Beautiful and True Tuesday, Dec 6 2011 

I try to avoid simple cross-posting, but this is so much better expressed than I would be able to do, and so in need of expression.

The conclusion puts it perfectly:

For those of us worried about the character of our time and our people, slow conversion to the loveliness of things is the task at hand. So much to do, so many bad ideas, so many neglected fences and overgrown windbreaks, so much overgrazed pasture, so many used and discarded persons. Each idea needs replacing, each fence mending, each windbreak pruning, each pasture fallowing, each person restoring, but we’re in it for the long game, we need to think in terms of centuries, not years; of cathedral (re)building, not petition signing. And the long game ahead needs the conversion of our loves, our advertence to the loveliness of the real.

Thanks very much, Mr Snell.

The Lovely Real and the Long Game

Babel vs Pentecost: The question of a global political authority Wednesday, Nov 2 2011 

The recent document published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace concerning the global economy and calling for the creation of a ‘global public authority’ has already attracted considerable attention in a variety of fora, including First Things, The American Conservative, A View from the Right, and Front Porch Republic.  It is certainly not a play by Antichrist for world domination, as anti-Catholic bigots may claim (how could the Vatican not have seen that one coming?), but it is still very problematic.  While the document contains a largely accurate outline of the history of the current economic crisis and the reasons for the collapse, as well as some worthwhile specific proposals for amending the practice of the global financial markets, it nearly goes without saying that the overall aim of the publication has deeply troubling ramifications.  Others have written at length about the dangers inherent in any global political authority: the fact that all examples of international authority thus far have often been limited to the point of inefficiency or, when efficient, have used their power with regrettable, though perhaps unintended, consequences; the inevitable threat of corruption and abuse of power; the imposition of universal principles that ignore the validity of particular cultural systems and structures; the failure to recognise that the centralising impulses of statification and globalisation were major contributors to the current problems in the first place; and perhaps most surprisingly, despite the lip service paid to the principle, that such an Authority (written throughout the document with a sinister capital ‘A’) intrinsically contradicts the consistent Church teaching of subsidiarity.  These problems all seem self-evident enough that I do not feel the need to spend further time on them (though we can debate them in the comments if someone feels so inclined).

However, the conclusion of the document (according to a provisional translation) raises an interesting question of biblical exegesis:

Through the account of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), the Bible warns us how the “diversity” of peoples can turn into a vehicle for selfishness and an instrument of division. In humanity there is a real risk that peoples will end up not understanding each other and that cultural diversities will lead to irremediable oppositions. The image of the Tower of Babel also warns us that we must avoid a “unity” that is only apparent, where selfishness and divisions endure because the foundations of the society are not stable. In both cases, Babel is the image of what peoples and individuals can become when they do not recognize their intrinsic transcendent dignity and brotherhood.
The spirit of Babel is the antithesis of the Spirit of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-12), of God’s design for the whole of humanity: that is, unity in truth. Only a spirit of concord that rises above divisions and conflicts will allow humanity to be authentically one family and to conceive of a new world with the creation of a world public Authority at the service of the common good.

There are several problems with this interpretation.  The First Things article that I linked above points out that Babel did not start off as a praiseworthy goal, frustrated by selfish ambitions and unwillingness to cooperate.  Instead, it was a project begun in a spirit of cooperation, intending to pursue the common good so that mankind would not ‘be scattered abroad in all the lands.’  It was not their own diversity which prevented this, but rather a diversity given to them by God, to show them that such a monumental project lies beyond the grasp of man.  If anything, the story of Babel should illustrate why (from a mythological point of view) reliance on a global political Authority to save us from or prevent financial crises is fundamentally misplaced.  Babel was an attempt to centralise and unify all of humanity, thus creating a temporal power which would seek to eliminate man’s need for dependence on any Authority other than its own.  It is hard to see how any modern manifestation of global political power would do otherwise.

