Montana Nature Narratives (at the Missoula Book Festival)

“New York is about power and status. Seattle is about having stuff. But Montana is about the place you live.” —E. Donnall Thomas, Jr.

Nature Writing Panel Discussion

The “nature narratives” panel at Fact & Fiction featured authors Russ Beck, Don Thomas and John Clayton. It was moderated by Read Trammel from UMs MFA writing program.

This was the first session I went to at the Book Festival, held on a gorgeous September Friday in downtown Missoula. By the time the day was over, I had come to distrust any author presuming to talk about “narrative” or “story.” Those venerable terms have apparently become cliches, intended to evoke “big ideas” and revolutionary thinking. Alas, few people up are up to such billing.

For a long time I participated in such events, supported by the hope that Montana could practice self-governance, using education and public conversations to fend off the stifling growth of ideology that had made so many places so unfree and so unbeautiful. Like every community in every time and place, Montana faces troubles that, if we are to survive in a state of civilization, we need to engage.

The three writers in this session all managed to be thoughtful and interesting, in the sense that they added a few fresh details to the old story of new money and new fashions displacing older money and older fashions. They spoke at Fact & Fiction, an independently-owned bookstore in downtown Missoula. The store hosted a series of presentations by authors published by The History Press—a national publishing company based in South Carolina that specializes in publishing local history for local audiences. The company has published about 2000 books since their startup in 2004, including several titles in Montana, including books by the three authors who participated in this panel discussion: John Clayton (Montana’s Enduring Frontier), Don Thomas (Montana: Peaks, Streams and Prairie) and Russ Beck (On Fly-Fishing the Northern Rockies: Essays and Dubious Advice).

The writers discussed an array of ideas, including the idea of writing in personal narrative. “The stories that stay with us are personal narratives,” said Beck. “If I’ve done my job, the complex processes in nature that have influenced my life and thinking in complex ways” are communicated to the audience in ways that reveal those complex interactions.

Clayton observed that “personal stories are a great way to connect people to science.” He noted that as a journalist, he’s always been reluctant to write about himself or to give personal opinions, since for him, writing is mainly about the narrative structure—the way a story and plot itself conveys the truth about things. But as he used his experiences to illustrate truths he had observed, he found that “Oh no! I’m expressing a lot of opinions.”

Thomas agreed. He uses his experience to communicate quite a lot of scientific and political knowledge. Much of the work of writing is knowing things, and putting that knowledge in service of others—but also of nature itself. “Wildlife needs constituents,” he said. He sounded what was probably the dominant theme in the session: in the West today, nature is facing many political and cultural threats.

All the writers gave illustrations of the ways the West has always been a difficult place to live. “Nothing is easy in the west.” He noted that we live in a very dry landscape but with Kentucky bluegrass lawns. “We’re doing a lot of things wrong,” he said, “which ends up being good for writing.”

One of Clayton’s goals as a writer is “tell stories that no one has heard before.” He said he’s been tempted to write about “Buffalo Bill and the Copper Kings” and other topics common among western writer, but that he’s more interested in finding bits of history that have been ignored. For example, in 1933, some men stole a train as a protest and headed east toward Washington, D.C. “At each stop along the way, they were greeted warmly by people.” It was an act of political protest, and “they were supported by the unemployed people.” Clayton said this was a surprisingly urban story, rather than the more typical story of country people and country issues.

All the writers commented on changes that are occurring in the West today—revisiting familiar talk about “the old west” and “the new west.” Clayton was skeptical that things were changing now much more than they always had. He suspected that all the talk about a “new west” of “microbreweries and espresso” might just be a symptom of the Baby Boomers’ fascination with themselves. He cited an article entitled “Old West and New” published in 1932, which was about the way a new kind of westerner was crowding out the original cowboys.

Thomas acknowledged that there was some truth to that, but he also argued that things were changing in important ways that writers needed to address because people needed to think about them. An astonishing number of ranches in Montana have sold for more than $10 million in recent years, he said. “Those ranches aren’t being bought by farmers or ranchers,” he said. They are being bought by “silicon valley money.” He said that big money is attacking Montana’s game laws and, specifically, stream access laws. The changes that are possible could have far-reaching effects on how we live in Montana. The “public trust doctrine” we are used to in Montana, that prevents people from owning the wildlife, “is unique to North America,” he said. The idea that wildlife can’t be owned but must be managed for the public has been rare in the context of world politics. “That doctrine is one of the reasons we have all this wildlife in Montana,” he said. “And some very rich people want all that to go away.”

Beck’s experience has been mainly in Utah, and he agreed that Montana has been blessed with stream access laws that have made Montana a world mecca for fly fishing. “It’s not like that in Utah,” he said. “We don’t have stream access laws there,” so people can fence off rivers and streams and deny the public access. “The best fishing in northern Utah,” he observed, “is in southern Idaho.”

Thomas did observe that interesting people are coming to the state, and some changes are welcome. “In Livingston, you used to have a choice of two topics for conversation,” he said. “You could discuss the weather or beef prices.” That is no longer the case.

But he was quite passionate that Montana is facing huge changes driven by big money, and Montanan’s would have to engage if they wanted to preserve some of what is best about living in Montana. He said there’s constant pressure to transfer public land to private ownership. The extractive companies—oil companies—want free of regulations on mining and drilling. Part of the strategy involves a two-step. First, federal land is transferred to state ownership. But after “one bad fire season, that’s over,” he said. The cost of managing the lands will create enormous pressure to sell it off to private owners. The state has already passed a nonbinding resolution to study the idea of privatizing state lands, he said.

