Community as We Know It, Not as We Wish It

James Banks: Joe Carter vs. Front Porch Republic…we need to consider “community” as particular places, not as an ideology.

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Theory can kill, Edmund Burke told us. It is a good assumption to keep in mind when approaching the recent debate between the localist website Front Porch Republic and First Things web editor Joe Carter. I haven’t been in the middle of the Front Porch Republic/Carter debate, but I have been commenting from the sidelines. The primary objection to Mr. Carter’s arguments that FPR has raised so far is that Carter criticizes their perspective from a vantage point which presumes “certain liberal assumptions.” Mr. Carter’s critique, on the other hand, has worked to point out that the FPR’s theoretical musings on “place, limits, and liberty” would eventually have totalitarian implications if it were ever applied in the real world.

The Flaws in the Arguments Thus Far

When I weighed in a few days ago at “Literary Lawyer,” I generally expressed sympathy for Carter’s perspective. Nonetheless, his argument relies too much on the potential effects of FPR’s ideas. While I believe that many of FPR’s points have merit, I want to aim for the center; not the world that the ideas lead to, but the ideas themselves. The responses that FPR’s authors have posted so far are not interchangeable, but they do form assort of progressive narrative; therefore, I will concentrate on the most recent contribution, by Mark Signorelli.

One of the weaknesses of the FPR position is that they have set up straw man arguments, though I doubt that it was their intention to do so. For example, Mr. Signorelli begins by arguing that all government is inherently coercive, as though to suggest that all of those who hold to a classical liberal view believe otherwise. Mr. Signorelli writes:

“One cannot escape governmental coercion without escaping government itself; abuse of such coercion, in the form of tyranny, is of course deplorable, but so is the absence of such coercion, in the form of anarchy. The more candid we are about this fact, the better. The alternative is to escape into quasi-Rousseauistic fantasies about the “general will,” which, as they disguise the authentic exercise of coercion behind a veil of fictional consent, afford all the more scope to the raw imposition of power.”

I agree that government is by definition coercive, but to admit that some governmental coercion is inevitable is not to cede that it should govern in ways that FPR’s society of “place, limits and liberty” would prescribe. Certainly, FPR and I would agree that there are some things that the government should coerce—such as acquiescence to speed limits—and, hopefully, we would agree that there are others things which the government (even at the local level) should not enforce—such as religious belief. The disagreement between advocates of democracy and FPR is not, as FPR continually suggests, over whether government will govern but rather over how government should govern.

FPR’s writers seem to have some sense that this is what the debate is really about, for they mount harsh critiques regarding the coerciveness of the modern state. Mr. Signorelli quotes his colleague Jason Sayler, writing:

“Mr. Sayler raises a very serious point when he expresses doubts about the moral probity of “ordinary folk” in modern America, those who, as he puts it, ‘treat birth-control pills as if they were M&M’s, stand assembled outside Toys’R’Us like ravenous zombies in the wee hours of Black Friday, and think dolls dressed like cheap hookers make nice Christmas gifts for little girls.'”

But FPR puts too much emphasis on the coercive significance of modern life. It is possible to turn off a television, close the shutters or move to small-town America. If nothing else, the growth of Amish culture—which has expanded as far West as Montana—demonstrates that it is possible for traditional community to flourish in the middle of a postmodern society that protects religious freedom. The moral failures of modern life to which Mr. Sayler points are not coercive but rather the outgrowth of abused freedom.  But the fact that freedom is abused does not imply that coercion is the proper antidote. No one denies that a fly on a glass table is an annoyance, but that doesn’t mean that hitting it with a hammer is a wise policy.

Rights and the Totalitarian Temptation

Mr. Signorelli points to Florence as one example of a community which enforces a sort of general or communal will; in this case, Florence dictated that all roofs be made of red terracotta tiling (though, as he suggests, there were probably others who would have preferred to have roofs which were yellow or green.) Building codes like this are not, in my view, a particularly significant threat to liberty. Even in our nation’s capital there are significant height restrictions on new buildings. The problem, however, arises when one individual within the community decides that he wants his roof to be yellow. What is to become of him? Is he to be fined? Have the property confiscated? To be exiled from the city? Fortunately, since most citizens freely choose to have their roofs be terracotta red, this is not a particularly common dilemma. Nonetheless, all of the above forms of state coercion could reasonably be called an abuse of power.