Therefore the comparison with Pentecost is deeply misleading.  Babel and Pentecost are not equivalent projects pursued in different spirits.  Babel is the ultimate temporal project; Pentecost the ultimate spiritual one.  The creation of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church at Pentecost was the beginning of the first truly universal endeavour for humanity, a unification of the diversity of mankind within the catholic family of God.  But this catholicity is only made possible through the person of Jesus Christ.  Christ combines the universality of God with the particularity of Man, and therefore only a body in touch with Him can achieve harmony on a global scale.  And this harmony is an ecclesiastical one, not a political one; the times in which the representatives of the Church have been most culpable of wrongdoing have been when She has held the most temporal authority.  This is not to say that the Church plays no role in politics; our Faith is sacramental, and therefore calls for interaction with real practical issues.  However, while the Church has universal jurisdiction in spiritual matters, including how those inform political issues (economic morality, rights of minorities, etc.), it cannot hold such jurisdiction in temporal matters.  The ecclesiastical and political, while interrelated, remain separate; simply because the one can manifest unity in communion with Christ does not suggest that such unity is possible through the mechanisms of human government on a global scale.

Tourism and Community Wednesday, Aug 3 2011 

First, let me apologise for the amount of time I have left since my last posting.  It has been a busy summer, and I am still in the process of organising a schedule whereby I can devote regular postings to this blog.

Some of the blame for my extended silence must be attributed to two recent trips abroad, to Umbria and the Dalmatian coast respectively.  The former was a yearly pilgrimage to Assisi, while the latter was an opportunity to get away under the justification of research to see what remains of medieval Zara (not much, as it turns out).  Both were lovely trips, filled with all sorts of sites of cultural and religious interest (in the Mediterranean, the two are often the same thing).  The natural beauty of the places was breathtaking as well, and I managed to get in hikes to the top of Mount Subasio and around the Plitvička Lakes, and my girlfriend got to bask on the pebble beaches on the island of Vis (not usually much of a beach person myself, I have to admit that I was pretty reluctant to leave the unbelievably clear and blue waters around the fishing village of Komiža).  But to change tone from what seems quickly to be turning into a travel advertisement, both trips impressed me with an (admittedly hypocritical) anxiety for the preservation of all that beauty, not only of the woods and beaches, but also of the quiet, cool stone churches with their small red lamps burning reassuringly.  And I couldn’t help but worry that I was contributing to the peril I feared.

Growing up, I remember being taught as an axiom that travel gives one a wider worldview, broadens one’s horizons, expands one’s tastes, and generally instills in one a love of the Community of the World.  This mantra was repeated throughout secondary school and into university.  What my educators meant by all this was that travelling intrinsically helps to make one a Better Person.  Travelling, even gratuitously, so the argument goes, increases the number and diversity of people with whom one interacts, thus expanding one’s conception of community.  By expanding that community to embrace the world, one has made everyone his neighbour, and with that accomplished, he can all turn to the much easier task of loving his neighbours.  If only we could get more people to travel, we would be that much closer to achieving world peace.

There are a number of problems with this argument, chief among them being the weight of contrary historical evidence.  My research for my doctoral thesis has lately had me looking pretty closely at the Fourth Crusade.  Certainly both the kingdoms of western Europe and the Eastern Roman Empire benefited materially and culturally from the centuries of interaction preceding 1204, but that commerce of goods and ideas also sowed deep misunderstandings, resentments, and arrogance between the two spheres of Christendom.  The sack of Constantinople that brought the Fourth Crusade to its end was superficially the result of immediate circumstances of perceived necessity, but it was only made possible by the long history of traffic and competition between two cultures that fundamentally failed to understand each other, both in spite and because of that history.  The same can be said, I believe, for most wars, right up to the Second Iraqi War.

