More Theory? More Cowbell!
Russell Arben Fox, who loved The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, now moves on to the “on the other hand” phase, saying that the storytelling in the book is nice, but Little Way needs more argumentation and theorizing. Excerpt:
What Dreher is dancing around here is a humbler, more local, more contained, less frantic, less ambitious, simpler way of life. Can that be described ideologically? Not if you just tell stories about it, it can’t, not really. Those stories can work on people affectively and imaginatively, and by doing so might persuade them to see the value in such. But of course, not everyone will be moved by the stories, and thus won’t be able to see why Dreher speaks of “trade-offs.” Isn’t it, in the end, just another manifestation of individualistic, consumer choice? So first Dreher rejected his hometown, because he preferred something different than what his hometown offered; then later he went back to it to stay, because at that point in his life he preferred that which his hometown offered. (I owe this observation to David Watkins of the blog Lawyers, Guns & Money.) Dreher–and those of us who are in agreement with his communitarian sensibilities–will almost certainly what to challenge this formulation: after all, isn’t the entire point of embracing stability and putting down roots and learning to live within limits exactly to deny that we our entirely a product of our own preference maximization? Yes, says I! But if I want to say that “yes,” then I have to move beyond stories–I have to give an argument as to why the trade-offs which we face are (sometimes, anyway) bad ones, with one choice–the simpler, more local, more rural one–being obviously better. Why. Maybe because it connects us with deeper virtues, or maybe because it is more environmentally sustainable, or maybe because it better reflects our basic anthropology of being, or maybe all of the above, or maybe some other reason entirely? Whatever argument I make, it will be just that–an argument, a normative claim. And that means that I will have to be saying something that can be expressed theoretically, or ideologically.
Well, yeah, I get that, but that’s not the kind of book I wanted to write here, and besides, I’m not the one to do a book telling people what they ought to do, at least not credibly. Let me explain what I mean.
In 2006, I wrote a popular (= aimed at a mass audience) book called Crunchy Cons. It was an undertheorized book by design. My editor turned down a chapter on traditionalist conservatism’s thinkers — a Theory chapter — because she wanted it to be a book of storytelling. In other words, she wanted to go light on the theory, and instead focus on telling the stories of people who were living out these ideas. This is easier for the popular audience to deal with than theory.
I didn’t like this idea so much, because I love reading theoretical things, and so do most of my friends. And sure enough, I took some grief from academic friends for the book being so light. Yet I also received e-mails from people who weren’t academics at all — I’m thinking of the homeschooling mom in a Texas trailer park who wrote, but there were many others — but who really related to the ideas they found in the book, at a level they could deal with. Crunchy Cons was a kind of gateway drug to Russell Kirk, Wendell Berry, and others who have written about its themes in far more depth and with far more wisdom.
Little Way was always conceived as nothing more than a story. It’s a story that serves as a sequel to Crunchy Cons, in that it shows that I finally quit dwelling so much in the realm of theory, and actually lived up to my own ideas and intuitions. But it’s not a book about theory, because, to quote a line I use in the book, life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived. That might be an excuse for a failure to do the intellectual heavy lifting that Russell wants me to do, but to be honest, I’m tired of thinking about these things. Let me be clear what I mean: I’m tired of trying to react to the things in front of me by trying to shove it all into a theoretical framework, and draw the Lessons From Experience. I’m not saying this can’t or shouldn’t be done; I’m saying that it’s clear from the narrative that I’ve spent all my life as a restless seeker, and as someone who struggles to force himself to stop analyzing and mediating, and instead simply to be present and accepting. My sister was exactly the opposite — too much so, I believe — but still, I need to learn from her.
I’m still learning from her. Little Way was a book written in grief and confusion. I started writing it only four months after her death in 2011. Six months later, it was finished. A close friend told me he didn’t like the fact that I was writing it so quickly, with so many things yet to figure out about my relationship with Ruthie, my relationship with my family, my relationship to this place, and my past. He was right. But that was my assignment. The reader of Little Way walks with me through a lot of that. The most honest thing I could do was write about these things as I was experiencing them, and share ambiguity when I had ambiguity. In the book, I write about the painful things that happened in my childhood to alienate me profoundly from this place — specifically, the high school bullying, and my father’s inability to relate to a son who was so temperamentally and intellectually different from himself (an intolerant trait shared by my sister)– and how Ruthie’s experience healed a lot of that. But it didn’t heal it all, as I relate. I still struggle with this, but I struggle with it now from my hometown, not from far away.
I don’t feel entitled to tell people what they should do. What about people whose hometowns are big cities? Am I really going to tell people that they should move away from their families in the city to live among strangers in a small town? What about people who can’t find a job in a small town? I am acutely aware that I am living with rare privilege, having a job I can do from home, with an Internet connection. Without this, there would have been no moving home for me. I have a wife and three kids to support, and there aren’t a lot of jobs around here. In a time of high unemployment and job insecurity, I’m going to get on my high horse and lecture people to quit their jobs and move to, or back to, a small town? Really?
I’m not going to do that, because I can’t do that in good conscience. Is it a lack of conviction? I don’t think so. What I lack is the conviction that I know what’s best for everybody else.