These are real problems, to be sure. The hoary way of responding to them is to join the partisan fray, and, for most writers, that means to enlist in the army of one or more of the big corporate environmental associations to disparage oil companies, capitalism and private ownership. If that way of conceptualizing the problem seems stale and unfruitful to you, you might have gained little from this session, beyond new details in a very old story.

I was interested enough to buy books by two of the presenters. They’re on my desk right now, along with a couple dozen other books I’ve bought but not yet read. I’m not sure when or if a day will come when reading them seems the most pressing thing I could do right then. I’m doubtful, at the moment, that the literary crowd is going to lead Montana out of the desolation of modern ideology. Our most serious environmental threat today is that our narrative environment is becoming toxic. I wish I thought Montana’s literary gang was part of the solution.

A few thoughts on planning an oral history project in China

I just returned from Changsha, China, where I was invited to a conference at Hunan Library to discuss my experiences with dozens of oral history projects in 33 rural communities in Montana, using high schoolers as the primary researchers. The sponsor of the conference was the Evergreen Education Foundation, which has been doing good work in rural China for many years.

Hunan Library

Hunan Library in Changsha, which hosted the conference in partnership with the Evergreen Education Foundation.

I confess I was a bit wary. It had been a while since I attended a conference sponsored by one of the big foundations or socialized with the tribe that gathers there. They tend to be people drawn to the humane slogans of late modernity which have replaced older traditions. It was all so familiar—the endless talk about more precise assessments, improved monitoring, better implementation and dissemination, and, of course, sustainability. Such concerns are expressed in a framework of humane aspirations, having to do with social justice. We are, after all, nice people. Still, to tweak Drucker’s phrase, doing things the right way is much easier than doing the right things.

I understand the need to be cautious when straying from our accountability rituals. The models are adapted from the corporate world where ambitious people have shown, if nothing else, that they can organize lots of people into vast projects focused on measurable outcomes. How else could the world be run from the commanding heights? Still, it seems important to have mixed feelings about how eagerly newcomers to such conferences are attracted to the bright lights and big names, how quickly they adopt the vocabulary and language of the people on stage. It could be tragic to mislead them.

I easily blended in with the veteran attendees as they shared experiences, enjoyed the buffets, greeted old friends and luxuriated in a reliable sense of deja vu. Lots of nice people. And it did feel nice to be there, invited to a conversation about humane values at a costly hotel where insiders gathered amid chandeliers and wine glasses, comfortable with warm dreams backed by resources. The allure of money—of being invited to the table—can be enchanting.

The real work

Weiming Tu

Weiming Tu, One of the most influential thinkers about China of our time. He is founding director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Peking University and Senior Fellow of Asia Center at Harvard University.

But will it work? Are we oriented toward the direction where we need to go? One topic that stayed on my mind throughout the conference—a topic that did not get enough attention, I thought–was how to understand governance more powerfully than the business accountability models we’ve all learned. The keynote speaker, Weiming Tu, founding director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Peking University and Senior Fellow of Asia Center at Harvard, spoke to the point, presenting a big picture view of what the real work that we now face may be.

His plea was essentially for better character education—through the classic liberal arts method of aiming at a moral outcome through intellectual means. Right reason will lead to right action. Our current plight, Tu suggested, is that we must regain the wisdom to make choices inspired by desires more intelligent than those inflamed by consumer culture. To so educate desire in China, Confucianism is important. “We need curriculum reform that includes Chinese classical learning in college but also in primary education,” he said. We need to foster a conversation between Enlightenment values and our older spiritual traditions. Though the Enlightenment has been the most powerful ideology in world history—practicing such values as rationality, liberty, equality and the dignity of the individual–and because of it the modern world is better than the pre-modern world, we have now arrived at a point where we see clearly that Enlightenment values alone are not enough. Without powerful spiritual values, a kind of anthropocentricism has emerged wherein reason has become mainly instrumental, aiming not at self-realization but at power. There is something “fundamentally discomforting” about current values, he said, which lead to the dominance of “Economic Man.”

He followed Samuel Huntington in calling for a conversation between Enlightenment values and Confucian values, as well as Christian values and those of other groups, aiming at clarifying principles that can be accepted by members of all religious traditions. The voice of spiritual humanism has become “quite feeble” in China.

If we do not know about invisible worlds–levels of meaning higher than money–and talk about them as though they matter, they will have little force in governing the world we are making. To a great extent, talking about them as though they matter, bringing them up in venues large and small, giving them form that makes them accessible, testifying in favor of them–this in itself may be our salvation. In the West, Socrates taught that we must ask the serious question: “What is the good life?” The good life, as he understood it, is to be forever asking the question again and again, in the light of each new circumstance.

Linking practice to big ideas

Yuelu Academy

Faith Chao, Director of the Evergreen Education Foundation, translated for us during our visit to the ancient Yuela Academy, founded during the Song Dynasty in 976 AD at what is now Hunan University. The Academy remained loyal to Confucian ideals of moral self-cultivation and community solidarity.

Most speakers focused on smaller issues—the practical matters involved in conducting and archiving oral history projects in rural places. Such matters are important and getting more thoughtful and precise about them is fundamentally important. But it would be unfortunate if we let the details distract us from taking Professor Tu seriously, from asking the obvious question: Can our oral history projects provide suitable occasions for the sort of conversations about higher values that, Tu said, we may need if humanity is to survive?

I believe they can.

To make such conversations likely, care may be taken in how the projects begin and how they end. Specifically, the projects should be planned with big questions to be explored–the enduring questions that take us to the heart of our humanity–made clear and explicit at the beginning; they should end with original writing by the researchers in which they grapple with the meaning of their findings with reference to the enduring questions that began their quest. It is not necessary to come to tidy conclusions, like the perfunctory little upbeat platitude that often ends “human interest” stories in small town newspapers, but it is important to ponder the truths of the human condition as they are manifest, sometimes subtly, in the transcripts that are being added to the record of human experience.