In the end, this stems from the fact that in trying to make the world our neighbour in order to love them, we’ve forgotten that we don’t really love our actual geographical neighbours.  The point of Christ’s parable about the Samaritan was not to go out looking for people or cultures to love (Samaria, after all, is not that far from Jerusalem or Jericho), but to love first those that come across our path.  When we limit ourselves to our communities of choice and convenience, both in our suburban homes and in our foreign holiday destinations, we fail to love our neighbour in any meaningful sense. ‘Charity begins at home’ is not only a maxim for families; indeed, it is usually applied to families precisely because they are the most basic manifestation of community.

This problem is compounded when, in our vast and vague interaction with other cultures, we begin to believe that we really do understand them.  We develop a smug feeling of transcending our own traditions and those of others, like that of an anthropologist who has figured it all out.  But in reality we can never truly transcend our own cultural heritage.  Perhaps we never have an opportunity to start with a clean slate culturally, but we certainly don’t once we reach maturity.  As much as we may discover about other cultures, we cannot ever fully adopt them for our own, and if we instead try to stand above all of them, we both delude ourselves and run the risk of surrendering a crucial element of what it means to be human: a sense of home.  We can play the anthropologist, but in trying to study humans we may quickly find that we have lost our fellowship with them.

Finally, I have observed fellow tourists often enough to have seen that travel does not have beneficial, broadening effects on everyone.  The British couple annoyed that the Roman restaurant doesn’t have air conditioning or the American woman panting out her frustration that the towers of Notre-Dame de Paris aren’t furnished with lifts are anecdotal examples of a wider phenomen: people travel because they are encouraged to, only to find it further entrenches their convictions that everything back home is best.  This might not be a bad thing in itself (though I would hope for a more nuanced understanding that one might prefer things at home, rather than believing them to be absolutely ‘best’; the best antidote to jingoism is truly loving the place one is from, and thus understanding why others love their own homes), but people seem to be less likely to conclude that they should therefore stay at home than to decide they should use their power as consumers to convince the places they visit to accommodate their expectations.

Thus the tourist trade becomes another victory for the forces of globalisation, but also one of the clearest proofs that globalisation’s supposed egalitarian mission, to lift up other countries to the level of material comfort enjoyed by the United States and other industrialised nations, is really just the modern form of imperialism.  Through a variety of means, tourism exports included, the ‘modernised’ economies and political systems force, through hard or soft power, other cultures to fall into line.  We may appreciate Italian cooking, French churches, or Croatian wilderness, but when we engage with them selectively, divorced from the rest of its culture, we turn them into museum pieces, robbing them of their life and turning the rest of the world into a sterilised exhibit for the benefit of the English-speaking world (I know English speakers aren’t the only countries to export tourism on a grand scale *ahem Japan and China ahem*, but I do find the wild proliferation of English among foreign countries, while convenient, troubling from a cultural perspective).  Because other cultures often do not have the material means for their members to travel with the same volume or frequency as Americans and western Europeans, they continue to be importers of tourism who must accommodate the visitors.  But even if they could influence the cultures of more industrialised countries, and globalisation was actually egalitarian in any meaningful way, the best for which we could hope would be a grey, amorphous universal ‘culture’ that would not reflect any true historical human experience and would, on account of its scale, be completely alien to any significant sense of community.

Throw on top of these cultural issues the environmental damage caused by high volumes of travel, both through transportation and general sightseeing, and the problem becomes further compounded.  The Croatian beaches and mountains were incredibly pristine, and this despite already high levels of traffic, but what happens when Croatia’s reputation as a prime tourist destination continues to grow, and the country joins the European Union in a few years?

Of course, this all sounds incredibly hypocritical; after all, I have just enjoyed spending time in all these places, so to discourage others from travelling sounds very selfish of me.  Furthermore, I don’t intend to stop visiting other countries, for both academic and recreational purposes.  But the purpose of this article is not that travel (or even tourism) is a modern phenomenon to which we need to put an end; cross-cultural travel has been a consistent feature throughout history, and medieval pilgrimages could be considered a (less frivolous) form of pre-modern tourism.

