Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Trivializing Faith.

Rod Dreher has just recently criticized the merchandizing at the annual convention of the Christian Booksellers Association, writing that he "can't stand seeing how Christians who traffic in most of this stuff trivialize the most important thing in the world."

I agree, though the juxtaposition of his complaint and his focus on sacramental tomatoes is jarring. More than that, I wonder Rod's opinion about a recent book review by his good friend, Caleb Stegall. In it, he writes, "In the quest to 'find Jesus,' much, perhaps everything, may hinge on the environment of the hunt."

He explains: if you live in the suburbs, your chances of being a Christian are slim to none.

In making such an absurd claim to advance his agrarian agenda, is Caleb Stegall not guilty of trivializing Christianity, making it little more than a function of one's environment? Is he not trivializing Christ Himself, making God Incarnate impotent in the face of tract housing and strip malls?

I continue to wait for any indication that Rod's aware of this piece.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Stegall, Reloaded

So I will plead guilty to the charge of tossing some red meat in my last post. It's fun, it's fast, and it's easy, but it makes it a little too easy for other people to put words in your mouth. So instead of engaging in a game of pistols-at-dawn, I'd like to try and focus on the substance of my earlier criticisms.

Stegall writes,

Folk populism requires people willing to make sacrifices to defend what they love from encroaching destruction via spaghetti-like superhighways, foreign entanglements, megacorporations and megachurches, technological developments, mass media and hypermobility.

All of these features of modernity are systems of control by other, less violent means.

I want to pause for a minute on this because this last sentence is already making a very bold claim. It also has a distinctly Marxist cant to it. Now just to spell it out for everyone, I am not calling Caleb Stegall a disciple of of Lenin. I am not even saying that he is necessarily wrong. But I don't think it's unfair to note that over the past 50 years or so, if you simply bet "black" every time the faculty at the local college put their money on "red," you would probably come out ahead on 90% or more of the issues in question. So while the point is not to be dismissed out of hand it is reasonable to ask for a higher standard of evidence.

But not only is the notion stated as a fait accomplis, Stegall barely pauses for a breath before taking the thesis considerably farther:

As Mr. Lasch cogently argued, they have the effect of harnessing and neutralizing populist discontent. How? By creating a cycle of dependence whereby local goods – intellectual, fiscal, cultural and generational capital (in the form of children) – are drawn into the maw of the centralized corporate-state. They are returned in the form of processed "goods" – products and services that prove to be remarkably habit-forming in a culture of dependency.

Again we have assertions without evidence or example. Now this is all great stem-winding stuff for sure. I don't doubt that it could get some heads nodding along at the local grange hall. But the indictment is awfully far-reaching. So let's look at his next graf wherein he reveals the machinery at work:

Here's how it works. Midwestern wheat farms are largely owned by massive agribusinesses that function as industrialized, oil-dependent factories dedicated to efficient mass production of their widget, which happens to be the wheat berry. The wheat berry is shipped to other factories for processing and packaging, shipped again to Wonder Bread Inc. for further refinement into a "bread product." This, in turn, is shipped to stadium-size retail "food outlets," purchased by the hurried and haggard farm laborer (who used to own the land the wheat was grown on) and taken home to make sandwiches for the kids to eat in front of the TV.
OK, there's a lot in here. Let's take it one piece at a time:

"massive agribusinesses that function as industrialized, oil-dependent factories": Last I checked, family farms use tractors, fertilizers, and pesticides too. So I don't see how family farms would be significantly less industrialized or oil-dependent.

"efficient mass production of their widget, which happens to be the wheat berry": And small local farms are different how? Granted, they are often not cpable of efficiency on the scale of the massive agribusinesses (which explains why they exist), but within their own capabilities they certainly work their hardest to maximize their yield. And the whole "wheat berry" thing is just an epithet applied for rhetorical effect. Farmers don't grow wheat because their daddy and his daddy did, they grow it because it gives them the best profit. You can read journals written by farmers in colonial times which show them discussing how many acres of X and Y to plant because of market prices for those things. Farming is and has always been a business.