Big questions
To begin, enduring questions can be formed by reading significant texts, classic or contemporary, that relate to the topic to be investigated. Good interviewers have spent time gaining the background knowledge they need to ask real questions, and to demonstrate real interest to the interviewee, and gaining that background knowledge and creating a set of questions—both enduring questions to guide the researcher, and more specific questions to ask during the interview—can be done while reading deep and rich texts.

The focus should be on only few enduring questions–maybe three or four. Their purpose is not to limit the interviewing only to those issues that are clearly or directly linked to the big questions. Their purpose is to orient the researchers toward a general direction, which one might well forget at times while engaging the specificity of actual persons living through actual events. The focus, during interviews, should be on bringing as much love as one can bear in one’s attention to the interviewee, really listening and genuinely following his or her thoughts. Love is not often mentioned in how to guides to doing oral history, but it is love that most readily opens a speaker to a hearer, and it is the “secret” of many who excel at asking and listening.

This is not, of course, inconsistent with a quest for light on such questions as these:

What should we part with?
What should we keep?
What should never be for sale?
What should one never do for money?
In recent times, what has been lost or is being lost?
What has been gained or is being gained?
What goods are in conflict?
What has changed?
What has not changed?

Enduring questions serve to focus the interviewer, but they are not questions that usually will be directly asked of the subject, though if the conversation tends that way they may be.

The interviewer should remember that the mental movement from event to meaning can be slow and difficult—and often very personal–and the oral historian or journalist who hopes to avoid the hard work of thought by asking the subject the big question directly will usually be disappointed by the answer, which is most likely to come in the form of either confusion at the impossibility of simple answers to vast queries or vague platitudes and rambling attempts at making sense.

The focus most often should be on the interviewee’s memory and experiences, with an aim of hearing richly detailed narratives or careful descriptions. Few people can address big philosophical questions off the cuff in an articulate way.

Instead, when the interviewer asks open-ended questions that invite the subject to share experiences and think out loud, the interviewer is more likely to be surprised and delighted by the answers. A certain modesty is required. The interviewer should not ask leading questions, even if they are very big leading questions. It may help to keep in mind the observation of the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who in his last essay spoke of how “the shattering of larger coherences … has made relating local realities with overarching ones … extremely difficult.” Indeed. “If the general is to be grasped at all,” Geertz wrote, “and new unities uncovered, it must, it seems, be grasped not directly, all at once, but via instances, differences, variations, particulars – piecemeal, case by case. In a splintered world, we must address the splinters.”

Getting at what it means

A highlight of the trip for Valerie and me was a visit to a local middle school, arranged for us by Jingchao Yan--one of Dr. Faith Chao's staff.  We were accompanied by Ruth Olson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

A highlight of the trip for Valerie and me was a visit to a local middle school, arranged for us by Jingchao Yan–part of Dr. Faith Chao’s staff. We were accompanied by Ruth Olson, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

To grasp the general via the particulars—that is the work of essays or presentations that researchers should do as the culmination of their projects, which may be similar to the last chapter of a dissertation—the conclusions and recommendations. Though reflection should have been occurring throughout the work, frequent returns to the enduring questions to check how one’s understanding has changed or deepened, it is in synthesizing all one’s work into a final intellectual product or cultural artifact that reflection becomes the main work. If a student has read some Confucius on the duties of children, and then conducted an oral interview where a person talked about her particular family during a tumultuous time in the past, the attempt to write an accurate and truthful account of what happened and what it might mean will be time spent pondering what really matters in this life. Perhaps the Great Foundations could do worse than give such documents careful attention when the time comes to evaluate what has been accomplished.

In doing such work, might we be also teaching our young that the art of living is in part the art of ordering one’s life as a series of research projects, with “research” understood as the process of seeking information, knowledge and wisdom in many intellectual and spiritual modes, from various sources. Confucius understood that the way to govern a people well is first to teach them to govern themselves by wise principles. Christians also believe this.

It’s everyone’s story
Another thing that was on my mind was how a project in Montana might collaborate with a project in China. One way that comes to mind is simply to begin with the same, or similar, enduring questions. I suspect that we would find many things in common—and not just in the experiences of minorities. It would be one way of having a conversation across cultures about core values that we share.

It isn’t just indigenous people whose culture is being hollowed out or trammeled by the peddlers and prophets of late modernity. All of us who remain disinclined to live mainly for money or whose souls are not transfixed by Apple’s latest wonder sense that things are being pushed aside to make way for things of less worth. Any Confucian or Christian is likely to experience moments, sometimes important moments, when one’s deepest commitments are taken as nothing by market zealots or crusading ideologues. The displacement of Native Americans due to the faith that powerful men at their big tables had in their own wisdom, in their certainty that everyone’s duty comes down to assimilation to technological innovation and expanding markets is, I think, one of those historical occurrences that resonates for many of us. It’s a timeless metaphor. In typological terms, it is everyone’s story.

The twentieth century happened to us all.

The lawyer explicitly identifies morality itself as the target

scales of justiceThe lawyer explicitly identifies morality itself as the target of the lawsuit:

The exact legal arguments for same-sex marriage equally apply to multiple-person marriages. Turley acknowledges that marriage laws that do not include both are “a tool for the imposition of a uniform moral agenda or tenets on citizens.”

I don’t know whether he understands that the argument “we ought not to impose morality on others” is a contradiction, but he might. The ethic of the ubermensch is that those with sufficient power will impose their vision on others, and morality has nothing to say.

As we shall see.

Literature never failed us; we abandoned it

Destroyed Books

The Detroit Public Schools Book Depository has been abandoned since a fire struck the building. It’s a metaphor.