However, I would like to challenge the way we think about travel and tourism.  We need to acknowledge that the maxim that travel has positive effects on everyone, while conforming to a certain liberal ideology and worldview, does not correspond to reality.  Furthermore, even in those cases where an individual evades the Scylla of having his bigotry and distaste for things unfamiliar confirmed by experience, he may plummet into the Charybdis of detached (and perhaps even cynical) anthropology in his approach toward both foreign cultures and his own.

Instead of insisting that the key to world harmony is for all of us to participate in tourism a bit more, perhaps we might relax the pressure to travel as a morally beneficial experience, and allow people to discover the beauty that surrounds them in their own homes and communities.  Of course people would still travel, and there would still be tourists.  And those who had a deep curiosity, interest, and love for a distant place would still go to explore it.  But if tourism was seen less as something that everyone (or at least those who can afford it) simply did for doing, as less of an industry that had to constantly encourage people to go places they would not have been interested in going otherwise, the experience for those who truly do wish to engage with foreign cultures would likely be more rewarding, as the places they would visit could better defend themselves against the temptation toward kitsch and convenience.  Let’s not stop exploring the beauty of distant shores, but let’s sally forth out of love, not because we’re bored with the beauty we haven’t even yet discovered at home.

Two Archbishops and the Big Society Sunday, Jun 12 2011 

Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, wrote the leader for The New Statesman, in which he questioned the government’s implementation of its devolution initiative, touted as ‘The Big Society.’  Meanwhile, to much less attention, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster addressed the Caritas Network Conference at Saint Mary’s College, Twickenham.  The first half of his address also tackled the progress made by the Big Society thus far.  His view of the government’s policies was much more forgiving, and even led the American-based Catholic News Agency to portray the two events as a tête-à-tête between the two archbishops.

This characterisation seems a bit unfair.  Dr Williams seems in fact almost to take it for granted that an increasing focus on local politics is on the horizon, and even goes so far as to say that he doesn’t ‘think that the government’s commitment to localism and devolved power is simply a cynical walking-away from the problem’ of the financial strain on welfare services.  Archbishop Vincent echoes this belief in the good faith of the government and applauds the opportunities the Big Society offers for stronger social cohesion and ‘local initiative and enterprise.’  Even more important than the political liberty promised by local governance, it also facilitates the fostering of real, practical community.  All good stuff.

However, the criticisms raised by both men are necessary ones.  Dr Williams frames his concerns in strong and practical terms, primarily centred around the issues of healthcare and education.  With regard to the wider concerns of devolution, he makes a very important point:

The uncomfortable truth is that, while grass-roots initiatives and local mutualism are to be found flourishing in a great many places, they have been weakened by several decades of cultural fragmentation. The old syndicalist and co-operative traditions cannot be reinvented overnight and, in some areas, they have to be invented for the first time.

Archbishop Vincent also worries that as far as the question of localism is conceived, either positively or negatively, solely in terms of the state’s agency, it neglects the real purpose of the initiative: to foster empowerment and responsibility among local communities.  He points out that ‘the growth of subsidiarity cannot be achieved simply by the withdrawal of the state. It requires intelligent capacity-building to reduce dependency, and the creation of conditions for the sustained flourishing of local initiative.’

One of the largest obstacles to achieving true localised communitarian liberty is its sloppy implementation by well-intentioned governments.  This is the very thing that threatens to make the idea ‘painfully stale.’  While I think Dr Williams has less faith than I do in the long-term ability of a localised, distributist community to sustain itself with minimal interference by a centralised state, his observations are perfectly valid in the short-term.  Even if the Conservatives had won a majority in last year’s election, giving Philip Blond and his Red Tories a mandate to fully implement their agenda, the transformation into a localised and federalised state could never be achieved immediately.  Over a half-century’s acclimatisation to the welfare state cannot be discarded overnight.  If the coalition (or at least the Conservative Party) is honest and serious about creating lasting change to the way political responsibility is handled in this country, and not just hoping to save the government money by allowing numerous public services to be privatised by large corporations, it needs to hand power back to the people in a measured and feasible way.  The entire structure cannot be dismantled at once, otherwise the community initiatives that the programme is supposed to foster will be drowned in the ensuing chaos even before getting a chance to breathe.  The very people that the return to local empowerment is supposed to raise up—the poor—will instead suffer the most.  The transition to a sustainable communitarian society will take time, but I promise you, David Cameron, it will be worth it in the end.

