Chesterton v. Sacramone

Tomorrow, I head East, to the gentleman’s farm recently occupied by my brother, his wife, and their six children. They have acquired goats. I believe chickens are next. Sister-in-Law plans to grow flowers and sell them. Vegetable gardens are in order. Sixteen gorgeous acres, on the outskirts of a very, very small town. An old (but wonderfully built) farmhouse and two barns. A spring-fed pond. Flatland and a hill. Fantastic trees.

Blogging will be (much) lighter for the next couple of weeks, but this seems like an appropriate time to muster some response to this post by Mr. Anthony Sacramone on the First Things blog. And so…(Sacramone’s post, with my comments in parantheses):

Among several books I intend someday to write, one stands out: The Great Indoors: Why Going Outside Is Vastly Overrrated.

(Very funny opening. Kudos to Mr. Sacramone.)

Now is probably the time to pitch it—contrarian cant at its finest—given all the hugga-mugga over Crunchy Cons and the various websites supported by sundry disciples of Wendell Berry, who believe consumerism, free markets, and technological obsolescence are destroying our souls, families, and communities.

(Does anyone argue that consumerism is good for our souls, families, and communities? That a life spent in the pursuit of acquisition is beneficial for souls, families, and communities? If so, what are the arguments?)

This concern is an old one. And the solution—high-tail it for the Ozarks—is also old. I believe Aristophanes was the first to give it dramatic form (while side-swiping poor old Socrates at the same time): Abandon the cities, abandon false patriotism, abandon the quack sciences and gimcrack philosophies that threaten old religion; abandon the battlefields, politics, and sausage salesmen.

(I get a whiff of ageism here: because the concern is old, it is not worthwhile. Perhaps not even worth considering.)

This was old comedy at war with everything new, improved, and by implication, synthetic. And Christians are again becoming suckers for this type of plea.

(But how do you really feel, Mr. Sacramone?)

All right, it’s not the apogee of spirituality to log on and buy the latest iteration of an iPod or an iMac or an eyesore of a Hummer. And yes, it’s probably wise to limit your daily consumption of pesticides to roughly half your bodyweight. I’ll grant you that kids are probably spending ’way too much time wide-eyed in front of the flat panel ogling yet another edition of Grand Theft Auto or the director’s cut of Girls Gone Wild 13—Logical Positivists Stripped Bare. It also couldn’t hurt to be able to distinguish between one type of tree and another type of tree, if just to make a more detailed report for the police when you drive into one while talking on your cell.

But surely the Scriptures teach that the New Jerusalem will be a city—not a town, a village, or a set of mud huts.

(Well put. Perhaps it is also worth noting, as long as we’re going to Scripture, just how many analogies Jesus draws between the Kingdom of Heaven and farming, how many agricultural images are employed. Mustard seeds, vineyards, seeds scattered on various types of ground… For the record, I’m not quite a Wendell Berry disciple. I live on the edge of a big city, and I like many, many things about the place where I live. And I’m happy to admit that I do love our gardens.)

And, meanwhile, the City of Man is not Hicksville. It’s the Big Apple, where a “piebald Parliament, an Anarchasis Cloots congress of all kinds of that multiform pilgrim species, man” (to quote Melville) congregates, to buy and sell, to breed and forego breeding, to invent a new mouse trap and spit in the street. The city is where natural law, lawlessness, and the Sword of the Spirit do battle on their Broadways; where multiple cultures jostle for breathing room in the same cathedrals; and where cultural barbarities do us all the favor of advertising the Fall without our having to read about all those “begats” once again.

(Um, the fall gets advertised wherever two or three are gathered. Faulkner didn’t need to set his stories in Mammon City.)

The city is where the first Christians did polemical battle with old pagans, and where the many heard that Christ died for not a few.

(Even my brother’s new home, a tiny town, has three different churches within a few blocks of one another – and the town is only a few blocks. You’ll find religious differences wherever two or three are gathered as well.)

As for greed, envy, lust, and all those other black arts for which the city is a synonym, you can’t tell me Farmer Jones doesn’t practice them in spades, simply on smaller luxuries, more primitive needs, and stockier women.

(Well, maybe I can’t and maybe I can. I can suggest that a lack of anonymity will prevent some men from committing some sins that they might have committed if they were in a big city where nobody knew them nor cared what they were doing. I can suggest that a sense of mutual responsibility for the civic good is easier to maintain in a small community, where one’s actions have more noticeable reverberations. This condition has its dangers, of course, but it is not without its virtues. And it seems to me hard to deny that the city affords more opportunity for certain sorts of sins than a small town could ever hope to do. This may be what Sacramone is getting at with “more primitive needs.”)