"The wheat berry is shipped to other factories for processing and packaging, shipped again to Wonder Bread Inc. for further refinement into a 'bread product.'" Ah yes, that damned Wonder Bread! You know why people eat the stuff? It's those damned highways and megachurches. Wonder Bread has been around since 1930, but has fallen on hard times lately as consumers discover that flavor and texture are not things to be frightened of. So much for elites controlling and manipulating our every decision. And does he really expect every baker to mill their own flour? They don't even do that in France.

"This, in turn, is shipped to stadium-size retail 'food outlets,' purchased by the hurried and haggard farm laborer": Have you ever known a farmer who wasn't hurried and haggard? It's awfully hard work. In fact, the farmer is less hurried and haggard as a result of not having to go to four or five different "food boutiques" in order to take care of the family's grocery needs.

"(who used to own the land the wheat was grown on)": When? 1885? By the 1920s we were becoming an unabashedly urban nation in population terms. And even prior to that a large proportion of people working on farms were hired hands.

"taken home to make sandwiches for the kids to eat in front of the TV.": Would you be happier if they ate it in front of the radio?

OK, so let's re-write this paragraph, stripping out the hyperbole and "gravy," and see how it sounds:

Here's how it works. Midwestern wheat farms are largely owned by massive agribusinesses large companies that function as industrialized, oil-dependent factories dedicated to efficient mass production of their widget, which happens to be the wheat berry. The wheat berry This is shipped to other factories for processing and packaging milled into flour and shipped again to Wonder Bread Inc. for further refinement into a "bread product" bread to bakers, whose bread This, in turn,
is shipped to stadium-size retail "food outlets," supermarkets that save the purchased by the hurried and haggard farm laborer time(who used to own the land the wheat was grown on) so she can get and taken get home sooner to make sandwiches for the and eat dinner with her kids in front of the TV.

So maybe I went a little overboard in suggesting that Stegall was dancing on the razor's edge of moonie territory. But let's be clear here, he, not I, is the one suggesting the presence and fact of a wide-ranging conspiracy directed against at least half the population of the country. As evidence of this he offers the fact that Boston's bread is baked in Ohio from grain grown on a farm in Nebraska that is owned by a company rather than a family. I'd make a "rye" comment about this but I don't want anyone to think I'm comparing Stegall to Pol Pot, or even Kettle.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Densest Material Known to Man

Forget about nukes--if you want to destroy Manhattan, just drop a copy of this Casey Stegall essay from the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building. The crater would stretch clear from the Chelsea Piers to the House Ruth Built. Here's a teaser:
There's an irony inherent in a system like our own that identifies the individual as the fundamental unit of political, social and economic order. Because it shears the individual of the republican virtues cultivated within communities of tradition in the name of empowering him, it actually makes the individual subject to tyranny. Limitless emancipation in the name of progress is, it turns out, the final and most binding mechanism of control.
The fun thing about Stegall is that he is like the Id to Rod Dreher's ego. While Rod tells us about his recipe roasted chicken and some cute little house he saw the other day, Stegall is passing out torches and waving around a pitchfork.

I used to work as an editorial associate at a big-city daily paper and one of my jobs was to open all the nut mail the reporters received. Now I am not saying Casey Stegall is a bizarre crank who would send 17 pages of single-spaced discussion of the metaphysics of computer hacking and 4th-dimensional psychic powers to a newspaper that would never be accused of taking itself too seriously.

But I am saying that Stegall's ravings on our persecution and control by a distant and scheming "elite" are removed from Art Bell/Illuminati/Trilateral Commission territory by style more than they are by substance. Pace Jonah, there just isn't much there, here. It just seems like there is because you'd think anything that hurts this much to read must be making some really deep and significant point. But it's really all more like this:

But in the end, what this kind of vibrant regionalism requires is something much more difficult to obtain than a slogan. It is a renewed appreciation for society over and against both the individual and the state. Society defined by what the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry calls "membership" – a network of social interconnectedness and shared obligation. To be a member of this kind of social order is the best hedge against manipulation by the central planning committee for "growth" and "prosperity." It is, to put it plainly, to be free.

