Reimagining American Community

glimpsescoverAt one point in his delightful essay collection entitled Glimpses of Another Land, historian Eric Miller recalls his glimpse of Brazilian life as a teenager and, more importantly, the striking vision of shalom it gave him:

When the 1982 World Cup matches were being played, I lived as a teenager with my parents in Brazil, where they were Protestant missionaries—part of what we see now as the huge movement of evangelical Protestantism into the global south. Brazil had already won the Cup three times, the last being in 1970. So they had this rich, intense, nationwide soccer tradition.

And when Brazil is playing in the televised World Cup games, the entire country stops—no mail delivered, no schools in session, streets are vacant—and a kind of delirium of energy sets in. If Brazil wins, then there’s the kind of celebration that an American might occasionally taste at an especially joyful wedding but that we otherwise have little contact with.

As a teenager already deeply involved in sports, it was just a beautiful thing.  A culture of open houses and a native disposition to be together, to think of life as about being together. For me, that—and the enlivened communities of the churches I was a part of—were all a taste of shalom, the religious dimension of community, something that I see as vital.

In a place like Brazil, you find a kind of connectedness that’s not generally known and experienced the same way in Protestant civilization, except perhaps in older working-class and ethnic Protestant communities.  So I think my sense of community was shaped by that experience in Brazil, within a civilization which was of course profoundly shaped by Catholic traditions and sensibility and was thus deeply communal.

Miller, the author of a well-received biography of Christopher Lasch, teaches at Geneva College and (somewhat like Lasch) has a stimulating way of breaking the usual political/cultural categories. Amidst his essays the figures of Wendell Berry, Alasdair MacIntyre and Jean Bethke Elshtain consort comfortably with C.S. Lewis, G.C. Berkouwer and Carl F.H. Henry. Not to mention topics such as honeybees, NFL football and the Amish.

Moreover, the author’s analysis places him within that very small clubhouse which we might call (as does Miller himself) “left-con,” something like a homegrown version of the U.K.’s Red Toryism or Blue Labour. In the following interview, the author attempts to unpack this unlikely moniker.

Miller: I came across the expression “left-con” myself in the mid-1990s from my dissertation advisor at the University of Delaware who was a Laschian and described himself as being in the “left conservative” camp. There’s one fairly recent precedent: Norman Mailer, when he was running for mayor of New York City, claimed he was using Marxist thought for Burkean ends—he used the term “Left Conservative.”   Bill Kaufmann describes it this way: left of the left and right of the right: the place of wisdom.

Sh: And how do you define the term?

Miller: A left conservative is somebody who wants to seize on key dimensions of the liberationist aspect of the broad Left tradition, one that takes very seriously the need to construct a society that offers true protection for all human beings—that’s a liberal imperative. More to the Left, I see it as being very self-consciously focussed on preserving the deep communal  realities which human beings need to flourish, something that’s been a Leftist ambition—even at the cost of economic well-being. That’s “solidarity,” the realization that human beings are communal.

SH: OK, and the “con” part?

Miller: And then on the Right side, it frames all this within a traditionalist conception of morality, of telos, an opening to something like human fallenness. So it’s protected from utopianism and idealism about human nature itself, while still acknowledging that there are radical, more aggressive measures remaining to be taken politically, given the circumstances of the modern world, the trajectory emerging from the overwhelming culture of technology that we’re constructing. So the LeftCon vision is more organic than most Left visions, because of its traditionalism, along with a greater alertness to ecological realities that have moral as well as purely material dimensions.

SH: Does the term have historical roots of some kind?

Miller: For me the historical logic has to do with the fact that a LeftCon approach is an attempt to preserve the vision of wholeness—in a social and cultural sense–emerging out of medieval civilization, one undergirded by a metaphysical conception of reality which sees human beings as created for the purpose of fluorishing and yet thwarted in that goal. I think the modern period fractures that vision of wholeness. And conservatives have done some of the best writing about the fracturing of that conception.

SH: And how do these strands play out in today’s politics?

The modern political spectrum emerges as an attempt to capitalize on different insights that are based in Christian history. The Left has this millennial hopefulness about what the human prospect is and that’s certainly part of the Christian way of seeing things. The liberals are centered on profound convictions articulated in doctrines such as that of human rights. And the Right is keying in on older visions of order, hierarchy, moral structures.