So instead of keeping up with the latest E: True Hollywood Story, he’s only keeping up a new pair of bib overalls, because he won’t be outclassed by that wise-acre who runs the general store. And tell me what all that fresh air and sunshine gets you: death by radiation poisoning. The city, on the other freckled hand, offers pollution, tall buildings, and plenty of indoors—manifold opportunities to elude that bullying cancer-causer without having to slather on an SPF 67 that stinks faintly of driftwood and dead sea life. And how many of those countrified ex-urbans bootleg Palm Pilots, Blackberries, and wirelessly networked laptops like so many bottles of Prohibition-era gin—if for no other reason than to keep their blogs live and comment-moderating in order to warn the rest of us how the modern age is killing us softly.

(See, this would actually be an interesting discussion – the extent to which a person may partake of the goods of a technological society while at the same time bemoaning the ill effects of said technology on society. But the interesting part is undermined by the silliness about sunscreen and bib overalls.)

The country, I’ll concede, may be where you find community, if by that you mean your next-door neighbor walking uninvited through your canted screen door to borrow a few shotgun shells to dust back yet another coyote. But it is also where you are apt to find the same old prejudices, superstitions, and gross habits masquerading as traditions.

(No, by “community,” I mean people who actually know one another and talk to one another, simply because they live together in some real way, instead of simply living just across the hall. Is there any isolation like the isolation of one lonely soul in the midst of the urban throng?)

Not that the big city is bereft of such things, but at least you’re confronted with competing and contradictory prejudices, superstitions, and habits. In short, it’s hard to stay a city person for long and not be made aware that there’s someone else out there—probably right down the hall in a nicer apartment—who thinks you’re an idiot.

(And here’s where I really disagree with Sacramone – me and Chesterton both. From his book Heretics: “It is not fashionable to say much nowadays of the advantages of the small community. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the willfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community, we can choose our companions. In a small community, our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies, groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The man of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colors than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell….If we were tomorrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known.”)

And if that’s not spiritual—to be humbled by people richer and more powerful, smarter and more beautiful, than you—then I don’t know what is.

(Well, I suppose being humbled by those with more money, power, and beauty is spiritual in that one’s pride is bruised. But first, there are those with more money, power, and beauty in any community, no matter how big or how small, so that’s not quite an argument for the city. And second, that kind of humbling doesn’t strike me as having a great deal of spiritual worth, in the sense of progressing on the road to holiness. If those things matter to you – if money, power, and beauty are what you want, then it’s likely that you’re going to be jealous and resentful. Hard to see the virtue there.)

Humility, not to mention a nagging, gnawing sense of want for all those things you’re never going to get, is the springboard of true conversion.

(Interesting. It seems to me the nagging, gnawing sense of want for all those things you’re never going to get is the springboard to a live of worldly striving. And being humbled – especially via someone else’s show of money, power, or beauty – is not the same as gaining humility.)

So draw the blinds, praise the Lord, and pass the universal remote.

(Well, they do have satellite dishes in the country as well. And people who stay inside all day and watch TV.)


  1. Cubeland Mystic says

    I have been in the middle of some of these debates. Since I am more crunchy than contra, I can state that there is not much of relationship between politics and my desire for a simple life. Everyone assumes one is going to move to the country to farm. This is wrong. Not moving to the country but forsaking all things modern. I’ll move to the country when there is realizable DSL, and corporations have forsaken their 19th century mentalities about telecommuting.

    I read this on First Things and it is typical criticism of what I do. Crunchies criticize and mistrust technology and capitalism. That is my tendency too, and I keep an eye on it. I have to go to my really high tech job for a big transnational, so I will wrap up. Both sides are ignorant of the mindsets and activities of the other side in this internal debate. Dreher was wrong to mix politics into the debate and I think time will prove this. However, he was very correct on a lot of his criticisms. In the end it is up to us individuals to carve out the world we want to live in because if you don’t there are plenty of politicians and marketing executives that will carve out a worlds for you to live in that funds and supports the world they want to live in. That’s my two cents if you want the two dollar version you’ll have to wait till after work. Please blog from the farm. Your assignment is to tell us everything going on during high summer. I’d love to read that.

  2. Notrelatedtoted says

    “Both sides are ignorant of the mindsets and activities of the other side in this internal debate.”

    Amen, brother.

    I’m not sure Sacramore is doing anything beyond reacting to a particular line of thought. But his comments are full of the typical urban prejudice towards those who live rurally. And the underlying assumption is that urbanites are more intelligent, more well-rounded, and more cultured. So, really, his piece is just an act of self-justification.

