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Weekend At The Bruderhof

Hidley-hey, neighbor, from Terminal B at the Philadelphia airport. I’m headed back to the Great State after a wonderful, if all too short, weekend at the Bruderhof settlement called Fox Hill [1], in the Hudson River Valley. You know how people will say “I was privileged to be part of _____”? I started to type that, but stopped, because it’s cheesy … however, I really was fortunate to have been part of a writer’s retreat at Fox Hill. I was one of the old guys. Most people there were Christians of one sort or the other, in their twenties and early thirties. They came from all over the country, and Canada. It was great finally to meet people I’d been reading for years. One of the other old guys who turned up was the great Chris Arnade [2], who lives nearby, and who came over to check things out. Having the opportunity to meet him was worth the trip.

The Bruderhof hosted a similar conference around the release of The Benedict Option [3] last year. This year, they featured two talks by Patrick Deneen, built around his recent must-read book Why Liberalism Failed [4]. The Bruderhof, a modern Anabaptist movement, is establishing itself as a great place for conservative (or conservative-ish) writers and intellectuals outside the neocon mainstream to come together to talk about ideas. I’m really grateful for them (and if you haven’t been reading their terrific magazine Plough [5], correct your mistake, please.)

I hope to write more about the conference later, but before I board the plane, I want to post a summary of the conversation Deneen had onstage with Ross Douthat, which closed the conference. If this seems somewhat disordered, please forgive me; I’m posting in haste from the notes I took during the talk.

Douthat began by acknowledging that today, there’s a real sense of systemic crisis that wasn’t present in the last decade or so. On the other hand, he said, much of our life, and many of our arguments, are “mediated through virtual reality” — social media, the Internet, etc.

“Sometimes I wonder to what extent is this a real crisis, or at least — at the moment — a virtual crisis,” Douthat said. “My experience is when I log onto Twitter, or go online, it feels like a dress rehearsal for the 1930s – screaming arguments, furious ideological clashes, etc. But then I step out of that world and go into everyday life, and it doesn’t feel to me like Weimar Germany. It feels to me like a place that has serious systemic problems, but everyday life at the center still seems comfortable.”

Douthat said he’s surprised by this, as he had been fearful of what a Trump presidency might bring. However, things have pretty much stayed normal. If this is true, he said, what does that say about our “crisis”?

Douthat made a second point. He acknowledged that Deneen’s critique of liberalism is very strong. It proposes that our liberal system is a “real threat” to humanity and the things that make life worth living (e.g., family, community), and “not just a soft threat.” Douthat said that there’s a real overlap between Deneen’s conclusion about what is to be done, and the Benedict Option (“A politics of rebuilding the local church, the family, the polis” — Douthat).

Douthat said there’s tension between that prescription and the description Deneen gives of a late modern civilization that has the power to roll over all resistance. He said that if Deneed is right in the first 9/10 of his book, “then we need a more capacious politics of resistance, not just ‘let a thousand Bruderhofs flower.'”

Deneen responded by crediting, in part, Douthat’s point about so much of this crisis being confined to Internet arguments. But to leave it at that is to miss the more serious point: that social forms that hold people together are dissolving, with nothing to take its place. Deneen said, “In the absence of meaning taken from participating in something larger than yourself, people will find meaning in lots of bad places.”

(I thought of something Chris Arnade had said to me earlier: that people find meaning in life from three places — race, place, and/or faith. If faith is denied to people, and they don’t feel any particular loyalty to their place for whatever reason, that leaves one thing … and that’s one reason why the future is so scary.)

“The thing that we think we are committed to – in hhis case liberal democracy – has within it the potential to become fully itself and fully its opposite,” explained Deneen. “This is what Tocqueville as writing about in Democracy in America. This is what he called ‘democratic despotism.’ The trajectory of this is to a kind of dissolution.”

The dissolution of civil society’s institutions will necessarily cause a rise in the power of the state, to keep things together.

Deneen talked about how he had earlier that day been given a tour of the Bruderhof’s furniture factory.

“What moved me the most is a section of the factory where they break down some of the processes to relatively less complex or difficult forms of work where some of their older members, or some of their infirm members, can continue to work and contribute to the community,” Deneen said.

In other words, human freedom, properly understood, tries to resist the forces of utility that devalue human beings.

Deneen said he lead at Notre Dame a class on the idea of utopia, from ancient days until now. At the end, he polled the class to ask them which society of those he presented would they least want to live in, and which they would most want to live in. They all said 1984 is the one they wouldn’t want to live in. But which would they choose? A handful chose the world Wendell Berry presents in Hannah Coulter. But about half the class said Brave New World.

“It was stunning that they saw it as a utopia,” Deneen said. “That’s liberalism succeeding, and that’s liberalism failing.”