Mark Bauerlein, English prof at Emory University, makes precisely the point that for me lies at the center of the big, slow-motion cultural conversation about the death of English as an academic discipline. Teachers who could have seen themselves as stewards of a great tradition, who could have served that tradition and young people by learning and passing on the best that has been said and done, instead began to fancy themselves as transformative intellectuals, possessors of precisely the verbal skills needed for success in a hyperpoliticized age. They talk about empowerment and skills and the future. They do not, often, talk in any intimate and profound way about particular works of literature, or what such works reveal about who and where we may be.

After summarizing a few of the many defenses made for the humanities of late, Bauerlein focuses on the important detail:

These statements and others on how the humanities foster critical thinking, cultivate Information Economy skills, help enact social change, resist utilitarianism in human affairs, etc., may be challenged in one aspect or another, but they are all reasonable and they pop up in education discussions all the time. Their commonplace status, however, shouldn’t obscure the fact that they share an extraordinary characteristic. It is a trait so simple and obvious, and so paradoxical, that one easily overlooks it, especially as these voices so earnestly endorse the humanities. The paradox is this: They affirm, extol, and sanctify the humanities, but they hardly ever mention any specific humanities content. The American Academy report terms the humanities “the keeper of the republic,” but the names Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Bernini, Leonardo, Gibbon, Austen, Beethoven, Monet, Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Martha Graham never surface. In the Boston Globe (“Humanities: The Practical Degree,” June 21), Carlo Rotella claims that the humanities instill a “suite of talents” that include “assimilating and organizing large, complex bodies of information,” but he doesn’t tie that installation to any particular works of art. These pro-humanities documents drop a “Proust” and “Dickens” here and there, but little more. The works of the ages that fill actual humanities syllabi barely exist in these heartfelt defenses. Instead of highlighting assigned authors, artists, writings, and artworks, they signal what happens after the class ends: the moral, civic, and workplace outcomes.

Literature has obviously been in decline in schools for years–but there are signs it’s thriving outside the academy through new media such as the large catalog of downloadable audio lectures available from The Great Courses. There is a large audience–though not a universal one–for intelligent discourse about significant literary works.

This is not just bad for literature–it’s been a disaster for the culture, which is now trying to “humanize” young people with dismal programs such as the Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports programs pushed by the USDE and adopted by many states, according to which the purpose of life is “success” understood mainly in materials terms and the method is compliance with authority. Low-level behavioral psychology (used to keep order in prisons and to train puppies) has become the official psychology, in many schools.

A lot has happened to American education in the past five or six decades, and there is no quick turnaround. What is not needed is a new national program, with workshop gurus and posters and buzzwords. The belief that widespread problems must lead to large-scale “solutions” is part of what ails us. What is needed are many individuals, spending time reading–thinking about current difficulties with the best authors of the past and present–and then discussing those particular works with others who are also responding to a troubled world by seeking deeper insight into history and human nature by regular engagement with the best books. It isn’t necessary that everyone do this, but it’s of vital importance that some do.

The third reality: a brief introduction

Peace is a complex order that can be experienced even in the midst of trouble.

Peace is a complex order that can be experienced even in the midst of trouble.

The way of the teacher

No one can be forced to see higher realities. We all need to be taught to see them, and having been taught, we have to freely choose them.

The third reality is peace–not as a sort of slumber but as an all-consuming engagement possible only through love. The third reality is living in and through love. Though it is based on law, it cannot be established by law, which it both includes and transcends.

Societies of peace necessarily are created and sustained through the methods of teachers: persuasion, patience, and unfeigned care. The economy for those living in the third reality is an order in which gift plays a powerful part. Trade remains but theft does not. The future’s uncertainty is reduced through covenants–promises exchanged with concern about the well-being of the other in mind. What may be given is as important as what will be received as, for those in love, giving and receiving merge into being.

Societies of law struggle to see that justice is done but justice isn’t enough. We all have something to fear from justice. Who has not done that he ought not to have done? We by trespassing and being trespassed. We live here in history, where being wronged is the human condition.

Those who walk the road to peace find at fork after fork forgiveness is one of the choices. If they choose the other way, they find themselves getting more alone as they go. It’s an easy road and many have grown accustomed to it.

Returning becomes the daily work of those who would know peace. Again and again they find it is necessary to turn back and start over. They study mercy, wanting first to receive it as they learn to offer it.

A separate peace

Having recognized that they have made mistakes, they tend to be forgiving. A Separate Peace was popular in high school classrooms for many years, in a past that now seems almost a foreign country. Teenagers are in a stage of life where friendship is first being explored with near adult intelligence. The book clarifies the extent to which our friends–-other people in general–-exist in our consciousness partly as fictions that we’ve created ourselves. We read other people with the same cognitive tools we use to read fiction. We hear scraps of dialogue, note expressions and gestures, overhear gossip–and we make inferences and interpretations.

Sometimes our inferences are wrong. In the course of A Separate Peace, the protagonist, Gene, experiences several versions of his friend, Phineas.

The tragedy occurs when Gene “understands” that Phineas has not been inviting him on adventures out of pure friendship but as part of a strategy to wreck his studies. He isn’t a true friend at all. Gene suddenly sees a pattern in their relationship and makes a meaning of it: He sees all of his friend’s overtures as deceptions intended to cause him harm. “That explained blitzball, that explained the nightly meetings of the Super Suicide Society, that explained his insistence that I share all his diversions. The way I believed that you’re-my-best-friend blabber! The shadow falling across his face if I didn’t want to do something with him!”

