To some degree, I’m a walking anachronism. While I’m obviously a member of, and conversant in, this generation’s culture, technology, and worldview–I nevertheless do not fit in in a variety of ways. Most of these ways have to do with technology in one way or another, though, of course, it goes beyond that.
At times I’m just an old curmudgeon. I don’t like cell phones, for instance. I have one. I don’t want one, but I use one while only allowing my phone to do the minimum. About seventy percent of my phone use is for communicating with my wife while the rest is for communicating with close friends and family. But I really dislike the idea of my phone having access to the Internet. In particular, I dread the idea that I would have the ability to check my email wherever and whenever I want. I suspect that this constant access will change, and is changing, social expectations for the worse. From clear spheres of “work” and “home,” we are moving to one big distracted mush. And, you know, social media.
But that’s just a small example. It’s really much bigger than any particular technology or cultural practice. I feel out of place in the patterns of thinking that swirl in the cultural air.
* * *
When we hear the word politics, we think of electoral politics. Specifically, we think of Republicans and Democrats who want us to vote for them. We cast the disparity between the Right and the Left as the primary thought categories for understanding human relationships. But, of course, most of realize that politics is a bit broader than an election every few years. Aside from talking about things like “office politics,” we intuit that elections are choices (however truncated in America) between social visions. And this makes sense as the word “politics” comes from the Greek word polis, which means “city.” Politics, then, concerns how people are to live together in society. This obviously concerns voting for government officials, but it also concerns our cultural and social practices.
Thus, a “conservative” in contemporary language is a person who votes for government protection for traditional cultural practices and votes for policies that promote the free-market (relatively speaking). Other associations include religion, money, and suburban or rural America. While a “liberal” in contemporary language is a person who votes for government protection for new cultural practices (usually using the grammar of freedom/rights) and votes for policies that restrict the free-market (relatively speaking). Other associations include secularism, bohemian living, and urban America. For “conservatives,” the main problems are an intrusive government and the abandonment of traditional cultural practices. For “liberals,” the main problems are a web of economic oppression and the repression of new/different cultural practices. For each, the solution is found in modification of the government.
But I think this popular understanding of politics is incredibly shallow, and the dichotomies created leave no room for people like me. And I don’t mean that the center is the right position either. I mean the system needs new categories.
For instance, I identify in many ways with a certain kind of intellectual conservatism–that of Wendell Berry, Edmund Burke, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and propagated today at The American Conservative and The Imaginative Conservative–in that I fully understand the problem to be the disordered will. G. K. Chesterton once answered the question “What’s wrong with the world today?” with the answer “I am.” I couldn’t agree more, and it is this insight–that we are innately prone to disorder–that drives much of my understanding of politics. The answer to such disorder is the cultivation of virtue, and such virtue is best cultivated in the context of traditional cultural and social structures to the degree that such structures truly respect the individual worth of people.
I think much of the problem in America is related to the breakdown of traditional social structures. My mom is an administrator in a multi-ethnic middle school in an area of modest income. She told me multiple stories yesterday about the kind of disorder prevalent in her school. Students, not infrequently, fight each other. My mom attributed such disorder to the lack of corporal punishment. Perhaps. But the larger problem is the breakdown of family and local norms, and the expectation that the school, as an arm of the government, would be the primary locus of discipline. Part of the problem, additionally, is the abandonment of local and regional (and even state) affiliations. While school districts are local organizations, they are centrally regulated from state capitals. And, in any case, the federal government pretty much regulates whatever it wants in schools despite supposed local control. With no sense of communal identity, of shared work among families in a particular local context, local schools become arms of the bureaucratic state.
But that is not the only problem.
(It goes without saying, but I will say anyway, that a “solution” to the “problem” is not very simple. It is not as simple as merely insisting that people take more personal responsibility or that families be strengthened again. People took personal responsibility, and families were strong, in the South well into the 1960s–a culture that oppressed a large minority of its population.)
