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Hope beats Optimism: Blogging Lasch’s True and Only Heaven

20 May

Christopher Lasch (1932-1994) is perhaps one of the most prescient and perhaps undervalued social critics of recent history.  The True and Only Heaven’s still provocative conclusions strike at the heart of America’s current political gridlock and cultural anemia.  It puts flesh on the problems people across the political and social spectrum seem to suspect, but can’t fully describe.  That problem is the nature of our society’s belief in progress, and how the way that term has been defined and acted upon, has created an untenable order in American society.

Lasch notes three developments in the modern history of progress.  The first is a search for a utopian end of history.  The second is a belief in the inevitable conquest of rationality and reason.  These two incarnations have been widely panned and objectively repudiated in the upheavals of the last 200 years (i.e. wars, health crises, natural disasters).  However a third version prevails:  the belief in the inevitable, unending improvement to our standard of living.  Fueled by technological innovation and economic efficiency, improvement has become the new progress.  Lasch traces the roots of this thinking to the thought of Adam Smith, the patriarch of modern commerce.  Smith, according to Lasch, popularized the connection between consumption and the economic engine of production, which afforded ever increasing security, comforts and material abundance.  Smith believed because of their sheer numbers and productive potential that it was not so much the wealthy elite, but the striving middle classes, whose consumption and investments brought higher standards of living.  By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, economists and social critics Lasch introduces us to like Brooks Adams and Simon Patten were likewise extolling the virtues of inconspicuous consumption, especially among the broad masses of the middle and working classes.

In the wake of the Great Depression, it would be influential figures like John Keynes who would make this a matter of governing policy for leaders across the political spectrum.     felt that savings and investment should take a back seat to spending, because it was the latter that drove increased production through increased wants.  To overly save was to lack confidence in the future and history’s inevitable, if slow march, toward greater freedom and prosperity.  Such a system as Keynes advanced and many states accepted also had additional benefits in assuaging class divisions, neutralizing the Marxist threat.  Cultural benefits were also accrued. Americans would experience a flourishing of the arts and entertainment like never before, heralding a golden age of individual freedom.   This perspective became so common and pervasive that even in the ascendancy of Reagan conservatism and later Clintonian centrism, it has prevailed in one form or another.

However, Lasch was skeptical of these models.  He saw inherent moral and social dangers in the democratization of consumption being the foundation of America’s political economy.  He notes how divorced the concept of citizenship has become from the role of consumer or producer.   Disappointed in the response of the ruling or political classes to this looming threat, Lasch felt that influential conservatives and liberals, cast under the spell of progress in one form or another, were no longer capable of critiquing it.  Instead they were perpetuators of a broken system, which thought it was no longer answerable to the inexorable forces of history and morality.

The ideology of progress found throughout periods of Western history is no less present today.   One might recognize it in the form of the facile optimism that characterizes hyper-globalists.  It even insidiously burrows itself in anti-poverty or human rights movements when they act as if liberty is an end in itself.   Even in the complex universe of entertainment and consumerist culture there exists a drive toward upward mobility that has millions of Americans joining one “rat race” or another.  Lasch would likely peg recent political ideologies like “national greatness”, whether in liberal or conservative guise, as flawed, futile attempts to rescue republican, heroic virtues from the banality of our consumeristic, postmodern society.  By contrast, Lasch believes that only popular movements which call upon our moral energies and understand the tragic, consequential nature of life itself that seem to offer the hope and improvement which believers in progress truly seek.  Ultimately, says Lasch, “hope does not demand a belief in progress.  It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things in not flouted with impunity.”  That is an outlook which surely takes the long view.  In the next post, I’ll dive into a few examples of where Lasch observes hope and justice on the move in social history.


Waiting for Justice

10 May

In the hours and days that have followed Bin Laden’s death, there has been no shortage of words or lack of conversation about the meaning of the event or exactly how it, if at all, it should be celebrated.  I must say the fact that we are even having a conversation about how to feel after the operation that killed Bin Laden is itself a sign of growing moral maturity.  It is a welcome sign of our willingness to sit with multiple even conflicting or contradictory emotions.