Douthat said that since the mid-2000s or so, he spent a long time with policy wonks pushing modest incrementalism towards populism and Catholic social teaching. You take the GOP as it is, say it’s a mess but we can work with it. That kind of thing. But now, since Trump, he’s not sure what to make of that project, or of anything.

“I’m basically in the market for a national political vision these days,” he said, asking Deneen to give him one.

Deneen did not give a clear answer, no doubt because there’s not one to give. In terms of his own ideals, Deneen would like to see an economy that serves the citizens and not merely a few citizens, but a broad swath of citizens. He’s attracted to Distributist thinking. In foreign policy, he wants a very modest foreign policy that favors peaceful coexistence with the world, engagement with warfare only when immediately threatened, and a disposition to allow for a multicultural world — that is, not to interfere overmuch in the lives of other nations – that history does not dictate that there is only one legitimate form of political organization. And finally, he wants a social conservatism that strengthens the family.

He called this “a kind of TAC fusionism.” Trump touched on it in the campaign, he said. What worries Deneen now is “that remnant of that tradition, having backed that man – who clearly has no interest in governing in any coherent way – has now so deeply damaged the standing of what is left of that tradition, that in fact far from preserving, or giving hope for this tradition that I think is best described as a small-r republican tradition in America, it has in effect been severely damaged.”

He’s concerned that, “Whatever was left of this tradition is now dead and we are now in for a successor regime that will be profoundly and deeply punitive.”

Douthat added that the Bush presidency damaged conservatism and especially religious conservatism, and “led to the collapse of the Christian [political] position in America.” He doesn’t want to see it get even worse under Trump.

Douthat pointed out that “Trump’s coalition was a coalition of the old.” Young people do not support him. Douthat doubts that liberalism will be back in power in a “court-packing” way in 2020, even if it takes power. But long-term, it’s clear that we are headed for a more liberal era of governance.

“On the GOP and populism question, one thing I’ve wrestled with is that most Republicans are not TAC kind of Republicans,” Douthat said. “… My concern is that the Republic is just dead. We just an empire. We have a vestigial legislature, and an elected Emperor, and courts that serve as a kind of check on that Emperor. So maybe the path to localism and decentralization is through Empire. Maybe the US should become a kind of Austria-Hungary.”

He continued: “A lot of people involved in the Resistance think of themselves as defending the Republic. I’m just not convinced that the Republic they’re defending is ever coming back in any form.”

In the Q&A, Deneen spoke about one advantage we now have on the Right. He spoke of how studying the humanities in universities has not been about transmitting an inheritance but liberating us from the past. Once you understand that liberalism is a contending system of belief. Once you understand that, then you can have a real debate on which creates a better human society. He said that what we can see now is that there are a very deep set of substantive beliefs implicit in the liberal order – now we can see that, and we should say that, and stop allowing liberals to claim that liberalism is simply neutral proceduralism.

Douthat said that for Christians, this situation we’re in could go on for a long time without any persecution. “We could be having a conversation like this 40 years from now, with the church being weaker (as in Europe today), but without the catacombs,” he said. “In that world, just you have to try to live your faith.”

A decadent period can last for a long time in a nation’s life, he continues. You have to live the best life you can in it.

Douthat ended by explaining five ways that a decadent era can end:

1) from outside, via cataclysmic invasion or some rival, nondecadent civilization taking over. Closest we can imagine now is China, or mass immigration from Mideast and North Africa into weakened Europe.
2) A dramatic technological breakthrough that stresses society to breaking point
3) Religious revival or development of a new religion
4) A return of ideology intimated by these online debates. “Weimar Germany was kind of decadent, but the 1930s weren’t stagnant.” Rather, it was a time of great ideological conflict
5) Discovery of a new frontier or new horizon.

That’s all. Plane is boarding. ‘Bye!

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63 Comments (Open | Close)

63 Comments To "Weekend At The Bruderhof"

#1 Comment By Jefferson Smith On May 7, 2018 @ 5:41 pm

@E.J. Worthing:

Rod wrote, “I thought of something Chris Arnade had said to me earlier: that people find meaning in life from three places — race, place, and/or faith.”

I find meaning in friends, family, and work. None of these things are strongly tied to place. (My friends and family are scattered, and my work requires travel and sometimes moving.)

….Perhaps I am an outlier, but I do not think I am. I think people find meaning in a lot of things, no doubt including place and faith, but also including other things. Chris Arnade needs to meet more people.

I had the same reaction as E.J. Race, place and faith? That’s it? Come on. People find the meaning of their lives in their intimates (i.e. friends and family), who for many of us are not in any one place but are widely scattered, and (very often) in their work or professional lives and identities. That’s at least two more major categories to work through before we’re reduced to “race.”

#2 Comment By Brendan from Oz On May 7, 2018 @ 8:35 pm

“People find the meaning of their lives in their intimates (i.e. friends and family), who for many of us are not in any one place but are widely scattered, and (very often) in their work or professional lives and identities.”

