Thursday, April 16, 2009

Utopia, the new and improved rural flavor

Patrick Deneen writes on a speech Obama gave recently on the economic crisis at Georgetown:

And so, we are told, our current economic crisis is due to a few bad loans made by a few bad eggs who work on Wall Street. What is neglected in this explanation is a broader and deeper perspective: our current crisis is due to the fact that we have, as a civilization, refused to live within our means - and the means afforded us by the natural world - over roughly the past 50 years.

Mistaking a temporary glut of post-war wealth and resource plenty as a permanent condition, we are told by our leaders - indeed, we demand of them that they tell us - that we can continue to have it all, costless plenitude. Yet these past thirty-odd years of our “economy” have been one in which we have maintained our wealth simultaneously by transferring the accumulated national wealth abroad, importing oil and debt, while refusing to face the mounting costs of this exercise - including its costs in the form of a massive military presence that was the only real guarantor and bargaining chip on our bankrupt side of the bargain. Meanwhile we continue to dismantle those cultural institutions that once taught restraint and limits - many of them religious, since they are an offense, above all, to our sense of sexual entitlement - in an effort to achieve ever more perfect individual autonomy.

Meantime, the American citizenry - scratch that, consumerdom, or consumerdumb - has all the while been willing to trade away any actual political and civic liberty for the sake of a guarantee of two cars, a plywood and aluminum siding house in the burbs, a college education (a.k.a. four year binge) for their children, and 401Ks that grew at a healthy 10% a year, no matter how an economy that grew only 2-3% a year was producing such outsize stock market returns. Enjoying our returns in the various markets in which we participated - stocks, bonds, real estate - we didn’t ask too many questions, not even when the national savings rate dipped to -2% in the late 90s. Everything seemed to be going along just fine.

Yes, 9/11 was disturbing to everyone, but the President told us to go shopping, and we were good at that. We were really good at that.

Yesterday the President told us that we were going to have to become again a nation that worked - and my ears perked up - until he described precisely what he meant. By work, more of us are to become scientists and engineers. That is, more of us are to become the kinds of workers who make it possible for the rest of us not to work, to engage in the sort of work that lies at the heart of the modern project, namely of extracting from a recalcitrant nature its secrets so that we can enjoy the “relief of the human estate.”

More of us are to engage in that project that is being taken up readily by our Chinese and Indian competitors, to transform our world ever more into a useful commodity for our pleasure and enjoyment. Americans must cease trying to make easy money at the casinos of Wall Street and instead seek to extend the mastery and dominion of nature so that the rest of us will not have to work or think too hard about what makes living possible or even worthwhile. Fewer traders, more lab coats.

Above all, no jobs that actually demand work. Top scientists are working to eliminate any possible drudgery from our lives, especially the need to do things with our hands, make or repair our own stuff, understand for ourselves how the world works and how we can best live in it. [em: mine]

This kind of tripe is typical of threads running through some conservative blogs lately that center on 2 recurrent themes:

1) The sneering disgust (e.g. "consumerdumb") with how people choose to spend their time and money when given the freedom (both in the political and economic sense) to do so.
2) The belief that this world would be a much better place if we were all living in a global Little House on the Prairie remake where everyone worked with their hands or farmed to earn a livelihood.

The former impulse is a form of petulant name-calling since what Deneen is really objecting to is the failure of others to adopt (and thereby ratify) the philosophical choices he advocates. Deneen confidently projects the utter assurance that he *knows* what is best for everyone else, they are just too dumb to see it for themselves. Strange that he hasn't attracted more adherents to date.

The latter is a pastoral fantasy born startlingly frequently it would seem amongst the right-wing academic and political class. In other words, by people who are far more familiar with the philosophy of Wendell Berry and the mythology of small-town America than with what it means to actually hitch a plow to an animal and till the Earth.

I recall reading about Lyndon Johnson's advocacy of the Rural Electrification Act and how he wanted to do something for the "bended" people. What he meant was the people whose bodies were stooped and misshapen from lives of long hard farm work.

Get back to me when you've walked a mile in their shoes. Of course, Deneen would have to give up his endowed chair at Georgetown first. No time to xerox your syllabus when the hogs need to be slopped. I'll start holding my breath now.

Or, as Caleb Stegall put it:

You want to farm. Great, so farm. Start small. What you lack isn't knowledge, but skill. Go talk to some locals. I recommend the feed store as a near infinite source of local knowledge and wisdom (which, by the way, is exactly where the old timers told me what I'm telling you now). Financially, stay out of debt, don't buy stuff you don't need, and learn how to work hard.

I have no patience for those who blame the world or the age we live in or the flood of Progress for their failure to have the life they supposedly want. This victim mentality is even uglier in conservative nostalgics (and I say that as one who is intimately familiar with the emotion). It needs to be ruthlessly dealt with. The worst thing that can happen to gatherings like Front Porch Republic is that they have a tendency to become a place for parlor dress-up mind games for spoiled misfits each nursing their own grievances. A kind of virtual second life for conservatives who get to imagine the world they want without engaging in any of the real work, sacrifice, pain, and suffering that is required to attain the real thing.

If preventing that hurts a few feelings, so be it. You have bootstraps. So use 'em.

Which one of these 2 guys sounds like a farm hand to you?

4 comments:

Meg said...

This rural pipe dream has a proud and distinguished history--Jefferson's ideal American was the yeoman farmer. He himself of course relied on an odd blend of personal deficit spending and black slave labor. Ever the purveyor of great ideas in the agricultural realm (among others), his fingernails stayed clean unto death, upon which his beloved Monticello had to be sold to pay his debts and the slaves he had always promised release were sold along with it.

Alice said...

This is pure GingerGenius: "Of course, Deneen would have to give up his endowed chair at Georgetown first. No time to xerox your syllabus when the hogs need to be slopped." And so right.

britney said...

nice post and thanks for sharing....

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britney said...

is this is a rural pipe..
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