Anyone who spends much time with adolescents–or other people–will recognize how close friendship and rivalry often are. The fictive Phineas that exists only in Gene’s mind isn’t his first version of Phineas, and it isn’t the last, but Gene acts upon it as though he knew the truth. When he learns that, however plausible his theory of Finny’s behavior, it was still only a theory, and it was wrong, it is too late. Gene told himself a lie about another person, then believed it, and then acted on it. His accepting a version of reality without sufficient evidence leads to the death of his friend.

In less dramatic ways, we daily harm each other when we accept interpretations about why others are doing what they are doing without good enough reason. Generally, we learn to recognize this common pattern most clearly when we ourselves become the victim of someone else’s false theory about us.

Peace in a world with enemies

Sometimes we lose awareness of the third reality because it’s so easy and somehow gratifying to reading conscious evil intent into the actions of others–especially rivals. When our marvelous intelligence, our power to find patterns and to make meaning of events, is turned toward those who oppose us, it is deliciously easy to discern motive, intent, and ill will. We can see what the rascals are up to.

Everyone speaks in favor of peace as regards how others treat us, but in the midst of conflicts we tend to want peace only if it’s accompanied by victory and triumph. If the cost of peace is failure and humiliation, and it often is, then we easily find ourselves imagining strategies for bringing down those who have wronged us.

Jesus was maybe our most eloquent spokesman for peace: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. . .For if you love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?”

This is counterintuitive and unnatural. It is not a sweet little tale for the faint of heart. It is hard counsel. And it is the most clear-eyed and realistic policy ever known. Those who say such an approach is unrealistic see only a thinner and paler reality–a stark place without enough air. The true realist, seeing a reality as deep as the night sky, knows that nothing else will work.

People who have really had enemies understand the difficulty and the seriousness of what is being proposed. Still, when we have had enough of destroying and being destroyed we may see that this is the only, the inescapable route. To act on it, one must have real commitment to something larger than the self, because the self may well find temporal suffering as he lives by such a policy.

All of us move through a world of reciprocal relations, taking our turns at being both a teacher and a learner. When people act badly, the teacher assumes the problem is not evil but ignorance. Since we cannot see into another’s heart, and since from the outside evil and ignorance are indistinguishable, we choose to think that a person acting badly doesn’t understand. A person caught in an evil pattern does not need to be destroyed so much he needs to be rescued. If only he could see, the teacher thinks. And so he teaches.

This isn’t, by the way, an argument against justice or punishment. Sometimes the only way we can teach people is to bring them to justice, to bend their fierce wills by righteous judgement and just punishment. But as every good parent understands, punishment can be delivered in a spirit of love.

Two ways, one road

The peacemaker learns that there really are only two ways: one leads toward greater life–which is greater connection and greater order–and the other leads toward greater disorder–which involves separation and death. What’s more, the two ways are simply different directions on the same road. At any moment, wherever we are, we can turn around.

Though a society ordered by fear can become one ordered by law, and one ordered by law can move toward being ordered by love, this development remains delicate and easily reversed. A nation, or a family, or a person not only can move down the continuum but will tend to do so without steady work to avoid it. This is the work of peace: willing and keeping complex human orders.

Virtually all societies contain some elements of all three realities, just as nearly all persons do. The more ethical person, like the more ethical society, is struggling with the higher concerns.

People who have chosen the way of the teacher understand that authority can have liberating power, and that this grows out of the world’s abundance rather than its scarcity. Descartes had described mankind as a people lost in the woods. Because there are many ways out of the woods, people cannot agree which to pursue. There may be many “correct” ways to play a symphony, but if the musicians each follow individual interpretations, they are deprived of a beautiful music that none can make alone. The authority of the conductor sets them free.

Leadership is necessary and difficult, and people who are not competing for glory tend to be thankful for people who are willing to carry its burdens. Peace is hard work, and a peaceful society is a busy society. We need to tend the garden, caring for all the systems that provide us with basic necessities; we need to bear each other’s burdens, looking around for any who are poorly clothed, poorly fed, or sick who need our help; and we need to work at liberating those who are captive to misfortune, bad habits, inadequate education, or political corruption. Peace slips away, sometimes, simply because it is so demanding, and people begin seeing other things to want that, at first, seem so much easier.

Which stories?

As we find the stories, both in books and in living, that we will pass on, we need to remember that stories that only evoke fear are not as good as those that also teach an understanding of principles, and those that only clarify principles are not as good as those that in addition encourage peace. More specifically, a story that leads me to take delight in caring for my family is better than one that encourages me to look out only for myself, and one that tempts me to care for the welfare of the whole tribe is better than one that suggests my obligations end with my family, and one that shows me how to feel compassion for all of humanity is better than one that leads me to think of outsiders as enemies. One that instills a reverence for all of creation is about as good as stories get.

The best stories allow us to glimpse the largest reality, and they give us courage to work at joining. The right stories help us understand ways of living that respect the meaning and integrity of each part.

We can teach children about peace even in troubled times, because peace is never an absence of trouble. It is, primarily, an order within, a harmony with an order that is always out there. When we understand it, we see that though the things we fear look ferocious, in another sense they are deceptions without ultimate power to harm us.

We teach children peace in the same ways we teach other forms of conversation. To teach children to converse, we have to surround them with conversation and with invitations to join, letting them slowly become part of the order that existed before them. To teach them about peace we surround them to the extent we can with a peace we’ve made, showing them how it works and what the rules are and why they should love it.

For me, the work of peace remains possible without slipping into despair at the magnitude of the work that remains because of a faith, expressed by Desmond Tutu, that “we live in a moral universe, and goodness will prevail.” Such hope that the largest reality is benign and that all of history is working toward a peaceful resolution is intertwined with education because the larger the reality that people can learn to see, the more likely they are to understand peace.