Events like these, which arouse feelings of trauma, relief, and vindication often require of us a broader range of emotional response than we are often capable of mustering in the heat of the moment.    Upon hearing the news, many of us helplessly vacillated between exhilaration in triumph and anger in wrongdoing.  These emotions are part of what makes us human.  They can serve as a very necessary first step in dealing with very real grief.  Truth is I too feel the relief that this man has been found and forced to account at some minimal level for the atrocities he authorized.  I felt gratitude bordering on vindication to know a perennial menace to women, men and children has been silenced.  I’m thankful for the courage and intelligence of the special forces team that did this operation with relatively little injury to themselves or other bystanders.  But I know that we cannot stop there.  These emotions no matter how justified will not uncover the full meaning of this event and what has happened to us over the past decade is beyond them.  Joy and Anger must yield to more profound emotions which can only be accessed by asking questions not answerable in soundbites.  How do we mourn our own losses and the wounds which continue fester?  How do we properly remember the end of a violent life? How do we appropriately express gratitude and relief?

We are not bereft of resources to answer such questions and broaden our sentiment.  I say this as a Christian to my countrymen and women of all backgrounds: as a society, we Americans desperately need the full range of emotional expression and historical perspective that I have found in Christian faith properly understood.  If Christian faith can serve a purpose here, it would be in helping us to appraise this event from every angle and express ourselves in a fully human way.   In light of our tendency to gloat in such accomplishments, I take the biblical references from the prophet Ezekiel and Proverbs to be humble in the face of an enemy’s defeat as wise council, not because I’m a curmudgeon who has a penchant for sobriety, but precisely because such council takes the long view of these things.  There is, as the author of Ecclesiastes said, “nothing new under the sun”.  This is not the war to end all wars and the price of liberty continues to be eternal vigilance.  To gloat is also to miss the depth of what has been loss even in this overcoming.  Yes, Americans as well as people across the world have lost an enemy to peace, a murderer of loved ones. In his wake, a whole region also lost its pride.  In his wake, an accomplished family lost a son, father and brother to the insidious powers of evil.   What’s more, the defeat of someone for their unjust actions always reminds the conscious observer that we all too must account for our wrongdoing.  As one friend put it, remember the words of Hemingway, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls”.   You do not have to be counted among the world’s mass murderers to take stock of your own wrongdoing.   When you see what happened to Bin Laden remember there are manifold ways in which life makes us account one way or another for the things we leave broken.  The wrongdoing to which we fail to attend comes back to bite us.  So let us see this event as a plea to make peace and make right while the hour is still here.  Especially for those of us of faith this should be an opportunity for great soul searching and prayer.

The second area of clarity for me is that true Justice involves more than the killing of one man.  I have seen much ink (digital and otherwise) spilled over the word justice since last night.  Don’t get me wrong, there is certainly an element of justice in a mass killer paying in kind for their actions.  There is an element of justice in moral cowards not being able to hide forever from the great pain they have caused countless others.  Yet, these can only be approximations of a deeper and more significant kind of Justice.  I believe in an ultimate Justice that not only calls killers to account, but redeems the very lives they so cruelly snuff out; for the lives of each precious victim are their worth so much more than one villain’s head.

Another kind of justice might also have been possible, one in which Bin Laden repents, surrenders his life and offers every penny of his resources and his influence to help repay and redeem the thousands of lives whose deaths he orchestrated.   The Christian, as Jonah did with Nineveh, must always pray even for the redemption of our enemies.

Beyond the realm of what ifs and possibilities, the reality is that before Bin Laden’s death, his own destructive ideology has been on life support.  The fatal blows have come courtesy of the masses who march peacefully for political liberty and economic opportunity on the streets of Iran with the Green Revolution, Yemen, Tunisia, Tahrir Square in Egypt, and now Syria.  And on these streets we have another measure of justice, an ideology sown in hatred has been supplanted by one sown in non-violence and self sacrifice.

