would be to listen more to each other, and to truly attempt solutions that would strengthen community, protect the freedom of law abiding citizens to defend themselves, and limit the possibilities that those with a high likelihood to commit harm could obtain a weapon of mass destruction.  If this solution does not seem that radical—the radical part would be that we would have to listen to each other and acknowledge that both sides have legitimate insights, in order to obtain such a solution.

 

I want to be clear, that this last application is mine, and I have no idea how Patrick Deneen approaches the issue of mass violence.  My main point is that cultural and political theory such as Deneen’s possesses the possibility to embrace culture war pacifism, to find commonality among all Americans, and build a healthier future which neither rejects our history and traditions as fatally flawed, nor uncritically seeks to return to a former period, but re-invents something new using the best of the past, while discarding past injustices (Contrary to Deneen critics such as Timothy Fuller, Deneen does not reject important achievements in our political ideals, but states that such ideals have inevitably led to our current situation.  See Deneen, p. 182).  Complexity is more challenging, but it also may lead to a softening around the edges, and it may allow the nuances that already exist to bubble up.  I have not seen two possible solutions in American among its people—I have seen at least 20.  Healing will take insights from all of these, but such insights will only be heard if we create room and pay attention to their expression.  For this to happen, we have to opt-out and become culture war pacifists.

Talking Past Each Other on Immigration and Many Other Issues (1/31/18)

Progress Ohio, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

In his article on theweek.com called Liberals Have Lost Their Mind on Immigration, Damon Linker describes his concern that liberals have insisted that discussing limits to immigration is off the table and not a morally legitimate topic of discourse and debate.  Linker asserts "Increasingly, political argument itself is taking the same form, with liberals asserting that Trump Policy X is not just bad for reasons a, b, and c, but that it transgresses some unwritten standard of moral rightness that renders it prima facie unacceptable and illegitimate. Most often the rationale offered for this judgment amounts to the assertion that the policy, or the motive behind it, is racist (or nativist, or xenophobic, or sexist, or homophobic, or transphobic)."

 

Linker's article is an important analsyis pointing out that our public (and private?) culture has become so politicized, divisive, and untrusting that a genuine and open legitimate policy debate cannot be had.  However, I don't think his specific approach will gain much traction in creating more civil american discourse, because he challenges a narrative which is fundamental to the understanding of American justice to communities of color.  He thus discusses the manner in which liberals refuse to accept majoritarian consenus and place their sour grapes focus upon the unelected federal judiciary.

 

It is definitey true that the immigration debate has become so racialized that any discourse is impossible. And I agree, that a rational discussion of immigration reform and immigration limits is a theoretical possibility.  Pappy has himself worked hundreds, if not thousands of hours, helping undocumented immigrants out of love for their specific human challenges and suffering in context--but that doesn't mean he couldn't potentially support immigration limits that had strong policy justifications and were racially and religiously fair and equitable.  And I know many people supporting immigration limitations without racist tint.

 

But if the ire and fears of liberals are raised, they have had plenty of fodder to support such fear. Parts (but not all) of the republican leadership seeking greater limits on immigration have gained support by specifically and continually making explicit and implicit reference to race with limitations being directed toward black and brown peoples.  And progressive racial movements in the U.S. such as the civil rights movement have been successful specifically because they have insisted that racially motivated policy is, yes, not a legitimate part of the American democratic legal framework---and as the movie "Marshall" (which was much better than the advertising, which in revisionist fashion seemed to portray young Thurgood as Luke Cagesque with swag and physical militancy--don't get me wrong, I love Luke and the netflix series about Luke Cage--he is just a different type of figure) reminded me) (I never really forgot)--such movements for equality have deftly and successfully appealed to centralized federal courts to rule illegitimate racialized laws.

 

Indeed, it seems to me, the entire narrative of a centralized federal force (Lincoln, FDR, Supreme Court, Kennedy), is fundamental and central to the African American understanding of their American identity.  And thus Linker has touched upon the quintessential stumbling block which would unite working and middle class communities of color, and working and middle class white folks, which is our only chance for healing and unity.  The garden of eden for working white folks (not the upper middle classes), is intimate local community without the interference of outside, especially federal, forces.  While the important existence of an outside check of power to rule illegitimate bias by state and local communities is fundamental to the democratic vision of communities of color.