I also identify, in many ways, with a kind of non-Marxist socialism. I think Marx’s anthropology is repugnant, I think communism is bonkers, but I find much to value in socialism. In my academic work, I have largely concerned myself with the ways systems oppress people and people resist oppressive systems. In particular, I have found much value in the socialist theory of Iris Marion Young. The argument of all socialists is that people are caught in webs of oppression that force them to take certain actions and force them into certain situations. The purpose of society, in such a vision, is the cultivation human flourishing through maximizing the agency and self-determination of particular oppressed peoples and groups. And not all systemic oppression can be laid at the feet of government. I have no love for multi-national corporate behemoths or local communities that cater to such entities in order to share in their profits. Keeping the government off of the back of a local bakery or dairy is a desirable goal. Keeping the government off the back Coke is not such a desirable goal.
I think much of the problem in America is related to the way we have collaborated with oppressive systems. Back to my mom. So, these kids are fighting in her middle school because they are not permitted to flourish in a nurturing and wholesome family environment. And, moreover, the school treats them as problems because the school is a branch of the central bureaucracy. But the reason for a lack of family life is due to a variety of factors. One might be that parents have to work in multiple demeaning jobs for little pay because corporations are focused on maximizing profits, and the government has the backs of the corporations (which isn’t to say that parents don’t also possess personal responsibility). And, while hard work and long hours never killed anybody, such companies (Wal-Mart is a prime example) move into communities and disrupt the local ethos. The increasing cookie-cutter, suburban chains means that people do not think of themselves as part of a locality or a region, but of themselves as only Americans. Disrupting the local ethos means there is no sense of solidarity among residents and the communal support one might expect in another time has been thrown out the window.
* * *
Now that I’ve painted with my broad brush for a bit, I want to shift back to my earlier discussion about my anachronism. If the root of the problem is the disordered will, then an individual interested in change should focus on the cultivation of virtue (as a Christian, I call this ongoing process “conversion”). While I have written previously about the kind of lifestyle changes I wanted to make (and have largely been successful at), I want to be more specific and intentional here. That is, I have largely laid out attitudes and orientations for myself, but I have wrestled with fitting specific practices into such orientations. I want to lay out those practices here.
While we are still three weeks away from Lent, I am going to use Lent as a framework for these practices. Among other things, I am setting Easter as the goal. I want from now until Easter to be a period of time in which I take these practices for a spin. This will give me a good chunk of time in which to practice without making a commitment I find I can’t keep. Most of these practices will concern the use of technology since it is technology which distracts me the most, and keeps me from enjoying, the good life.
I read a large number of blogs everyday and have found that, overwhelmingly, they are helpful and wonderful. They help communicate important, valuable, and insightful information and stories. I have largely rid myself of blogs about things that I don’t care about, but I still read too many because scrolling through post after post takes up more of my day than I want to give. Aside from the blogs of family and close friends, I will choose only ten to read on a regular basis.
I gave up Twitter without much fanfare close to a year ago and I haven’t missed it at all. Facebook has been useful, but it is also very distracting. Even as I write this, I find that I switch back to the browser to check Facebook every few minutes. Until Easter, I plan to stay off Facebook. I won’t take the drastic step of deleting, like I have done twice before. But I plan to have my wife reset the password to something I don’t know.
I’m done with Amazon. I intend to terminate my relationship. After listening to this, I cannot countenance supporting my own luxury at the expense of people’s wellbeing. In any case, buying locally or from a brick and mortar store is far more in line with my ideals anyway.
I will recommit to my prohibition on fast-food and soda. This is perennial problem, and one that I struggle with a lot. Amanda and I have been very successful at changing our eating habits, but I still pick up cheeseburgers every so often. Unless some other value (like time with friends) is in play, I won’t eat fast-food.
One of the purposes of the above prohibitions is to open up margins on the edge of my schedule (an idea I learned from my wife). While I already set aside time every Friday for writing, I will become more regular in prayer and in journaling–and I will become more regular in taking walks and chatting with my neighbors. I also intend to spend more time writing letters to friends and family.
These particular practices are narrow in scope and small in vision, but they are the steps I need to take in this moment to cultivate virtue. There are other lifestyle practices that Amanda and I cultivate together, but that is not really the subject of my personal transformation.