And such abuses, while probably not occurring frequently over the color of a Florentine roof, are nonetheless everyday occurrences: Jews have been persecuted for refusing to eat pork and Palestinian Christians have been threatened for celebrating Christmas. In other words, freedom of conscience may be a “liberal assumption”, but it is one that has very real consequences for public life. FPR would probably oppose the persecutors in such cases, but, as happened with Carl Jung during the rise of Nazism, they may find to their chagrin that their philosophy is poorly suited to combat totalitarianism in the theoretical realm because it shares some of totalitarianism’s logic. Even pirates have communal bonds.

Mr. Signorelli would probably retort that democracy is as likely to persecute in this way as is any other form of government—after all, the Germans elected Adolf Hitler, didn’t they? If a “democracy” is merely rule by the most, then Mr. Signorelli would be correct. But this is to take the definition of democracy too literally. It is true that the world has seen many illiberal democracies, but “liberal” democracy is that which is accompanied by the rule of law, or, as Thomas Mann suggested, it is an order dedicated to protecting the rights of an individual. Occasionally an agency within a liberal democracy will overstep the boundaries of limited government as Mr. Signorelli is correct to point out: “Consider only our own very democratic regime, with its health-code citations for little girls selling lemonade, its militarily-equipped police forces, its President newly authorized to detain any citizen indefinitely on his own suspicion.” However, it is a stretch to assert that these illiberal characteristics of the American scene are the logical outcome of liberal intuitions, especially when they have defined stringently illiberal regimes long before they made their way to America.

A more problematic issue within liberal democracy occurs when rights collide: If the state is to recognize same-sex marriage, should that obligate workers in Catholic adoption agencies to consider the applications of gay and lesbian couples who want to become foster parents? Rights occasionally clash, but government intrusiveness in these cases does not stem from the liberal state’s desire to grow and the principles of liberal democracy can always be invoked against the intrusiveness of the state or violation of rights, though there are times when the invocation is destined to fail.

Community Happens in the Particulars

Communitarian principles are not as reliable. It is true that individuals need some sense of their identity before they will stand up to fight for it. The Estonians and Latvinians could not have pushed for independence from the Soviet Union had they not first imagined themselves as communities. But they were not devoted to the abstract concept of a “nation”. Rather, they were devoted to specific goals which they could only achieve through political and economic independence. The problems with communitarianism arise after it becomes an ideology.  No sincere member of a community has ever committed to living “in community;” rather they strive to live “in a community.”

The aesthetic value of communal life proceeds from the specifics of that life rather than from the abstract community that germinates around those specifics. In northern Idaho, I came to know the aesthetics of such a community as the coffeehouses where every barista knows the each customer’s regular drink order; or the town square which hosted a market for farmer’s produce, political tracts and folk music from April to October; or the old, downtown theater where town residents could catch a showing for less than three dollars.

Yes, these are the trappings of the vibrant community in which I grew up. But they were not loved because they were common; they were common because they were loved. Perhaps FPR could idealize these characteristics until they became disincarnated into an abstraction. However, I am satisfied that the aesthetic remain of earth, fire, air and water—not of aether. Edmund Burke would not disagree.

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James Banks is a doctoral student at the University of Rochester where he is pursuing studies in English Renaissance and Restoration Literature.  Previously, he worked in nonprofit administration in the District of Columbia and northern Virginia. He is also a contributor at Via Meadia and has written for “The Intercollegiate Review,””First Principles,” “The Foundry,” and other publications. He is an alumnus of the University of Idaho (B.A. 2008) and the University of Rochester (M.A. 2010) and lives in upstate New York where he serves in the NY Army National Guard (though the views he expresses on this blog are his alone).

3 Comments

  • Avatar
    January 24, 2012

    Joe Carter

    Great post. I completely agree with (almost) every word.

  • […] weeks ago, at the web journal Humane Pursuits, James Banks published an article entitled “Community as We Know It, Not as We Wish It,” which was largely a response to an article I had published earlier here at FPR. Mr. Banks […]

  • Avatar
    March 13, 2012

    Anymouse

    We run into that problem: If the local community is a radically liberal one like San Francisco we cannot possible attain virtue by following the immediate traditions of the community.

    So in the end we have no choice but to make decisions on the community we want to live in.