 

Interesting, President Obama was able to strike this balance more than any leader in recent memory, and thus he was able to win swing states by getting a small percentage of working and middle class white folks to vote for him--and most of these folks voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and it all swung back. (NPR story on this dynamic).  This fascinating and under-examined phenomena holds the key to our potential healing.  

 

A greater investigation of Obama's ability to build this coalition is deep, complex, and must wait for another time.  But, if we are to begin healing, and begin having discussions about policy that are rational, civil, and open, the challenge of these clashing narratives must be solved.  In the immigration debate, the current narrative that one side is racist, and one side is full of whiners, is not allowing us to love and see the best potential in anyone.

 

I know, this sounds fuzzy, naive and weak.  But this is exactly what the philosophy of the civil rights movement was based upon--that everyone is redeemable, that justice and unity will make everyone better, and that, yes, as the Christian Gospel says, we should love our enemies.

 

Indeed, we are all talking past eachother.  Perhaps that is because what the civil rights movement had, which neither the left or right has now, was a well organized, trained, and disciplined grass-roots base (not grass roots outrage sporadically and disjointedly expressed), with a consistently positive narrative.  But we have lost our positive narratives and the strong institutions that foster them. 

 

But there is hope.  There is hope because their are very good people on both sides of the narrative, who aren't screaming. And, as we learned in 2016, it all starts with identity and narrative. I hope we try to understand the other side's narrative, and how it speaks to their pain.  More on this later, but the suspicion of strong central authority, and the suspicion of local bias, are both warp and woof of our American ethos.  They are both legitimate.  Let's all work together and listen, to reunite the narratives which were always meant to be united.

Wordly Otherwordlines and Apolitical Political Engagement:  A Potential Model for A Principled Response to the Current American Crisis, by Pappy M. Sanchez (1/28/18)

Franciscan Friars of the Renewal at a Conference for Families

Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, and Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed, are very important recent books outlining a case that the fundamental principles of the American constitutional democracy are crumbling, and that another cultural/political approach must emerge for the U.S. to continue to flourish.  They both see the challenge to the rule of law in the Trump presidency, the clouding of truth with noise, the discontent over inequalties caused by globalization, and the atomotization leading to the breakdown of family structure and social institutions--not as a matter of which political party gains ascendency or which leader is in office--but as signs that the entire American social and political order is engrossed in deep pathology.

 

They are correct.  Dreher views the current political and social context in America as incompatible with authentic Christian living.  The corruption of power, the class-based inequalities, the ethos of selfish individualism, and--for Dreher--expecially the political and social acceptance of anything-goes sexual expression, are inevitable outcroppings from philosophical liberalism (not just the political liberalism of democrats, but the focus on individual liberty undergirding all American law and politics).  For Dreher, the model for proper Christian response is Benedictine Monasticism.  Christians (lay householders and clergy alike) should form counter-cultural Christian communities, separated from the mainstream, and not reliant upon politics for answers.

 

For Deneen, philosopical Liberalism's focus upon individual liberty and autonomy, and its reverance for the market, has inevitablly led to anger over gross inequality and social breakdown, leading inevitably to the grasping after anti-democratic authoritarian solutions.  For Deneen, much more than even Dreher, the ethos of the american constitutional democracy itself has led to this very moment.

 

Both books and critique grasp much truth and are timely and important. However, both authors are aware that they are not offereing solutions to the current crisis of democracy. As Dreher, says, these two books are "canaries in the coal mines" alerting us to impending democratic collapes.

 

Fair enough.  However, the very critiques themselves imply directions toward which we should go.  And, in his use of the Benedictine monastic model, Dreher does offer an "opt-out" response to our current mess. The Benedictine model, however, has the seeds within it to push participants too far in an "us" versus "them" mentality, and can lead too easily to a view that "we are saved" and the "rest be damned."  Such opt-out responses often involve small communities isolating themselves from mainstream culture, living their lives, and in some manner seeing the rest of the world as impure.  As much as I love Wendell Berry, there is something in broken human nature that has a tendency to push small localized communities toward parochialism, with a very particular view on life that strongly excludes difference, but also thus produces cognitive stagnation because there are no outside views to offer challenge.  Indeed, such manner of living seems to be part of what has gotten us into all this mess.