Last week, driving to the funeral in north Louisiana, I passed through some poor and desperate looking small towns. I wondered how my choice would have been different had St. Francisville, my hometown, not been a good place. It really is a beautiful town — not a wealthy one, but very nice and friendly — but what if it were a place of economic depression, or high crime, or unhealthy conditions? A dear friend comes from an industrial town in Texas, and would never move back there, because it’s so unhealthy and ugly and miserable. Who am I to tell him that he ought to leave the meaningful work he does (he considers it not only his job, but his vocation), and move away from a part of the country that he loves, and where his adult children live, to do that?
In Little Way, I tell the story of Shannon Nixon, a girl from a very poor and broken family who got out and made a personally and professionally successful, stable life for herself far from our hometown. I asked her if she would ever think of coming home, and she said no, that that would be impossible. Three of her brothers are in prison, she told me, and besides, she got nothing but grief from her family for trying to better herself. Is it really my place, coming from what, despite its flaws (and all families have them), is a loving and nurturing family, to tell other people that they have a duty to return to a place of pain, abuse, and seemingly unmendable brokenness? I don’t believe it is.
Furthermore, I have been very sure of myself in the past. I was happy to lecture people on the importance of going to war in Iraq. I was pleased to proclaim the superiority of Catholic Christianity. Reality knocked the confidence out of me, and robbed me of my credibility. I believe in right and wrong, but I don’t have nearly as much faith as I once did on my ability to discern it. Ruthie and my dad both knew what was right for me, and their blind confidence in their own judgment, and refusal to acknowledge that I might see things more clearly than they, did a lot to keep me from taking seriously the possibility of moving home. In Little Way, I write about how this was a down side to my sister’s strong faith and conviction; she never really thought that she might be wrong, at least when it came to me. For example, she was a public school teacher, and was deeply against homeschooling. I tried to talk with her about our older son’s special needs status, and why, given his particular situation, and the educational options available to us in Dallas at the time, homeschooling was the most sensible option. She refused to consider that we might be right. She knew better. She was like this about a lot of things with me.
This stubbornness was a fault of hers, and a fault of my dad’s. You could make all the arguments you wanted to to them about why you thought X or Y course of action was the wisest, and it wouldn’t do any good. It wasn’t so much that I wanted them to agree with me (though I did) as it was that I wanted them to at least consider my point of view, and why things weren’t nearly as black and white as they thought.
The point is, I don’t know always know what’s best for everybody. And how can any of us know for sure? As my father’s extraordinary confession at the end of Little Way reveals, even a man who confidently chose a path through life that he tried to press on his only son, with unhappy results, gets to the end of that life wondering if he had chosen rightly.
This is real life. It’s hard, it’s messy, and it’s uncertain. But that’s the life into which I’ve been thrown, and that most people have been thrown. It should be clear from the book that I don’t believe my sister had all the right answers, and I don’t believe I did either. Ruthie understood some things I didn’t, and more to the point, she lived them. The life she lived, and the fruits of that life in the people who loved her and served her, made the case for roots and stability in place to me more effectively than all the arguments I’d been reading. It didn’t change my mind; it changed my heart. That’s the power of story.
I get the need for theory, and critical thinking. I really do. But here in the middle of my life, I realize how little I know, and how difficult it is to compress the mysteries of life as people actually live it into ideological constructs. In my case, my strong tendency toward abstract intellectualizing has, perhaps ironically, often served more to obscure than to clarify. I’m on a learning curve. At this stage in my life, I need to think less and do more. I am happy to outsource the localist theorizing to real intellectuals. I don’t mean that in a snarky way. We are all part of a community. Russell, Damon Linker, and the FPR guys, are all genuine intellectuals, and as such, they have a greater insight than I do into the theoretical possibilities and contours of localism. I’m greatly inclined to listen to them and to learn from them, because I think along their lines. Their work is useful because, as Yuval Levin put it, political conservatism ought to seek the kind of social order in which it is possible for these little platoons, like the one that served Ruthie and her family, can thrive — and thrive in more places than only small towns.
For me personally, however, the greater wisdom is in trying to stop being so quick to draw ideological and theoretical lessons, and derive prescriptions, and rather to just learn to be internally quiet and watchful. At this point in the roundabout, stumblebum journey of my life, I need to pay more attention to observing Auden’s command, in the face of mortality: “You shall love your crooked neighbour/With your crooked heart.” Because I can’t stop writing any more than a fish can stop swimming, I’ll still be describing what I see and what I think it teaches me, and all of us. Draw your own conclusions from what I tell you. I’m going to tell you what I think is right, but you’ll be better off looking at the fruits of the life I actually live, rather than the life I live inside my head, and on the page.
UPDATE: I understand that Russell was mostly making a general point, and that I’m defending why I didn’t write an ideological book, but rather a memoir. It was more true to my experience and knowledge. I welcome those willing to do the ideological and political work on these questions. It’s important. It’s just not where my head or my heart is right now. Let me put it another way. The questions I keep thinking about are, Even though I know the theory, why did it take a story — that is, seeing what happened to my sister, and how the townspeople responded to it — to make me change my life? And what implications does that have for my writing going forward?