On a brighter note, the really exciting thing about both of these comments is that these men are taking the advent of localism to political discourse seriously.  Obviously, subsidiarity is integral to Catholic social teaching, but as it is so rarely practiced in modern democratic states, it can be all too easy to see it as a quaint ideal that we’ll never really reach and therefore should give little attention.  Dr Williams’ challenge to the political left to give us an idea of what their ‘version of localism might look like’ is also very exciting.  If the issue of true political subsidiarity can transcend party divides, we are on a very promising course indeed.  The very fact that Archbishop Vincent’s talk was given to an delegation from Caritas is also encouraging, as it shows that the extrapolitical organisations (e.g. the Church) necessary to make devolved power possible are getting involved.  The poor will outlive the welfare state, and they will still need care; the fact that community charities seem to be stepping up to the challenge that devolution places before them is a very good sign.  So despite the questionable implementation of the Big Society by the Conservatives thus far, the extent to which its principles seem to have penetrated into discourse about the future are enough to give me hope that subsidiarity and localism might survive the present government.

Quo vadimus? Thursday, Jun 9 2011 

The poet, prophet, and farmer Wendell Berry was once participating in a debate with Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, when a heckler from the audience called out to him, ‘You can’t go back in time!’  Berry’s response came back: ‘I’m not talking about going back in time.  I’m talking about going back in character.’

I’ve written a short manifesto about the purpose of this blog under ‘Revolution within Tradition.’  It is almost certain to change over time as I refine my own ideas about how this revolution should go, and that refinement is something I ask all of you, dear readers, to participate in.

I am fully aware of the paradox that the rash of neoLuddite and localist bloggers bewailing modernity and technology seems to present.  However, I think that websites like Front Porch Republic (to which this blog owes a massive debt; even that Wendell Berry anecdote comes from a Jason Peters article) inherently present an important point: as much as I sometimes would like to go around smashing all the looms in which we’ve ensnared ourselves, we cannot reject all developments out of hand.  We are not preparing a reaction, we are preparing a revolution.

Yes, the idea of people extolling the virtues of staying at home and eating and buying local through the medium of Internet forums does seem contradictory, but the opportunity it presents is invaluable.  Through this, we are able to share information and ideas about our individual observations and reflections on one of the few universal political, economic, and social principles: subsidiarity.

And so, ironically, we must come together in support of our attempts to cultivate our own local communities and their cultures.  Even more ironically (in light of all the counterproductive harm it also does) the Internet offers a wonderful tool for this.  This is why I do invite any input that dedicated readers or passers-by may have on the revolution we are introducing to rebuild a shattered world.

My own perspective, for full disclosure, is that of a Roman Catholic (and a convert: the worst kind) American living in England (yes, add that to the list of localist hypocrisies).  My primary concern is with the traditions and cultures of the West (meaning Europe and its colonial offspring in North America and Australia) that are rapidly being lost in the midst of rising secularism and dependence on technology.  These aren’t necessarily things that have been lost in the last fifty years, or even in the last two hundred (I, for one, would count Catholicism as being among them).  However, the pace is certainly increasing, and in our globalising world, these problems (many of which the West has spawned) are no longer exclusive to the Western sphere.  Thoughts from those with other backgrounds trying to preserve their own heritages in the face of modernisation are very welcome as well.

Ultimately, I hope this will be a thoughtful and fruitful exploration; for myself, but for you as well.  The world is going to look very different by the end of our lives; I hope we can make it for the better, starting with our own patch of earth.