When we begin feeling that the fate of the world depends on us, it becomes difficult to avoid either becoming warlike or falling into despair. But no matter how urgent things appear around us, our first responsibility is to establish peace within ourselves. If we try to solve problems without an inner peace, our energies will most likely be organized into the contention and conflict we had hoped to resolve. We cannot shove others toward peace. We cannot send our youth to peace the way we might send them to the store for milk. Instead, we need to invite them into the peace we have made.

The Third Reality is missing from Breaking Bad

Breaking BadBreaking Bad portrays the First Reality–government by fear–with great vividness and accuracy. This is the primal world where the strong do as they will. The series does a fair job with the Second Reality–government by law–though at its best this level is much more profound than the series depicts. The story is largely a contest between the criminal world and the world of law and order, and the law and order people are mainly good people, who keep the world in order and avoid being bad.

The Third Reality is missing. None of the characters seems aware of it.

Shakespeare’s darkest tragedies reference the Third Reality, and depend on an awareness of it for the horror to have its full impact. I doubt that in Elizabethan England there was any real parallel with the Team Walter groupies. Team Macbeth?

Teachers should be accountable–but to whom?


This video is an MSNBC promo–anchor Melissa Harris-Perry takes the next logical step, arguing that parents need to give their children over to the collective.

The accountability movement has persuaded many people that teachers are mainly accountable to the federal government or its surrogates–and increasingly state governments have accepted their role in education as vassals of the fed. School reformers normally discuss accountability in terms of mechanisms that allow people at the center to dictate to people in the classroom.

Where do parents fit into this scheme? Increasingly, they are simply ignored. As a teacher I’ve recognized that I have various obligations–certainly to my employer, and to some degree to the various agencies that provide funds with strings attached to schools.

But I’ve always felt that the heart of my job is to be a partner with parents–that my primary accountability is to them. They bear the main responsibility for the education of their children, and my work is to assist them in their work. Such a partnership is easy and mostly delightful when teacher and parent are on the same page regarding what is good for young people. For the most part, I haven’t encountered serious conflicts with parents as to what is reasonable and desirable for their children in an English classroom.

Lately, I’m being told that I am accountable to the collective. I would feel better about that if I could detect the slightest trace of irony in those who say such things. But they seem serious. Zealous, even. My disquiet is fed by awareness that, historically, people who fantasize about collectives don’t rest until they include everyone. Collectives work by creating total worlds–or antiworlds, in James Kalb’s view. They aren’t self-correcting. They keep expanding until they collapse.

At bottom, collectives distrust all outsiders, because they are not based on truth and thus need to constantly repress all voices except the orthodox. The collective desires to replace all other agents as the focus of attention, and this is complicated by competing visions. For the school collectivists, a natural question is “Why should accountability to the collective stop at the school house doors?” If education is a socializing process orchestrated by experts to meet goals set by the Managers, how can parents be left out of the scheme? For those who accept utilitarian principles–which includes most collectivists–arguments about the rights of parents sound nonsensical, remnants of an old order that is rapidly fading into a new order.

It’s only a matter of time before the accountability movement expands to hold parents accountable. It’s the sort of reversal that lies at the heart of ideology. Old schoolers believe the government, including its schools, is accountable to citizens. Many parents still think there is more to education than a global competition to eat each other’s lunches. Such a view springs from a poorly imagined economy, based on a simplistic Darwinian psychology, that imagines the economy as a competition one either wins or loses.

Fortunately, there are other ways to live. I love my garden, but I assume others in other places can also create wonderful gardens, and I hope they do. It doesn’t detract from mine at all, and the reality that they share my love for many things makes me happy. There are no real limits to the number of jobs we can have, or the amount of wealth we can create. We do not need to eat at others’ expense, and the highest and best use of schooling is not to engage in dog eat dog competition with the rest of the world.

I want each of my students to learn as much as he or she is willing to learn, without trammeling the freedom of each person–a freedom that has deep roots in the soul. I can entice and persuade, but I cannot coerce.

I want my students to contemplate what we know of love and of justice and of fear by considering many stories, both in fiction and in history. I want to them to think of that simple progression and what it means in the many, many places we have seen it: from fear to justice and from justice to love. I want to help them deepen and broaden their understanding of human flourishing, quite beyond the skills they need for the workplace–although I also believe that work will always be foundational to the good life, and that some knowledge and skill that are useful is central to life.

I want my students to love the places they live and the people they live with, and to come to better and better understanding of how those places work and who those people are. I want their sense of community to keep expanding, to include not just those who are here now but those who were once here, and those who are yet to come. I want them to think about how to live in ways that do not depend on the destruction of other places or the impoverishment of other people.

I’m having trouble seeing how the collectivists are much help with any of this. I prefer a world in which collectivists and teachers are both accountable to parents.

Loyalty to family and place?–or to career and calling?

Choice, Part 1

choiceDSCN8976What is most important–to eat food or to fulfill one’s duties? It’s easy to imagine a situation where one is hungry but also obligated to some task that interferes with grabbing a bite to eat, but to pose the dilemma as a simple choice doesn’t help much. The attempt to make a choice more clear by reducing it to simple terms fails. Of course, to live we must eat. But will we die before we get the job done?

A similar sort of confusion through failed simplification often haunts the dilemma of localism versus careerism. Should one remain loyal to one’s family and community or should one pursue one’s personal development and calling? I’m delighted that more people–such as the Porchers–are seeing that such a choice is a real dilemma. Public schools can be quite obtuse in their assumption that the meaning of life is to be found in the pursuit of higher test scores, attendance at better colleges, and success in higher-paying jobs with better benefits. Those who choose to make local loyalties a priority in their lives would do well not to make their case by arguing that education and career success have little value.

