Here’s a simple observation that arrested my attention: Airports are Non-Places.
I’ve had connecting flights in Salt Lake City, but I’ve never been outside the airport. I wouldn’t say that I’ve been to Salt Lake City. Why is that? I’ve been within the city limits, just like Edward Snowden is within the borders of Russia. The best explanation I have is that airports are not places. They are non-places, extreme manifestations of modernity.
The Geography of Nowhere traces America’s evolution from a nation of Main Streets and coherent communities to a land where every place is like no place in particular, where the cities are dead zones and the countryside is a wasteland of cartoon architecture and parking lots.
In elegant and often hilarious prose, Kunstler depicts our nation’s evolution from the Pilgrim settlements to the modern auto suburb in all its ghastliness. The Geography of Nowhere tallies up the huge economic, social, and spiritual costs that America is paying for its car-crazed lifestyle. It is also a wake-up call for citizens to reinvent the places where we live and work, to build communities that are once again worthy of our affection. Kunstler proposes that by reviving civic art and civic life, we will rediscover public virtue and a new vision of the common good. “The future will require us to build better places,” Kunstler says, “or the future will belong to other people in other societies.”
The Geography of Nowhere has become a touchstone work in the two decades since its initial publication, its incisive commentary giving language to the feeling of millions of Americans that our nation’s suburban environments were ceasing to be credible human habitats. Since that time, the work has inspired city planners, architects, legislators, designers and citizens everywhere. In this special 20th Anniversary edition, dozens of authors and experts in various fields share their perspective on James Howard Kunstler’s brave and seminal work.
Back to Reidy’s airport:
The impossibility of community in the airport necessitates this security apparatus, just as it does elsewhere in the modern nation. Because travelers cannot trust one another, and because there exists no cultural mechanism for inculcating and enforcing virtue, the police power of the state must be brought to bear. In the anonymity fostered by the deracination endemic to the airport, is impossible to know if the traveler behind you in the security line is drug trafficker, a terrorist, or a fugitive from justice. In case you were tempted to trust this stranger, a disembodied voice will remind you it is illegal to watch your fellow traveler’s bags. Therefore, a plethora of armed government agents must maintain order.
Ron Belgau, who writes much about Christians dealing with homosexual orientation, has a pet peeve: Christian publishers who are allergic to presenting faces of lesbian or gay Christians.
At Spiritual Friendship, has has a wall of shame, which produces at least one giggle. I note, for whatever it’s worth, that all the publishers who can’t bring themselves to show faces are Evangelical or Mormon. The one that shows a face quite starkly and frankly is Catholic.
As I was growing up, the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK, were always portrayed as a resulting from a “culture of violence” and “hatred” that showed that America was going nuts in the 1960s, first because of the Cold War and civil rights, and then Vietnam and civil rights. It turns out that history is much less dramatic. Oswald and Sirhan were troubled men of radical politics who wanted to murder their ideological enemies, Oswald on behalf of Castro and Sirhan on behalf of the Palestinian cause. James Earl Ray was a two-bit criminal and racist with his own delusions of grandeur. It’s hard to see how these disparate figures, three of almost two hundred million people, can be boiled down to being the products of some unified culture of hate and violence, much less, as is often implied, a “right-wing” culture of hate and violence. And it’s not as though if these three individuals hadn’t existed, someone else would have inevitably killed any of their victims. But the history as portrayed in popular culture seems to have been useful politically to some, and perhaps that’s the only explanation for the distortions that we need.
Anti-Catholicism has also been common among the intelligentsia. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed, “anti-Catholicism remains the one respectable form of intellectual bigotry.” During the ceremony when O’Connor was posthumously awarded the National Book Award, her editor Robert Giroux recalled one literary celebrity complaining, “Do you really think Flannery O’Connor was a great author? She’s such a Roman Catholic.” Would anyone have made a similar remark at the ceremonies honoring Philip Roth or Ralph Ellison? As poet-historian Peter Viereck commented, “Catholic baiting is the anti-Semitism of the liberals.” But the left enjoys no monopoly on anti-Catholicism. Despite some ecumenical progress in recent years, it remains a persistent prejudice among Southern fundamentalists and Evangelicals. A New York leftist and an Alabama Pentecostal may not agree on much, but too often they share a dislike of Catholics.
This last point needs to be clarified to avoid any misunderstanding. Art does not need to be religious. There are great masterpieces that have no hint of religious transcendence. What I am suggesting is something more subtle and complex. Culture is a conversation. A vigorous culture contains different voices, often in active debate. The voice of religious faith enlarges and enlivens the overall dialectic of culture, even among non-believers, just as the voice of secular society keeps religious writers more alert and intelligent. Once you remove the religious as one of the possible modes of art, once you separate culture from the long-established traditions and disciplines of spirituality, you don’t remove the spiritual hungers of either artists or audience. You satisfy them more crudely with the vague, the pretentious, and the sentimental. The collapse of the culture that supported O’Connor and Porter, Powers and Merton, led to the culture that consumes teen paranormal romances, ghost reality shows, and internet Wiccans.
