by Berry Friesen
There is popular discontent in the land—an intuitive sense that we are on the wrong path, that we have lost our way. We see evidence of this discontent in the erratic voting behavior of the American people, choosing inexperienced and marginally qualified politicians such as George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, one after the other.
Can we hear it? Do we perceive what this popular discontent is saying?
To liberals, I hear it saying, “Your vision of the good life is barren. It provides great freedom, happiness and self-fulfillment to the current generation, but shows little concern for those coming next. You render us cut flowers, beautiful for a short time but unable to sustain ourselves because we have no roots.”
To conservatives, I hear it saying, “You proclaim the importance of traditions, of roots. But you water our roots with the poison of corporate neo-liberalism, which makes money and the market the measure of all things. You leave us desiccated and weak, unable to sustain coming generations.”
This popular discontent—this populism—contrasts with a distant call from the “water protectors” of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota. When explaining why they resist the oil pipeline, they speak of “the seven generations” who will depend on the water of the Missouri River. Listen to Joni Sarah White interpret this wisdom:
“Each Indian Nation has its own sacred covenant with their maker . . . a sacred trust that binds their existence and spirit with those that have come before and those yet to travel . . . a journey sculpted by that trust. It is a bridge for today that connects all that has been with all that is yet to be; a duty to act here and now to preserve and protect what was and what will be. Without it, for Native people there can be no tomorrow.”
“Seven Generations is a river and we, my friends and family, are in the midst of its current. We the People will continue to insure its waters are defended, clean and pure.”
Tell me, is this a liberal voice? A conservative voice? Or, in this talk of “seven generations,” do we hear a voice fresh and life-giving because it cuts across the barrenness of the liberal/conservative divide?
I hear this same emphasis on “the generations” in the Psalms. For example, listen to Psalm 119:89-90.
“The LORD exists forever; your word is firmly fixed in heaven. Your faithfulness endures to all generations, you have established the earth and it stands fast.”
Yet this is an emphasis too rarely heard in the debates I am party to, whether those debates concern church teaching about sexuality or the construction of a gas pipeline through local forests and farmland. In such debates, individualistic assumptions reign supreme, couched in terms of personal happiness or the inviolability of financial profit and the marketplace. A larger sense of community—giving coherence to our individual lives and spanning the generations—seems increasingly elusive.
As we enter 2017, this is my wish: whether we regard ourselves as liberals/progressives or as conservatives/traditionalists, we will give high priority to self-critique. Why isn’t my vision connecting with more people? What are these “populists” looking for that my liberalism/conservatism does not provide?
It’s not only here in the US that popular disconnect is ascendant; it’s true of Europe too. “Is it possible to have populism without racism?” by Benjamin L. McKean provides helpful commentary on the contrasting ways this populism is playing out in Europe and the US.
Each of us must do his/her own work to exit the liberal/conservative cul-de-sac we’ve been given and enter into fruitful engagement with our time and place. The seven generations motif of Native peoples is one such path. Reading Rod Dreher and friends at The American Conservative is another (here is one example of the kinds of dialogue Dreher encourages).
My own effort in this regard was shaped by a couple of authors, one of whom was Christopher Lasch, an American historian whose True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics impacted me as much as any book I’ve ever read. For those willing to dip a toe into the stream of Lasch’s writings, I suggest this commemorative essay by Susan McWilliams.
But be warned: Lasch may spoil your day. He had an incisive way of spotting the myriad ways progressive folks “absorb avant garde ideas only to put them at the service of consumer capitalism.”
Shortly before dying of cancer in 1994 at the age of 61, Lasch lamented “the modernist ideal of individuals emancipated from convention, constructing identities for themselves as they choose, leading their own lives as if life itself were a work of art” (The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy at 234). Within such a worldview, “religion is consistently treated as a source of intellectual and emotional security, not as a challenge to complacency and pride” (242). Thus, the “purposes of the Almighty” are neatly folded into smug assumptions related to the inevitability of human progress and the paramount value of personal happiness and fulfillment. Former priorities—such as a community context in which to share life’s difficulties, support future generations and embrace life’s paradoxes—recede from view.
In contrast, Lasch pointed to a 19th century “republican tradition” that pre-dated modern liberalism and outlined a very different pathway to rich relationships, an enlivened spirit and an equitable world. Represented in American history by writers as diverse as Jonathan Edwards, Orestes Brownson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Martin Luther King, Lasch claimed the memory of this tradition still resonates within blue-collar America, even though it has been largely lost among more highly educated classes.
To be sure, many working class people have become as liberal as the rest of us in their preoccupations with comfort, consumption, self-expression, entertainment and the pursuit of happiness. But especially among older folks, the memory of another way remains: loyalty to family, faith and friends; solidarity with one’s neighbors and class; a commitment to work and productivity; an acceptance of life’s limits; a desire to leave descendants amid at least as much friendship, equity and opportunity as we’ve enjoyed.
In part, this memory is what spurs the populism roiling the United States and Europe these days. May 2017 be the year we stop seeing this as a problem and begin seeing it as an opportunity.
Berry Friesen lives in Lancaster, PA and is part of the East Chestnut Street Mennonite congregation in that city. He blogs at http://www.bible-and-empire.net