Meaning? It may be where they spend most of their time and are comfortable – but meaning? Family, friends and working life can be very shallow, trivial and utterly devoid of meaning hence the epidemic of chemical, drugs, games, VR and so forth. These days most people are untenured wage-slaves who haven’t had a raise in years and under constant threat of unemployment, which is very different from a lifelong career in one company or institution in which a limited form of meaning could be found.

I grew up on four separate continents and have school-friends in America, Asia and Europe as well as Australia, but they do not provide “meaning” or “identity”: they are just the people I knew and grew up with and went to school with and I am fond of.

It also seems to reduce the universal questions pertaining to “the meaning of life” to “the meaning of MY life” (which is either a creation of my own or a cultural construction) as is typical of (post-)modern Sophistry and Pyrrhonism.

The old conceptions of the Good, the Beautiful and True providing meaning are lost again.

#3 Comment By E. J. Worthing On May 7, 2018 @ 11:15 pm

@Brendan from Oz:

People have not lost the old conceptions of the Good, the Beautiful, and the True providing meaning. But people have different views about what is good, what is beautiful, and what is true. People cannot find meaning in things they don’t regard as good, beautiful, or true. People should not find meaning in things that are not in fact, good, beautiful, or true.

Not everyone can find meaning in the jobs, family relationships, and friendships they have. Everyone can find meaning in trying to be good people (even though trying hard is the best we can do). Doing good for others is part of being good. Work, family, and friendships are important opportunities to do good for others. It is reasonable to find meaning here if one can.

Finding meaning in beauty is also possible. Natural beauty is perhaps harder to find than it used to be; starry skies are obscured by city lights. Beautiful works of art (especially music and literature) are more accessible than ever before.

#4 Comment By Jefferson Smith On May 8, 2018 @ 2:08 am

@Brendan from Oz:

I didn’t say everyone finds meaning in their work, or has deep relationships with people who live in different places. But some people do — substantial numbers of us, I’m betting. My own examples include myself, my parents, and most of my closest friends. If your professional life is less satisfying or your far-flung friends more superficial, OK, well, that’s your business.

Furthermore, I didn’t deny Chris Arnade’s original point, that people find meaning in race, place and faith. I said those sources aren’t the only three — hence, a de-emphasis on “place” and “faith” doesn’t ineluctably lead to “race,” which seemed to be what he was saying. Anyway, it’s perfectly fine if people find meaning in place or faith, and even in race, I guess, if by that we’re not talking about some effort to enforce hierarchies that disadvantage others.

You could of course define the word “meaning” as excluding whatever deeper satisfactions people get from work or from others who don’t live close by. But there’s no point or justification in that. Any argument can be made “true” by arbitrarily defining words so as to falsify the alternatives. That’s just playing a semantic game.

As to this:

It also seems to reduce the universal questions pertaining to “the meaning of life” to “the meaning of MY life” (which is either a creation of my own or a cultural construction) as is typical of (post-)modern Sophistry and Pyrrhonism.

The old conceptions of the Good, the Beautiful and True providing meaning are lost again.

First, Chris Arnade’s threefold formula was also about finding meaning in one’s own life: he wasn’t saying that someone else’s faith, place or race is where “people find meaning.” He meant in their own.

Second, why “lost”? I find meaning in my work and professional life because they allow me to express and create things that I think are good, beautiful and true. I value my closest friends because I think they’re good and true (and have at least an “inner beauty,” as the saying goes). Work and friends do not detach me from the good, the beautiful and the true, they are among my points of access to these. As is faith and, in its own way, place. If your sources of meaning are more limited, I’m sorry to hear it, but fortunately you don’t speak for everybody.

#5 Comment By Brendan from Oz On May 8, 2018 @ 2:25 am

“People have not lost the old conceptions of the Good, the Beautiful, and the True providing meaning. But people have different views about what is good, what is beautiful, and what is true.”

Then they have lost the old conceptions by definition. Sophistry and Cultural Constructivism were not addressed by your remarks, and they have done significant damage to those conceptions.

Beautiful works of art are mostly from centuries past, and there is a vast difference between seeing a Rembrandt in person and online/photo. No one can seem to write a decent Pop tune anymore, let alone a Symphony, and MP3 format is not as good as Cd let alone vinyl.

Trying to be good people when the definitions are fluid is one of the problems I see, especially in modern corporatized work-life and culture run on Sophistry and whatever we make up for ourselves.

#6 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On May 8, 2018 @ 5:38 am

kudos to Franklin Evans for mentioning SF works. SF offer great opportunities for thinking from unusual perpsectives

#7 Comment By E. J. Worthing On May 8, 2018 @ 11:18 am

Brendan from Oz wrote: “Then they have lost the old conceptions by definition. Sophistry and Cultural Constructivism were not addressed by your remarks, and they have done significant damage to those conceptions.”