I wish our leaders were more forthcoming that the Justice our hearts seek cannot be meted out in by people in the centers of power.  No government, no matter the size of its military or treasury, has yet produced the power to resuscitate the fallen nor can any adequately remunerate the pain of the bereaved.   A military success can if we are lucky give us breathing room to do the difficult, but more durable work of peace.  It is this limitation of government and war that one of the 20th century’s most celebrated military heroes understood well.  General Douglass MacArthur, speaking after the ceremony marking the surrender of Japan, closed his remarks with this warning: “The problem basically is theological and involves a spiritual recrudescence and improvement of human character… It must be of the spirit if we are to save the flesh.”  May we who are able to witness such an event as this, heed that call.

creating space to listen, to see.

11 Mar

For today’s Lent reflection I dug out an old book that I treasure dearly. It’s called “Awareness” by Father Anthony deMello. Its a book encourages one to think about waking up- about being more aware of ourselves as spiritual beings. And what better time to revisit it than Lent. 🙂

As I read through deMello’s reflections, I was once again reminded of how polarized United States of America is.  But I was reminded of where the root is.  de Mello says:

The most difficult thing in this world is to listen, to see.  We don’t want to see. Do you think a capitalist wants to see what is good in the communist system? Do you think a communist wants to see what is good and healthy in the capitalist system? Do you think a rich man wants to look at poor people? We don’t want to look, because if we do, we may change. We don’t want to look. If you look, you lose control of the life that you are so precariously holding together.  And so in order to wake up, the one thing you need the most is not energy, or strength or youthfulness or even great intelligence. The one thing you need most of all is the readiness to learn something new.

And to that I would also add, to learn something different.  I realized that regardless of which end of the spectrum one falls, politically or theological, we are not very willing to listen.  We are all busy talking, expressing our opinions and our beliefs and values that we don’t listen. We don’t see.

Last night I watched the news for a little bit and caught a snippet of the U.S. Congressional hearings on Muslim Radicalization. I watch Representative Keith Ellison remind us of a heroic young Muslim man named Mohammed Salman Hamdani, who died in one of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, rescuing his fellow Americans.

That story, in the midst of a political war reminded me that when we listen and see, we know that our ideological world isn’t as separated as we all think it is.

Today’s lent reflection is reminding me that I need to shut up and listen more. Listen more to stories of people who march to a different drum beat. Not the conservative drum beat or the liberal drum beat.


Funny, but kinda True

10 Aug

Courtesy of Andrew Sullivan’s blog, I was bemused by this little explanation by the eccentric philosopher Slavoj Zizek of the limits and perils of philanthropic charity.  His piercing critique aims at the heart of our conceptions of what makes us feel good about charity and unmasks its hypocritical posture.  But I actually have a little Christian critique of Zizek here, I’ll be blogging about shortly.

Quotes that make you say…hmm

2 Jun

Andrew Sullivan responding to Maureen Dowd’s column on Obama and the Oil Spill today:

Maureen has long wanted Obama to be what he isn’t. We have a temperamental WASP in the White House. And the whole point of a WASP president – like GHWBush – is that they are best judged over the long term of results rather than the short term of emotion.

Obama as a WASP in an age in which, when we look at the pending composition of the Supreme Court, marks the twilight (at least temporarily) of WASP leadership.  We need to take a second look at the  paradigm we use to describe race and culture in this country,

The Sprout vs. The Car

13 May

Michael Lind, from the centrist New America Foundation has a new piece up on  In it, he presents an interesting hypothesis about the roots of our current global economic crisis and a guess as to why the political alignments have subsequently shifted as they have.  Halfway through this argument, he makes an observation:

If finance should be deregulated, and trade deregulated, why not deregulate the flow of labor across borders as well?

I once heard a well known Presbyterian mention the same thing, noting the contrast between the relatively easy flow of capital and products across borders, and the relatively difficult flow of labor across borders.   The point was about equality of opportunity.   Because essentially what’s good for the goose, as they say, is also good for the gander.   But I think the difference highlighted by Lind between people and products is at the heart of larger issues involving immigration and diversity that we are currently grappling with as a society.  For as Lind goes on to say:

If people are mere factors of production, not members of a cultural nation or citizens of a republic, then patriotism is pointless.