We have to judge. It’s our primary work as human beings. The structure of the human mind immersed in time compels us to it. We can only do one thing at a time. So if we decide, for example, to build a canoe, we cannot use the same time to weed a garden. Even more fundamental, we can only think one thought at a time, so while we are struggling to compose a sonnet we cannot use the same time to research a business plan. Since we can’t stop thinking and are free to think whatever we want, what occupies our minds moment by moment represents the most significant judgments we have made.

The progress of modern societies have brought more and more of life into the realm of choice. A person born into a traditional Crow culture in eighteenth century Montana no doubt faced hard choices. The council fires to decide when and where to hunt, how to respond to Blackfeet war parties, and what remedies to try for sickness were no less demanding or complex than today’s cabinet meetings. And then, as now, courage was valued but temptations toward cowardice were plentiful.

But for most Crows, there was only one world—the world of the tribe embedded in Creation. Although they made hard judgments within the story of who they were, they encountered few suggestions that that story was only a choice. It was given, and, for the most part, accepted without question. A Crow born today, like anyone else, will hear the story of Christianity, the story of traditional Crow religion, the story of Bhuddism, but also the story of rock and roll hedonism, the story of economic determinism, the story of humanistic psychology and dozens of others. I met a Crow teenager in Pryor, Montana, who had hung a cross from a chain around his neck under a t-shirt with a picture of the heavy metal band Metallica. Over this he wore a jacket beaded with the emblem of his clan. Quite postmodern–cultures from all times and places jostling together on a shrinking planet. The best definition of modernism might simply be “competing narratives.”

Because we have different versions of reality available, we are not only free to choose, we are forced to choose. Some people face this daunting task by pretending that it doesn’t matter. They reduce fundamental judgments to “lifestyles” as though they are only deciding among the season’s fashion in shoes. We can adopt the libertarian view that all choices are equal, in that they equally represent an individual’s choice. But we know it’s not true. There is something fundamentally better about a wealthy movie star who spends a fortune starting a school for third world children and one who buys and yacht and blows a fortune on cocaine. Drawing lines with precision is difficult, but seeing that there are significant differences is easy. Some cultures build hospitals but some build only cannons. Some create places dominated by terror, some are held in order by law, and a few manage to organize themselves according to the principles of love.

Note that I am now talking about principles. To clarify the choices we face, we need to understand the principles that are in conflict. Principles are ideals. They are the rules not of the world as it is but of a world as we want it to be. The rules of life as Machiavelli tried to derive them from history may suggest that lying and theft sometimes work, in the sense that people sometimes do profit from them. People may indeed choose lying and theft when they advance one’s self-interest. There are many places where such principles are widely adopted governing principles, and we can see quite vividly the sort of world that results. The principles we choose to live by become our vote for the sort of world that humanity is making.

Clarifying principles is vital, but it’s not the end of the work. As an educational matter, it’s the beginning. The hard choices are not between good and evil so often as they are between two goods. Good principles are often in conflict, and in the ongoing work of choice our thinking becomes more complex as as understanding increases. Duty or food? Family or career? The question are less either/or and more when, and to what degree.

The choice that God gave Adam and Eve was to remain in the garden forever, in a sort of innocent stasis, or to eat the fruit that led to knowledge of good and evil–making one more like God, the text says. Mortality and a thousand sorrows were part of the choice, but it was knowledge of good and evil that they chose, and we remain their heirs. It’s not a simple choice. In this world, good and evil are entangled and sometimes inseparable, like wheat and quack grass. It’s also true that evil events bring to pass good consequences–as the Reign of Terror and Napoleon’s dictatorship deepened our understanding of what is needed to realize freedom, brotherhood, and equality. Each of us must do for ourselves our part of that work that began long ago–gaining knowledge of good and evil. It’s a necessary knowledge to any who would be good, which is a stronger and more complex thing than to be innocent.

Save the culture? First, we must save ourselves

story-file0002003501002Rod Treher argues that conservatives need to do better at presenting their views through stories.

Argument has its place, but story is what truly moves the hearts and minds of men. The power of myth—which is to say, of storytelling—is the power to form and enlighten the moral imagination, which is how we learn right from wrong, the proper ordering of our souls, and what it means to be human. Russell Kirk, the author of The Conservative Mind whose own longtime residence in his Michigan hometown earned him the epithet “Sage of Mecosta,” considered tending the moral imagination to be “conservatism at its highest.”

Through the stories we tell, we come to understand who we are and what we are to do. This is true for both individuals and communities.

Stories, as carriers of ideas, have consequences. Lincoln, upon meeting Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, supposedly remarked, “Is this the little woman who made the great war?”

Dreher argues that ordinary people understand policies through stories. This is not a new idea. James Davison Hunter critiques it in To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. He points out that Evangelicals “have been distinguished by their massive cultural output in books and book publishing, magazines, radio, music, bible studies, theology, Christian education at all levels, and so on” (29). This cultural production has not ended their cultural marginalization, and Hunter offers eleven propositions that might explain why creating conservative stories probably won’t lead to a conservative renaissance in the larger culture.

One of these is that “cultures change from the top down, rarely if ever from the bottom up.” Though sometimes economic revolutions and social movements appear to result from mobilizing ordinary people, “the work of world-making and world-changing are, by and large, the work of elites: gatekeepers who provide creative direction and managment within spheres of social life. Even where impetus for change draws from popular agitation, it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites” (41).

