Working with what we’ve got…part II

Daniel Larison picks up arguably one of my most awkwardly worded sentences in one of my most awkwardly written posts and then writes:

It’s true that idealism would be quite heavily burdened by idealism, but if we set this odd statement aside I’m still not sure what Kain means

Quite right.  It was an odd statement.  Poorly written.  Look, I’ll reproduce it one more time:

The idealism of the paleoconservative cause is simply too burdened by the idealism of its vision. Politics is not a time machine and we are not ever going to travel back to whichever pre-modern, small government existence that many paleos envision.

What I meant to say, I suppose, is simply that the paleo/agrarian/localist cause is often too wrapped up in its own idealism and fails largely to come up with practical solutions to the ills of modernity.  There is a lot of great writing out there on the subject.  Go spend a few hours pooring through the Front Porch Republic – Deneen, Larison, Kaufman, Stegall, Shiffman, etc. – these are all smart people writing excellent critiques of modernity, globalization, free trade, and so forth.  I find myself nodding in agreement much more often than not.

So what I was attempting to do with that post, after writing about a dozen posts in the localist, anti-corporate vein, was to try to see where the chinks in the armor were.  And quite frankly, the most glaring of these is that despite all of this very smart stuff, there is little being offered by me or anyone else that is terribly practical; or rather that offers a very concrete alternative plan by which to enact this alternative vision. Vision is all well and good, but without a map, without a plan – well, it becomes very, very difficult to implement.

Of course, now reading back through the post, which was intended mostly as a self-critique, I can see that I came across as a little too harsh.  I do think there are some silly aspects of the anti-modernity cause, but perhaps calling them silly gives them short-shrift.  I think in doing so I was attempting to check that resurgant romantic within me.  We take a lot for granted when we critique the very world we live in, and there is a tendency to go too far.  This is why I brought Phillip Blond’s writing into the picture.  Blond is by far one of the most practical anti-modernists I’ve read.

Larison writes:

Instead of silly idealism, Kain refers us to Phillip Blond’s Red Tory proposals, which are challenging and exciting and every bit as “idealistic” as any decentralist and traditionalist arguments here in America, paleo or not, and they are just about as likely to be adopted, which is to say not very likely. I mean, doesn’t Blond know that politics is not a time-machine? It is never going to take us back to the economically decentralized world Blond envisions. What could he possibly be thinking with all of his localist nostalgia and Post Office romanticism? So there!

That is what I might say to Blond if I wanted to dismiss everything he says and avoid seeing the bankruptcy of the vision of globalization he is criticizing, or if I wanted to use him as a foil for my own argument, as if it were somehow discrediting that he had been making these same “idealistic” arguments for years or decades before they became suddenly fashionable. In a pinch, I could also just turn off my brain and call him a socialist, but that is something better left to others. However, I agree with him on almost everything he has been saying over the last few months, so why would I do that?

Right.  But the reason I offer my own critique is because I think it is valuable and healthy to work through the flaws in ones own arguments.  I summon Blond for that very reason; unlike my own writing, Blond has done a very good job at presenting pretty practical ideas that the British government could implement to return their society to a more localized, decentralized economy.  Here is where the disconnect is occurring, though, when Larison adopts the rather snarky tone in the above passage.  He misinterprets my post – and the rather poorly worded critique I offer in that post – as the same sort of dismissal he sarcastically includes referencing Blond.  When he writes “I mean, doesn’t Blond know that politics is not a time-machine?  It is never going to take us back to the economically decentralized world Blond envisions. etc.” he is, of course, riffing on what I wrote in my critique of the localist cause en masse.

But that wasn’t the point.  The point was to show that much of that cause, while fueled naturally and necessarily by idealism, also suffers from a disproportionate reliance on it; while at the same time there are in fact practical ideas being floated now that could make that idealism an actual, pragmatic plan.  Blond’s writing, the writing of some new urbanists, and indeed a good deal of what’s been written recently at the Front Porch – these are pieces to the puzzle.  These help us meander our way out of the purely idealistic and into the pragmatic.  They give us the first glimpses of a road-map.  They are measurably better than much of what has come out in recent years from other “paleo” publications and perhaps this is simply because of timing, because of some coalescing of vision and  economic crisis, and not a little ironically, the internet…

As I wrote in a comment over at Eunomia:

I certainly did not mean to ridicule or call out as “silly” the entirety of the localist cause, of which I consider myself to be a part, only to admit to some of my own failures (and the failures of those I hold common cause with) in critiquing modernity and in providing a sensible alternative. Why? Because since Chesterton there has been a steady stream of critics of modernity who are too easily cast aside by the mainstream, and often as not this is due to their inability to provide a pragmatic alternative. We localists are too easily written off as daydreamers.