    I agree in the general sense that moving to a farm will not solve the problems faced by the Christian in the 21st century. By and large, rural living is not what it once was unless you really and intentionally close yourself off to the rest of the world. On those points, Sacramore’s piece has relevance, even if it doesn’t really work as a creed. But in my opinion, the city is highly overrated – nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. Too bad I’m stuck here…

  3. Steve Nicoloso says

    Matthew, I assume you’ve seen citified and certified dandy Michael Brendan Dougherty’s intemperate but well-aimed response to Sacramone’s unfortunate FT posting. (Larison piles it on here.) For those who don’t know, Sacramone is actually the brilliant and hilarious movie reviewer known as Luther, You Idiot!… but alas, he has much to learn about the “Crunchy” sensibility, which is merely , I continue to maintain, at root a reclamation of authentic (classical) conservatism from the jaws of free market libertarian ideologues: If you’re in favor of building big box stores and laying acres of blacktopped parking lot, what precisely, as a so-called “conservative”, are you “conserving”?

    Authentic (lately called “crunchy”) conservativism has never been about sending everyone back to small towns, or a pretended superiority of farm life over city life. Which, to wit, makes Sacramone’s well-written screed just all the more sad, because it so eloquently sets itself against an argument that no one is making.

    Authentic conservatism is… (duh! alert)… about conserving something: generally a way of life, a sense of place, habits of thought, traditions, inherited (even visceral) notions of beauty, truth, and virtue, all seen as a unity of good. Thus the natural family, being itself the chief vehicle for such conservation as well as a positive good in and of itself, plays a prominent role, along with an instinctive distrust of all things (whether corporate or governmental) big and/or ideological.

    All of which is to say that an athentic conservatism, the pursuit of genuine communities, sustainable lifestyles, localism, in short, all of what JPII came to call “subsidiarity” is not the singular province of rural America, much less that of Free Trade Libertarians. Cities are a fine place to practice the Discipline of Place, should that be the place that one happens to find oneself.

    BTW, to which Ted are you not related, notrelatedtoted?


  4. Cubeland Mystic says

    Here’s the two dollar’s worth.

    I’ve bloged on the contra crunchy site and on crunchy conservatives site for several months now. I think I have a good feel for both sides enough to comment. The contras raised a lot of good thought provoking criticisms. For example “efficiency” has brought us an unprecedented quality of life. Efficiency in computing will eliminate needless bureaucracy and red tape. Not to mention efficiencies in process eliminates a lot of extra transportation hops for goods to wholesaler warehouses or big corporate warehouses awaiting distribution to retail outlets. Manufacturers can direct ship products to the retailers or even the end consumer. In the old way, a product might get moved several times before finally arriving at the end consumer, with manufacturer direct shipping the product ships only once directly to the consumer. That translates into fuel savings. This is kind of a simplistic example but it makes a point. One can make even stronger arguments supporting efficiency due to the enormous amounts of instant information made available to knowledge workers (scientists, engineers, business analysts etc.) enabling them to be more productive.

    My experience with these efficiency measures is that the technology is very difficult to change once it is in place. It may limit choices, it forces companies to implement processes that benefit the technology rather than the consumer. We’ve all seen the auto checkout lines at the grocery store, the intent is to not have cashiers. If you don’t like that you won’t have a choice. Where I was disappointed with the contras is that they did not seem to want to discuss the notion that big corporations are not conservative institutions. I’ve seen little conservatism in my career working for transnational corporations. Also, there is a lot of welcome government involvement in these corporations which on principle seems non-conservative. The mix of powerful technology, powerful corporations, and a huge government is something to keep our eyes on as we progress into stronger integrations of the three.

    I see conservatism manifesting itself in a simple lifestyle. We should strive to be prosperous, albeit a modest prosperity. All of these things can be done in either an urban or agrarian environment. Also, technology can play a huge role in making this happen. Don’t be surprised if a Shire like existence is made possible because of technology. But in the end it won’t be a government or a big transnational that makes a simple life possible, it is us who will make this possible.

    Rod’s mistake came when he criticized the Republican party. If he would have tried to define conservative values like conserving natural resources, doing things the most efficient and sustainable way the backlash would have been less. When he specifically took aim at the Republican party he ruffled feathers and opened himself up to all kinds of criticism, and some of it harsh. In all the years that I’ve worked with bleeding edge systems and software, grew and preserved fruits & vegetables, made homemade wine, built or repaired parts of my home here in the big city, I always thought this was conservative, I never once linked it to politics.

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