(Dana Gioia, The Catholic Writer Today; emphasis added, paywall likely)
By the way: I really miss Daniel Patrick Moynihan!
I have a lot of hope that Russell D. Moore will be a helpful successor to Richard Land as the Southern Baptists’ primary face and voice on public affairs and religious liberties. In many ways, the Falwellesque voice of Land had not only outlived its usefulness publicly, but had, in my opinion, become counter-productive.
But in the first major essay I’ve read by Moore, his steps are faltering, his tropes banal. He’s not repeating Land, but I had trouble latching onto anything substantial and nourishing.
He had several asides reflecting his acquaintance with some of Evangelicalism’s absurdities. Here’s one I liked: “Dispensationalist fascination with prophecy has waned in recent years, as Evangelicals seem to be recalibrating to the larger church tradition on eschatology.” He follows that, though, with a supposed Catholic and Orthodox fear that Evangelicals will be “raptured” out of co-belligerency in the culture wars, so I don’t know if his transitional sentence is true or mererly a segue.
But then he resorts to a weird mashup of praise and “the one respectable form of … bigotry”:
One additional factor that gives me hope for the future of humbly engaged, gospel-focused Evangelicalism is Rome. By this, I don’t necessarily mean some form of Catholic-Evangelical co-belligerence. I mean instead that the Roman Catholic Church is unlikely, at least at the magisterial level, to shift with the tides of Western culture as the state gives the sword of Caesar to protect the orthodoxies of the sexual revolution. Rome’s witness to a Christian sexual ethic will keep the question alive, and entrepreneurial Evangelicalism will be unable to bargain away its birthright without being reminded by the Vatican of what we’ve become in the process.
At the same time, Evangelical Christianity can remind Roman Catholicism that natural law is true enough so far as it goes but that the natural law points to a Judgment Seat (Rom. 2:15–16) …
Got that? Rome is blessedly unyielding on sexuality, but clueless about the Last Judgment. Sigh.
Why did the great composers keep writing those scary Dies Irae movements their masses? Maybe they, like Moore, had writer’s block and were looking for good material to rework?
This evokes for me an anecdote about ServiceMaster founder Marion Wade gently admonishing Kenneth Hanson after Hanson’s debut sermon in Wade’s Church: “Don’t try to tell us everything you know right away.” (Hanson eventually left ministry to become Wade’s right hand and successor at ServiceMaster.)
Moore’s essay, by the way, is “Evangelical Retreat?”, subtitled “A transformed American culture calls for a new and different Evangelical engagements of politics.” It resides, I fear, behind a paywall, as does the previous item, but there’s no harm trying. (It may be available in non-paywalled archives as soon as it’s not current.)
“Every discovery of an exoplanet brings us one step closer to finding a world just like ours!” said the bright voice on the intercom as my youngest son and I walked into the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. We were obviously supposed to find this exciting, presumably because a planet just like ours might have creatures somewhat like us, meaning we’re not alone in the universe. But as we wrote a few issues ago, if there is no God, no matter how many planets have sentient beings, we’re all still alone in the universe.
(David Mills, While We’re At It, First Things December 2013)
Know your enemies. Randian libertarians are among them.
Beneath Jesus’ instruction that to whom much has been given, of him much shall be required lies “the perverted Marxist notion that wealth is accumulated by ‘exploiting’ people, not by creating value,” declares a Harry Binswanger, a disciple of Ayn Rand writing on Forbes’ magazine’s website. He is objecting specifically to the “collectivist sacred cow” that the successful should give something back to the community.
“Imagine the effect on our culture, particularly on the young . . . if the moral praise showered on Mother Teresa went to someone like Lloyd Blankfein, who, in guiding Goldman Sachs toward billions in profits, has done infinitely more for mankind.” …
“Yes, that Lloyd Blankfein,” writes Jason Notte in MSN Money, responding to the column: the man “who told Congress in the wake of the financial collapse that his company didn’t create the mortgage default swaps that wrecked the economy, it just created the market for them. The same guy whose firm bet against the same products Goldman was selling to investors but saw no legal or moral impetus to tell those customers it was doing so. The same Blankfein whose company set the euro teetering on the brink of collapse by helping Greece hide its crushing debt.”
Notte ends his short response with a quote from John Adams, the Founding Fathers having experienced Binswanger’s kind of world under the English king: “Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity and happiness of the people; and not for the profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men.”
The common good, the people. Not for Adams, and for the Founding Fathers, and for every civilized and humane thinker since Plato—never mind Plato, since Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah—just a number of interacting individuals.
(David Mills, While We’re At It, First Things December 2013)
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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)