One thing I am constantly doing battle with is the specter of certitude.  I’ve fallen into that trap before.  When one is overly certain of one’s cause, or one’s arguments, then the awakening one can have when they realize their mistakes can be a rude and uncomfortable one.  So I think it’s important from time to time to play devil’s advocate, to find the chinks in your armor, to turn the tables against yourself.  Perhaps there is a more elegant way to do this; perhaps this on-the-fly blogging thing makes elegance irrelevant.

In any case, I stand by my assertion that we must work with what we’ve got, that compromise is essential, and that often idealism can make short work of a good idea.  Then again, I know myself well enough to also know that soon enough I’ll be writing idealistically again about the promise of a more autonomous local culture, a more decentralized state and economy, and a nation and world more wholly liberated – and likely doing it all without much in the way of a solid or pragmatic plan.  This is necessary – theory and the theoretical are necessary starting points – but I hope I can evolve my critique into sensible policy as well.

UPDATE: Larison responds to my above comment:

I do hope this post also makes a more important point than the narrow polemical one, which is that you and I know that we’re not engaged in some vain effort at time travel, and we know that we’re not simply pining for the good old days, but that we are absolutely engaged in the present and are interested in finding ways out of our predicament. I know that we are in agreement on many points, so what set me to criticizing your post is that you seemed to be endorsing a caricature not just of all paleos but of yourself and the arguments you want to make. I appreciate the self-critical approach and the wariness of engaging in a lot of empty talk unmoored from practice and the realm of the possible, but without abandoning that self-criticism and realism I think the (very) few of us who are making these arguments could do without making too many apologies for taking our own side in an argument.  [emphasis added]

I think this is a good point.  We are not at all engaged in “some vain effort at time travel” nor are we “pining for the good old days” but often that is how we are perceived.  At the same time, one does not necessarily want to endorse, as Larison puts it, the caricature of ones cause, or embrace the stereotypes that others label ones cause with.  I believe that in some of my phrasing I did indeed fall into this trap.  I believe the substance was there, and on the mark, in my initial post, but certainly some of the rhetoric – a poor attempt at being ironical, really – missed the mark entirely.

UPDATE II: I am an unabashed fan of the Red Tory movement, and of David Cameron, and of the writings of Phillip Blond.  One thing that strikes me about Red Toryism is it blends very well the reform instincts of the “reform conservatism” movement with the larger purpose of the paleos.  Read Russell Arben Fox’s excellent post on the matter here.  One line that jumped out at me, and speaks to what I’ve been trying to vocalize in these posts:

When Americans (liberals and conservatives alike) try to talk about the “common good,” we end up arguing over religion and lifestyle and choice, rather than capital and labor and equality and distribution. And as important as the former are, the almost complete absence of the latter amongst conservative arguments is a shame, and something that it would be good to be able to change.

Read the whole (very long and in-depth) post.  It’s a few weeks old now, but still just as good…

Please do be so kind as to share this post.

2 thoughts on “Working with what we’ve got…part II

  1. Interesting post. I think this is a discussion worth having, as many paleo/localist concerns I find myself sympathizing with are simply very difficult to translate into concrete political action. One of the issues I had with your series on free trade, for example, was that you had taken some important cultural concerns and refashioned them into a very blunt political program.

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  2. “there is little being offered by me or anyone else that is terribly practical; or rather that offers a very concrete alternative plan by which to enact this alternative vision.”

    A few choices: Become Amish. Barring that, make a lot of money and buy the community you are after.

    I mean this seriously. We are (hopefully) in a post-Malthusian age. Communities of people raising chickens and going to potlucks actually exist. People homeschool their kids. But they are just as likely to be left-leaning professors as salt-of-the-earth coal miners.

    How to get the Whole Foods produce without the smarmy attitude? No idea. Maybe become Amish AND rich?

    I will work on a better solution.

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