 

Perhaps a more restorative model for response to our crisis lies with early buddhist monasticism or Franciscan monasticism.  The buddhist Pali Scriptures relate the Buddha's emphasis that monastics must live interactive symbiotic lives with society.  Monastic settlements were located in urban and suburban parks, and not in caves or remote rural locations. Monks were reliant upon lay folks (householders) for their livelihood, and the Buddha remained deeply enmeshed in political affairs, including the need to raise money from royalty, and trying to resolve political disputes.  That the Buddha was not always successful--including not being able to save his own people from genocide--only underscores the importance for him of remaining engaged in the messiness of human life.

 

And yet, as the Pali scriptures relate, buddhist thinking and values were fundamentally and radically different than the approach of political, religious, and cultural beliefs around them.  Fundamental to maintaining this difference, was the three month retreat from the world each year necessitated by the floods of the monsoon season.  And thus, a proper opt-out communal approach today must include extended periods, and periods each day, to turn off the internet, tv, etc., and get away from everyone's nosie, to cultivate and maintain radically different values.

 

And, of course, Catholic (more generally Christian, I would say) Franciscan spirituality has always had this same flavor.  Franciscans have always wedded their spirituality to enmeshed service of the world, with an emphasis on service of the poor. The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal order today captures this feel wonderfully.  In their strong pro-life stance, most would quickly label them as conservative.  Yet, when one fellowships with them, seeing them bare foot and bearded, laughing with normal folks, playing contemporary musice, and loving everyone, one doesn't think in political terms at all.  Or if one does, it is a confusing flashback to a weird hippy culture without the drugs and sex.

 

And the Franciscan Friars are politically engaged, but not political. Political parties and political categories do not appeal to them, but they would certainly support a policy consistent with what they believed in.  I believe this apolitical political engagement is something we have become very poor at living. We see each other primary in political and racial categories, instead of connecting at a loving communal level.  A proper response to our current crisis would be to create engaged apolitical communities in which we seek the common good in all people.

 

I am more with David Brooks than Patrick Deneen in thinking our current crisis has more to do with cultural and religious decline, and has much more need for communal responsibility, than it does the inevitable result of the ideas underlying our democracy.  For one, I don't think Deneen gives enough credence to the influence of the protestant reformation and communal republicanism on our political framework.  It is true, there were many secular enlightenment theorists responsible for the ideas which dictated our constitutional framework.  But reformation ideology gave us an essential anthropological skepticism and belief in corruptability of human nature which strongly bolstered our belief in the need for equality and liberty, and made essential a separation of powers and rule of law.  This rule of law is deeply challenged with the current presidency due to the obfuscation of truth--but unless power replaces power (both corrupt no matter what ideology), the rule of law is our best chance at "political market correction."

 

And, liberal thought gave us the separation of church and state, which is essential to even have any type of opt-out reform.  Indeed, the strongest proponents of the First Amendment seperation during the ratification of the Bill of Rights across the states, were evangelical Christians who realized an absolute need for an apolitical political engagement.  They new, without the separation of church and state, the church would be corrupted by power and the subtle infiltraion of wordly polital and cultural values.

 

And so we need to build alternative communities with radically different values from those of all political persuasions in the U.S.--but we must remain engaged in reformation of our constitutional system.  And such alternative communities must be made up of normal people, not just monastics and clergy. They wil most likley be religious in nature, as religion is most poised to create sustainable counter-cultural living (although not inevitably).  A great example is the engaged apolitical political Simple Way christian lay community in Philadelphia, led by Shane Claiborne.

 

Such counter-cultural communities will not arise from established religious, educational, or political institutions, as they are all tainted with the pathologies leading to our current crises.  However, such communities may still stay engaged with established institutions.  And we may need to stay engaged with our own family members who are stuck in the divisive narrative of this world--while finding our community to bolster our counter-cultural narrative.

 

There is a growing sense that many people want an alterntive but don't know what to do.  Let's continue to build apolitical communities based upon love and respect for all, continuing detachment from the need for technology, and return to connection to nature.  But let's stay engaged to try to save our constitutional democracy.

 

Why Should Evangelical Christians Care About Climate Change, By Chris Mooney

Katharine Hayhoe and Don Cheadle

Evangelical Christians Addressing Climate Change

Under Estimating the American Collapse, by Rod Dreher

Unrelenting Expectations (An Exploration of Building Responsibility through the Implied Values Instruction of Culture)