So being Left conservative is an attempt to say, look, because of the political realities that have emerged, we can’t just preserve one side of this ancient, evolving Christian framework: we have to try to seize, in a redemptive fashion, all of these dimensions that have fallen off in different directions. Probably not at the moment the most politically viable of projects! Which doesn’t mean it’s not a necessary project.

After all some day it may become politically viable, so long as at an earlier point there were people who claimed it was so and kept the vision alive. So I see it as something done for the sake of posterity, even while we might see some present possibilities.

SH: So you are very much about rebuilding civil society as the key to regeneration?

Our politics needs to exist in relationship with communal forms on the ground. The attempt to build those forms through government will be ill-fated. You can’t construct democratic polities with the hand of the law or top-down reforms alone. The people themselves need to have emerging from their own communities a kind of vision of connection that honors political ideals like equality and justice but is not limited to those only. And civil society becomes an expression of those beliefs as its institutions nurture them. So politics and civil society need to exist in a kind of communion with each other.

SH: Is there a particularly Christian take on civil society?

Miller: The traditional idea of Kingdom—which sounds very antiquated today—is relevant here, a world of interlocking spheres, distinct realms, which are concerned to nurture the particular places within, not to dominate them but to allow them to fluorish while at the same time being part of something that is overarching. And there’s the role of genuinely authoritative figures who are representative of the community’s ideals and the vision of its ordinary people in ordinary neighborhoods doing ordinary work. They tend to these communities by means of advocacy, fostering of local economic conditions that make it possible to do well there. And none of this is much different, I think, from the republican ideal of the eighteenth century.

SH: And our American attempts to be free of the British Leviathan?

Miller: There were definite reasons for these republican dreams—and nightmares–in the eighteenth century and thereafter, for their suspicion of centralization, their sense of hope and fear, which we’ve never really left.

This is Lasch’s point at the end of The Culture of Narcissism: we are reinhabiting a form of the world we valiantly sought to reject at the Founding in order to create an alternative conception of politics. Except that this new version is in some ways more lethal for human wellbeing than the one we fought to reject, Lasch argues, due to the sheer power of the modern technological infrastructure.

SH: As you know, we recently interviewed Gar Alperovitz, who is hoping that new economic forms, especially those addressing things like community wealth-building, can revitalize the depressed sections of the country.

Miller: I’m intrigued by Gar’s hopefulness but where I live in the greater Pittsburgh area, it still looks like a ghost town.

And I think there’s a moral or a character dimension that gets neglected when we look at economic forms only. I speak here as a teacher concerned that we are raising a generation that only thinks of themselves as prospective employees of the system, in order to participate in the goods of the system such as they are.

And therefore my students’ notion of The Good is defined by the goods the system can give them—they’ve lost the ability to think in a kind of radical or critical fashion about other possibilities.

SH: Your book is partly about political hopes. Tell us what in particular you’re hopeful about.

Miller: What’s so promising about this, as we face the prospect of deep contingency, is the possibility that communities of celebration—in Albert Borgmann’s sense–might preserve a sense of a paradigm to follow in the event of deeper distress.

This was the whole secret of survival for Americans during the Great Depression in many ways. There were communities of celebration in place prior to 1929. And thus when bad times came, people displayed all kinds of communal well-being and caretaking.

What is the moral fiber of our communities today? That’s something I’d like to hear Gar Alperovitz talk about. How does it occur or develop? Does it just naturally emerge? There’s evidence both ways—sometimes it does, sometimes not.

For me, there has to be some attention to the underlying religious dimensions here. I think people like T.S. Eliot were right to identify that as the source of our cultural forms.

About the Author
A native Texan, Elias spent several good years studying classics and medieval Italian at UC Berkeley before wasting several more years in financial journalism around Chicago. He has written for Strong Towns, the American Scholar, the New Urbs blog, and the Gary Catholic Worker and is the co-author of a textbook on character education. He briefly published something called The Armchair Historian. None of his three teenage daughters display an interest in the Greek and Latin classics thus far. He and his family reside in leafy Valparaiso IN.