Why does moving people across, whatever the purpose, prove so difficult?  Well, no one asks how well a banana grown in Ecuador holds up when its shipped to a supermarket in Chicago.  It’s just going to be consumed and eaten in short order.  Few people ask whether their computer will function properly because the parts or support come from the other side of the globe.  These are what we call simple transactions and exchanges.  Yet, when a child from Chihuahua makes her home in a Chicago elementary classroom it is by no means simple.  There is a cultural shift and adjustment that has to be made both on her part and on the part of the community which takes her in.  Values will need to be reexamined and identities will have to be broadened.  But let’s not limit this cultural change to immigration.  Whether were discussing where Wall Street bankers care to put their money, or whether a Washington Bureaucrat cares about anything beyond careerism or petty grievances, changing the culture of institutions and whole swaths of a nation is a complex task.

Cultural change is not simply the fait accompli of heroes elected or landmark laws being passed.  But for too long those of us who have favored change or transformation have grown restless, relying on these instruments to do the work of change for us.  Continue reading

Top Ten Books I Live By

10 May

Ahead of my summer reading, I thought I’d share a bit more about my reading habits. I’m a bookhound, so its really difficult to tell you what my favorite books are.  It really depends on my mood and what it is I’m looking for.  So an easier task might be to tell you the books that have most influenced me.   These ten tomes (yes that’s a nice round number) have been shaping my politics, my faith and my overall perspective on the world since I was a kid.  I’m going to leave out the Biblical canon because while its influence on me evident, I do not consider it to fall within a particular genre like the rest.  It’s a living story to me.  Anyway, if you’re looking for reading on that deserted isle or maybe a trusty guide in times of trouble,  here’s what I would recommend (in no particular order), they’ve certainly worked for me:

1. The True and Only Heaven by Christopher Lasch

-an epic takedown of the idea of Progress, and not a bad summation of Western social movements either.

2. The Complete Emerson

-I’m alittle past the transcendentalists now, but Emerson, along with Thoreau were among my first companions along the journey to becoming a Christian.  Emerson’s peculiarly American philosophy is full of wisdom and audacity, even if it comes across alittle dated.

3. The Quiet American by Graham Greene

-Greene’s old-school, self-effacing and sarcastic tone has its own charm and he methodically unravels idealistic myths about cross-cultural encounters (specifically Vietnam), replacing them with a realism which humbles, educates and even entertains the willing listener.

4. The Prophets by Abraham Joshua Heschel

-this is the mega of all commentaries on the Hebrew Prophets from the prominent 20th century rabbi.  His understanding of the connection between empathy, emotion and Truth have helped me define like few others, what it means to be Christian.

5. The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder

This book gave me a greater biblical understanding of why and how Christians should be engaged in the public sphere, despite Yoder’s seemingly contrarian and some say sectarian views.  I was particularly moved by his connection between the cross and the healing of ethnic/social strife.

6. Selected Poems by Wendell Berry (includes Mad Farmer Liberation)

-Growing up in the big city, I wasn’t much of a nature/outdoors guy, but Berry’s poetics can convince even this southsider to buy a farm in the country.  What’s more, his wise and witty take on the politics and culture of modern, fast paced America is a great counterbalance against conventional ideas about progress and liberty.

7. Collected Poems of Langston Hughes

-This guy looms large in my own early wrestling with identity, particularly black identity in a complex American culture.  Hughes influenced future generations of poets who I also read, and his lyrical phrasing continues to help me put the ineffable into words.

8. Hamlet by Shakespeare

-There is nothing rotten about the Bard’s take on all of life’s big questions and frustrations wrapped up in iambic pentameter.

9. Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

-If you don’t trip over pronouncing Russian names or its length, this book has some pretty profound takes on human suffering and the nature of redemption.

10. Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence

-I’ve always been fascinated by cultures outside my own, and the famed “Lawrence of Arabia” gives a fascinating outsiders account of early 20th century Arab culture and reveals a good deal about himself if you read between the lines.   His adventures propelled my interest in travel, diplomacy and global affairs.  At the same time his writing illuminates the backdrop of consternation and loneliness which shadows those who dare to cross the culture line.