Jul 5 2017

Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part III)

Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin

Unlike his previous two books, which were coming of age, bildungsroman narratives, after reading Rod Dreher’s latest work The Benedict Option: a Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017) I find that it falls under that vast genre of books (both fiction and non) that try to apprehend the spirit of the times in which they are written, those books that try to explain the zeitgeist. I mean books like:

(Forgive me for giving only white male examples; these were the ones that spontaneously popped into my head; everyone from everywhere has written about the zeitgeist.)

These books try to understand and articulate the moments in which they were written. If they contain predictions about the future (and almost all of them do), those predictions are only modest side-effects stemming from the cause for which they are written. Prophets speak of the future, but these books speak of the present, though they find things to revere from the past.

Such [as] are greedy of fame [,] as think it not foolhardy to attempt the works of Bacon, of Shakespeare, of Newton must devote themselves to the diligent study of the Spirit of the age in which they live.

–Ralph Waldo Emerson[i]

See also “Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part II).”

[i] Journals and miscellaneous notebooks. Vol. II: 1822–1826. Edited by William H. Gilman et al. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1960–82. July 8, 1824, p. 255.


Dec 15 2016

The Genie, the Jury, & a Lack of Community Service

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

The Genie, the Jury, & a Lack of Community Service:

An essay on some things I’d read recently and from long ago
as well as some recent experiences, and some from long ago.[1]

If you ring the bell you release the genie. Today it appears to be a genie named Johnson, sometimes called “the POTUS from Podunk,” other times just Lanky Lyndon. And this genie, like all genies, can’t grant wishes if you know not what you want. All genies, no matter their names, are free to roam around in the vast past, but I am jailed here in modernity, which is a fancy way of saying that I know there is a problem all around me but I don’t know what the problem is.

So I rang the bell and summoned Genie Johnson, explained to him how, not so much had I discovered or found the problem at hand so much as reconfirmed its existence. It seems silly to say I was doing nothing but muttering the utterness of the situation to a hard-of-hearing genie, but it is so. Yes, I, a child of the naïve nineties, merely affirmed the apparentness of the problem but without thinking through the implications.

And Lanky Lyndon counseled:

Even previous good ideas and sound programs and policies require hard decisions that create haves and have-nots—red tape means everyone wants a slice and everyone wants to cover their ass when they don’t get their slice.[2]

I once was an outlaw child, at least when it came to driving, and outlaws tend to end up in court. Yes, I was a child. I was an outlaw. I was my own attorney and made my client keep quiet while I raised objections and offered a sense of objectivity before the judge, a judge who had been a friend to me long before I was ever a child. But with evolution having occurred since then, he now was my moderator. There in the courtroom sat just me and my objectivity, him and his moderation, and a jury of sneering, jeering peers.

 Yes, I pled my case before a jury of my peers, all children and outlaws who had once served time in modernity, but now, as qualified jurors, had put all that behind them. My pleading was ineffectual. Their sentence, therefore, was blunt—an awful asymmetrical prime sentence: apparently I now owed seventeen hours of service to my community for the high crime of a traffic misdemeanor.

 And Lanky Lyndon counseled:

As bureaucracy grows, so does specialization…. The watchword of bureaucracy is authority without responsibility and responsibility without authority….[3] Karl Mannheim, the well-known sociologist, noted many years ago that it was the fundamental tendency of bureaucratic thought to turn all problems of politics into problems of administration.”[4]

The town had named itself Sixes-and-Sevens[5] after its seven flowing springs and its six dry wells. Why anyone chose to live there I never learned, for the water smells like sulfur and tastes like lime. But one terribly bright, fiercely silent Saturday morn I strolled the town plaza looking for a way to carry out my sentence and serve my community. On one side of the plaza stood the firehouse, on its opposite the police headquarters, on a third side sat parked the ambulance fleet, and opposite that, the dog catcher’s kennels, and in the center of it all loomed the courthouse.

First I went to the police who gave me an interceptor to wash and clean from the inside out, and that took about two hours. Next I went to the lobby beside the garage to the ambulance fleet. There I defrosted a freezer and de-fungi-fied a refrigerator meant to feed the triage technicians working standby. That too took about two hours. Then I went to the kennels and helped hold down stray dogs while the catcher put them to sleep, and that took about twenty minutes. Finally I went to the firehouse and for about an hour chamoised the trucks, even though they were already shiny.