I have really only ever had one argument against Crunchy Conservatism and that is that it refuses to commit itself in policy terms. Stegall writes,

What would this kind of regional populism look like in an actual political platform? Broadly speaking, it would seek at every turn to end the dependence of its constituents on elites. It would oppose, for example, the nationalization of any sector of our economy, from health care to agriculture. Instead, it would seek creative ways to open regional markets for regional goods.
Does any of that mean anything? Just wondering. But the real prize is this:
It would seek to permit regional cultural and religious particularities to emerge from the fog of federalized regulation and be made manifest in our schools, courthouses, businesses and civic organizations. And it would provide incentives to keep cultural capital local. It would encourage people to work, study and raise families close to where they grew up. It would seek ways to promote local culture and would cultivate loyalty to our neighbors and a fierce love for our own places.
So, instead of "the fog of federal regulation," the Sage of Perry, Kansas suggests "incentives to keep cultural capital local" and "encourage people to work, study, and raise families close to where they grew up." Let's assume for a minute that it's anyone's business where people choose to get hitched and hatch rugrats. The practical question is, why should we trust the government to do this? There is no secret government-in-exile that will ride triumphantly back into Washington if only we elect Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, or Lyndon Larouche for that matter. Hell, I barely trust them to figure out how to pick up the trash and fill in the potholes.

But the truly ironic and laughable part is that Stegall harps endlessly on "elites" and "control" and "aristocratic" forces is quite comfortable extending the force of government much deeper into our lives than any bean-counter deep in the recesses of the Under-Secretary to the Commission on Reduction in Redundancy Reduction would dream of. Instead of a government controlled by elites, Stegall proposes government--controlled by a different set of elites. Government of the people, by the Stegall, if you will.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

We interrupt this blog for a brief public service message

As the founder, chairman, hizzoner, and El Queso Grande of this blog, I would like a moment of your attention.

Some of you may remember a certain piece of "art" by a fellow named Andres Serrano that caused a bit of a stir. Like many, I too was offended--in my case, because it was boo-ring! Epater le bourgeois may have had a point one or two hundred years ago, but really, who cares what artists think is "transgressive" these days, anyway?

Likewise, I am starting to feel like the contra-Crunchy thing is becoming a little stale. And in my book, that is perhaps the worst crime of them all.

So, I am issuing a challenge. I am going to keep this blog open until the end of July, to see if we can reinvigorate the debate a little. There have been plenty of great posts and comments by everyone here but lately it is starting to feel a little... forced.

Last, I'd like to request that everyone do their part to elevate the tone. I'm certainly not above a good-natured ribbing and great truths are often revealed in parody but I don't want this to merely be a place to burn Rod Dreher in effigy. The bottom line here is to win converts or at least ask some challenging questions.


Saturday, July 01, 2006

Supercontras Return!

REVIEWS ARE IN for the Supercontras Return, the exciting blog-going experience where Pauli, Bubba, Contra, Diane, Curious, CMW and Kathleen defend Truth, Justice and the American Way. While a deluded narcissist plots to render them powerless once and for all, by calling them "Knotheads" and comparing them to "loud, obnoxious drunks", Supercontras face the heartbreaking realization that Beliefnet readers might actually take the bloviating narcissist and his peculiar ideas about food, religion and shopping seriously. Or do they? The Supercontras embark on an epic journey of redemption that take them from the sky-lit aisles of Whole Foods to the dark netherworld of anti-Catholic bigotry. See Supercontras today!

Rod Dreher from the Dallas Orthodox Wannabee calls the Supercontras:

"[B]oringly spiteful and altogether predictable...[a cast of ] bitching-and-moaning knotheads....If that's your idea of keeping me in the Catholic Church, or of making Catholicism attractive to potential converts, you're pitifully mistaken...spiteful malcontents... nasty!"

Caedmon of the Chivalry Express writes:

"[R]hetorically lame...abnormal Catholics ...a gaggle of shrews, naysayers and other insufferable types...[They should] suck eggs"