Sophistry has been with us in every age. I don’t know what you mean by cultural constructivism. There are objective truths about what is good and right, and people can discover these truths through reason. It is a mistake to choose not to reason about what’s good and to listen instead to the views of one’s contemporaries…or to purported authorities.

Perhaps because more people are reasoning about the right and the good, rather than turning to authority or popular opinion, there are some moral issues about which popular opinion has become more accurate over time. For example, nearly everyone today believes, correctly, that slavery is wrong.

“Beautiful works of art are mostly from centuries past.”

The works of art we have from centuries past are the works people chose to preserve. There was plenty of bad art in past centuries that’s been tossed. There’s plenty of recent good art, but it’s harder to find because we haven’t done the sorting yet.

“There is a vast difference between seeing a Rembrandt in person and online/photo.”

I agree with you about seeing visual art online. This is less true about music and not true at all about literature.

“No one can seem to write a decent Pop tune anymore.”

Adele?

#8 Comment By Ryan W On May 8, 2018 @ 11:20 am

“Furthermore, I didn’t deny Chris Arnade’s original point, that people find meaning in race, place and faith. I said those sources aren’t the only three — hence, a de-emphasis on “place” and “faith” doesn’t ineluctably lead to “race,” which seemed to be what he was saying. Anyway, it’s perfectly fine if people find meaning in place or faith, and even in race, I guess, if by that we’re not talking about some effort to enforce hierarchies that disadvantage others.”

I think the original use of the term “place” is unfortunate (although I suspect it was just used because it rhymes). I suspect what Arnade really had in mind when he talked about “place” was a small community, like a neighbourhood. But you’re right that a community can also include more far-flung members like a family or friend group that lives in different places, or a work group (which can be either local or far-flung). But I don’t think this undermines Arnade’s core point. As Putnam and others have noted, the “social capital” that powers small communities is weakening. This means that, on average, people’s ability to derive meaning and belonging from small communities of all sorts is diminishing. Of course, it’s important to remember that diminishing doesn’t mean non-existent. It’s a matter of degree. Combined with the decline of faith, it’s reasonable to worry that the decline of community and social capital will render people more vulnerable to the appeal of the ersatz community of race.

#9 Comment By Franklin Evans On May 8, 2018 @ 11:48 am

Thank you, Giuseppe.

Science fiction (I prefer speculative, but anyway) has long been a source of social commentary, and people tend to overlook the genre when examples of it enter the “mainstream”:

1984
Brave New World
Planet of the Apes
R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots, play by Karel Capek)
War of the Worlds

There are several that are not “mainstream”, I mentioned some in my previous post. I urge readers to give them a try (if they haven’t already), especially if their only experience of them is a movie.

#10 Comment By Franklin Evans On May 8, 2018 @ 11:58 am

For the adventurous (and if you love to read, I echo “well, duh”), these authors are very strong writers around characters and blending themes with plot without one overwhelming the other (and yes, in my opinion), in no particular order:

Robert A. Heinlein
Spider Robinson
Poul Anderson
Samuel R. Delaney
Ursula K. LeGuin
Frank Herbert (so much more than Dune)

#11 Comment By Jefferson Smith On May 8, 2018 @ 3:53 pm

@Ryan W:

Of course, it’s important to remember that diminishing doesn’t mean non-existent. It’s a matter of degree. Combined with the decline of faith, it’s reasonable to worry that the decline of community and social capital will render people more vulnerable to the appeal of the ersatz community of race.

Yes, those are all valid concerns. I just found it odd that someone would talk about where people find meaning in their lives and not even mention work. Brendan is right, of course, that too many people throughout history have been consigned to work that held no higher satisfactions, but that doesn’t mean that no such work exists now or existed in the past. I was raised with the Lutheran concept of work as a “vocation” very present in my own life and the lives of those around me.

@Franklin:

And Philip K. Dick.

#12 Comment By Franklin Evans On May 9, 2018 @ 10:27 am

Jefferson,

The difference with P.K. Dick is that there is a long list of movies which are worthy adaptations of his stories. I’m not suggesting that they were all good movies, of course. 😉

#13 Comment By JonF On May 9, 2018 @ 5:00 pm

Brendan,
Be careful about dismissing the (metaphysical) importance of other people in our lives. Christ told us that after loving God, we should love one another– and we humans are inherently social animals. If I were asked to write up a list of those things for which I am grateful to God, good and strong friendships would be high on that list. As for: “It also seems to reduce the universal questions pertaining to ‘the meaning of life’ to “the meaning of MY life””, we only experience life in our own particular lives. And it would be a strange, bloodless sort of “meaning” that can only fallute up in the abstract stratosphere never setting foot down on the concrete and individual ground where we dwell.