 And Lanky Lyndon counseled how in a bureaucracy:

everyone has an excuse…. In other words, the legal code—at least in several areas—is no more than a facade, an aspect of the world of appearances. Then why is it there at all? For exactly the same reason as ideology is there: it provides a bridge of excuses between the system and individuals, making it easier for them to enter the power structure and serve the arbitrary demands of power.”[6]

Cleaning emergency vehicles meant I was helping to serve the servers of the community. It also meant I was re-cleaning things already clean. It was all sanitation versus sterilization. Perhaps there were just too few messy emergencies in the town of Sixes-and-Sevens. It wasn’t like that old Taxi Driver flick where Travis Bickle lists all the different body fluids and their multiple colors to be cleaned out of his big city cab at the end of the night. Sixes-and-Sevens was a small town, not a big city. Still, other government bureaus in town might’ve offered their own forms of community service, but, with too many hours to serve and not enough deputies to watch me do the work, who would supervise? Perhaps the problem emerged because too many others had already completed so much community service that none could be had by me.

And Lanky Lyndon counseled:

because we are no longer treated as citizens but as clients of the StateI wonder if all institutions mold individuals into clientele? When I was a child, “residents [were] treated as fellow citizens by leaders they know well, rather than as clients by professionals who drop into the community from nine to five….”[7]

Being a child of the naïve nineties, I was slow to realize the town had not enough service for me to render, despite the fact that I had worked slower than normal and exaggerated my inefficiencies and went through the motions to uphold my appearance of serving the community.

And Lanky Lyndon counseled:

Every time we blame government for our public problems without contemplating our own role in their solution—from public safety to public works—we view ourselves as customers rather than citizens….[8] Modern democracy does not, on its own, encourage a political life and therefore does not encourage people to think of themselves as citizens….[9] To maintain order in your bureaucratic life, you more or less have to stay home; go away for any length of time and you’re always likely to run afoul of some agency or other.[10]

I had worked a little over five hours that Saturday, but when the authorities signed the timesheet they essentially gave me the missing eleven hours plus. It turned out neither my service nor my sentence mattered that much, and I didn’t know if this was just one more consequence of the privilege of being a child of the naïve nineties or the result of mere defiance from inept bureaucrats who had been scheduled, to their surprise, to work on Saturday afternoons? I didn’t know what it meant except that I was now qualified to serve on a jury at some later date.

 NOTES

[1] Things recently read include: “Why Don’t Poor People Move?” By Rod Dreher, December 12, 2016, The American Conservative (http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/why-dont-poor-people-move/); and “Indiana town left with no police force after every single officer resigns in protest.” By Jason Silverstein. December 14, 2016. New York Daily News. (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/indiana-town-no-police-force-quits-protest-article-1.2910801.)

[2] Caro, Robert. The Years of Lyndon Johnson [Vol. I]: The Path to Power. NY: Alfred A. Knopf. 1981.  p. 350.

[3] Laqueur, Walter. A World of Secrets: the Uses and Limits of Intelligence. NY: Basic Books. 1985. p. 312–13.

[4] Laqueur, A World of Secrets 93.

[5] Sixes and sevens: “the hazard of one’s whole fortune, or carelessness as to the consequences of one’s actions, and in later use the creation or existence of, or neglect to remove, confusion, disorder, or disagreement,” (Oxford English Dictionary).

[6] Havel, Vicláv. “Moc bezmocných.” (“The Power of the Powerless.”) October 1978. Translated by Paul Wilson. § XVII.

[7] Scruton, Roger. “A Plea for Beauty: a Manifesto for a New Urbanism.” Why Place Matters. Edited by McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 168.

[8] Peterson, Pete. “Place as Pragmatic Policy,” Why Place Matters 214.

[9] McAllister, Ted V. “Making American Places: Civic Engagement Rightly Understood.” Why Place Matters 194.

[10] Houellebecq, Michel. Sounmission. (Submission.) Translated by Lorin Stein. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2015. p. 141.