“Rather than deep moral and spiritual renewal leading to civic health, what if it’s our national solipsism and susceptibility to suggestion that pull us together, and pull us through? What if, rather than being stuck with virtue, we discover that, after a few initially painful changes in lifestyle, we can buy spray-on virtue in a can? If enough Americans decide that the TV show of their lives should feature them acting like engaged, conscientious citizens, might that not be just as good as a more “authentic” conversion?” ~ Matt Frost
Matt has a point. In fact, one reason why in my search for a workable localism I have dedicated a great deal of virtual ink searching for practical rather than moral solutions, is that I don’t think we will see any sort of moral sea change as a nation any time soon. National reckonings are at best temporary. I don’t think we will willingly change or restructure our spending habits – or even that spending in and of itself is a bad thing. Rather we need to move back toward a style of consumerism which is more responsible – as in, less built on debt, and more on savings and hard work. It’s much more likely that this sort of shift occurs through the tightening of credit, rather than the voluntary reduction of our appetites.
So what are these “practical” solutions? There are a number, including reducing our dependence on foreign economies and cutting back military spending. Restructuring our financial system is also vital.
For instance, we should seriously consider nationalizing troubled banks and then selling them back off with size or regional restrictions. This would benefit the financial industry in a number of ways. We need to do away with the terrible anti-capitalist notion of “too big to fail” which props up our oligarchy at the expense of the tax payer and to the detriment of healthy competition; in fact, the continued presence of these “too big” financial institutions may be directly impeding any sort of reasonable recovery that the stimulus at large hopes to usher in. Commerce is at its best at smaller scales (even if these smaller operations do attain global reach), in which merchants, bankers, investors, etc. operate within communities and the dollars involved remain flowing through those communities, rather than bleeding out into the pockets of distant executives and share-holders, more concerned with quarterly profits than the long term. This is not always possible, of course, but it’s worth shooting for, especially in our financial sector which obviously, when mismanaged, carries far too great a risk to the health of the global economy.
New urbanism – which should mix broad city planning with smart deregulation of anti-community (pro big box) zoning laws – can help create cities and towns more amenable to the pedestrian and the window shopper. Quite frankly this works toward economic and environmental ends, not simply toward “community” building. Aesthetically pleasing, walkable shopping areas encourage people to come down and diversify their shopping experience tying in a stop at a local restaurant or pub with their perusal of shoe shops and art galleries. Being able to also do some grocery shopping wouldn’t hurt. Being able to walk there or take some easy, affordable mass transit would be an added bonus to our wallets as well as to the environment. Besides mass transit could be a good way to keep people in closer quarters with their neighbors – and that means more tight-knit communities.
Listen, there’s lots to learn from all these various ideological nooks. I am the type to become enamored easily, and then – when the initial excitement wears off – tone down my own idealism when the reality of the counter-arguments comes into play. So I’ve backed away from lots of positions that seemed quite sensible on the surface, but in reality have more than a few problems with them. Certainly while one can have a strong fondness for Chesterton and his distributist writing and still think that in the end, his glorification of the medieval peasant over the modern “wage slave” is more than a little ill-advised. But is there still wisdom in the broader concept? Does capitalism unfairly harness us to our wages and divorce the vast majority of people from any actual possession of capital? Of course. And so we should read each of our philosophers and economists with a critical eye and an open mind.
Back to Matt’s notion of a sort of manufactured sense of community as opposed to one of true virtue: can values and communities be spread vis-a-vis marketing? Can they be “popularized?” I think to some degree they must be. We have to meld the core, essential nature of the virtuous society with the practical, and in this case, practical translates at least in part to “markets.” Quite honestly, if you’ve ever lived in a walkable community, or seen some of the new urbanist projects, you’ll see that they are in fact very marketable. The problem is often that there are often dozens of zoning hurdles to get through to even get them built, so that makes what is quite marketable often quite unaffordable as well, or not nearly profitable enough. That’s a shame. That needs to change, and that’s where real, practical policy can make a difference. Then, too, the strongest corporate entities in most communities are the Big Boxes, and they’ll lobby this sort of development to the death.
I have seen Safeway grocery stores located in corner spaces in very walkable communities, so I know it can be done, but stores like Safeway and Target want really big parking lots and in walkable communities, parking lots are usually really small.
But a larger point that I’m trying to make is that purists always have to find pragmatists to help sell their ideas; or as Matt explains:
[Y}ou go to war with the army you have, and if Americans are going to pull through a tough recession and discover the virtues of mutual support and community engagement, it will probably not be through a wholesale reorganization of our priorities — it will happen in a way that flatters and accommodates our peculiar (and peculiarly American) flaws and fantasies.
And therein lies the compromise. That’s the problem with liberty, I suppose. Nobody can force us to be more virtuous or live as better neighbors, and so sometimes these things have to be cleverly marketed. That doesn’t dampen the need for strong voices to poise counter approaches to how we live in the world – indeed, it may make the burden fall even greater on those who are leveling the critique, on both the left and the right. People – the masses – yearn however subconsciously for prophets and poets and philosophers, and their wisdom tends to percolate through our popular culture, often far later and in a much-distilled form. Still, that’s society. Western Civilization is, after all, little more than the distillation of purists and pragmatists; soldiers and scientists; revolutionaries and conservationists; artists and kings; philosophers and engineers. A mixed bag, in other words, built out of all the little nooks of a thousand different ideologies, philosophies, and conflicting visions.
Jaybird raises an important objection to this post in the comments, essentially worrying that what I’m describing in the above post is a form of stealth religiosity or virtue, marketed to the public. That is not my intent. I think everyone writing about politics or culture in a critical way has some vision of a more ideal or “virtuous” society in mind from which to base their arguments. I only mean to say that my vision – of a more walkable, local, communal, “small is better” society – may not be palatable on the face of things to many; and that it will certainly not take the world by storm vis-a-vis arguments alone. Philosophy must be coupled with pragmatism – and good ideas (or philosophies) need to be marketed. New urbanist projects are fine and good but they still need to be sold to communities, home-buyers, etc.
I am not in any way saying that my morality ought to be imposed in any way, or that people should start evangelizing and so forth, but only that if we do want to create stronger communities by means of making them more human-friendly we’re going to need to find ways to do this within the larger, capitalist system. I think the Ted Haggard comparison in many ways falls on its face for this reason.