Dreher notes correctly that “Stories work so powerfully on the moral imagination because they are true to human experience in ways that polemical arguments are not. And because the moral imagination often determines which intellectual arguments—political, economic, theological, and so forth—will be admitted into consideration, storytelling is a vital precursor to social change.” It probably is a precursor. But the distance that will remain to be traveled even if conservatives develop powerful stories is daunting. Dreher stops short of arguing that stories are sufficient to cause widespread changes in the culture, and if Hunter is correct, such change usually requires the participation of elites and their institutions:

…cultures are profoundly resistant to intentional change—period. They are certainly resistant to the mere exertion of will by ordinary individuals or by a well-organized movement of individuals. The idea, suggested by James Dobson, that “in one generation, you change the whole culture”13 is nothing short of ludicrous. Change in political systems and economic conditions can occur relatively quickly but the most profound changes in culture typically take place over the course of multiple generations. The most profound changes in culture can be seen first as they penetrate into the linguistic and mythic fabric of a social order. In doing so, it then penetrates the hierarchy of rewards and privileges and deprivations and punishments that organize social life. It also reorganizes the structures of consciousness and character, reordering the organization of impulse and inhibition. One cannot see change taking place in these ways. It is not perceptible as an event or set of events currently unfolding. Rather, cultural change of this depth can only be seen and described in retrospect, after the transformation has been incorporated into a new configuration of moral controls.

In this light, we can see that evangelism, politics, social reform, and the creation of artifacts—if effective—all bring about good ends: changed hearts and minds, changed laws, changed social behaviors. But they don’t directly influence the moral fabric that makes these changes sustainable over the long term, sustainable precisely because they are implicit and as implicit, they form the presuppositional base of social life. Only indirectly do evangelism, politics, and social reform effect language, symbol, narrative, myth, and the institutions of formation that change the DNA of a civilization.

Imagine, in this regard, a genuine “third great awakening” occurring in America, where half of the population is converted to a deep Christian faith. Unless this awakening extended to envelop the cultural gatekeepers, it would have little effect on the character of the symbols that are produced and prevail in public and private culture. And, without a fundamental restructuring of the institutions of culture formation and transmission in our society—the market, government-sponsored cultural institutions, education at all levels, advertising, entertainment, publishing, and the news media, not to mention church—revival would have a negligible long-term effect on the reconstitution of the culture. Imagine further several social reform movements surrounding, say, educational reform and family policy, becoming very well organized and funded, and on top of this, serious Christians being voted into every major office and appointed to a majority of judgeships. Legislation may be passed and judicial rulings may be properly handed down, but legal and political victories will be short-lived or pyrrhic without the broad-based legitimacy that makes the alternatives seem unthinkable.

Dreher holds out the hope that “if conservatives become better storytellers, they might save the culture.” They might, but I suspect a more useful goal might be to strengthen families and churches, to withstand onslaughts from a dominant culture than knows how to care for neither.

True stories in an age of fictions

“No society can be just or good that is built on falsehood.” Stanley Hauerwas

watership_down___the_great_patrol_by_fisi-d4oy7xfI spent some of the day outside reading Stanley Hauerwas. He deals with some of the same concepts as Alasdair MacIntyre–the connection between narrative and social ethics, for instance–but his style is simpler and less technical. I think high schoolers in an AP class could follow much of his thinking. His essay “A Story-Formed Community” lays out quite vividly some basic ideas about communities and politics that would be useful for young people to discuss, but the essay is organized as a reading of Watership Down, so some familiarity with that novel would help. I’ll watch the film version, which I’ve never seen. Maybe that would provide enough background, given that Hauerwas uses extensive re-telling of the story to make his points.

He uses the novel because “the best way to learn the significance of stories is by having our attention drawn to stories through a story.” The significance of stories, for a polity, is fundamental. Communities are founded on stories, and they sustain themselves as members tell their personal stories, finding how they fit within and extend the founding stories. Arguments and political discussions “are subordinate to the ability of a community to live and tell its stories.”

It’s a useful balance in an age awash in policy discussions and multi-step plans. The stories people tell and the stories they believe they are part of matter more than any number of contests between wonks. Who we are will shape what happens, and we are creatures formed and driven by stories.

A story is true to the extent that it can accommodate the pressures of actual events. Societies whose stories can no longer accommodate that pressure do not remain communities, though they may produce Potkemtin villages and other forms of seeming. Seeming is the first refuge of a scoundrel. Hauerwas contrasts the society of Russia under Stalin with communities formed and sustain by religion: “It is well-known that Stalin responded to Pius XII’s condemnation with the taunting question about how many divisions had the pope. Most assume that Stalin’s point is well taken, for without divisions the power of the church counts for nothing. Yet in spite of all appearances to the contrary, Stalin’s response masks the fundamental weakness of his position. A leadership that cannot stand the force of truth must always rely on armies.”

That’s quite true. Lying and deceiving are forms of weakness, and when leaders begin lying they also begin arranging stronger methods of control than persuasion. Audits, maybe. Inquisitions. “Peace is bult on truth,” said Hauerwas, “for order built on lies must resort ultimately to coercion.” I would be more optimistic about our future if Americans seemed more attentive, more outraged, at the steady stream of deceptions and misdirections flowing from the current administration.

Justice is based on truth, and freedom is based on justice. The only real defense good people usually have against bad people is the truth. Systems of justice are always systems of ascertaining the truth–of figuring out amid conflicting testimony what really happened, of unmasking liars and shedding light on deceptions. There’s no other way to work at getting the right things done. Creating fog and confusion is the stock in trade of criminals angling to get possession of other people’s property. They don’t care that if we can’t keep what we’ve made and acquired needed for the way of life we’ve chosen, if we can’t keep the place we’ve created for ourselve and our fellows, then we can’t stay free.

The president’s chronic deceptiveness is necessary because people would not tolerate his designs if they were clear–good and just people may still constitute a majority.

One thing to do, as we wait to see what happens, is to tell and discuss the stories that lie at the heart of the better world that we’ve seen, sometimes in true texts, sometimes in daily life. Ultimately, stories are more powerful than armies. Caesar and Napoleon had far less impact on the world than Buddha and Jesus. The best story wins.