Friday, September 27, 2013

Are we at war?

I've been wanting to write this post for awhile.  Every time I read another post about how we Catholics are At War With the World, I want to give an answer to that.  But lately Pope Francis has made my response for me -- and been met with anger.

Here's what he said that got everyone so offended:

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.

“I say this also thinking about the preaching and content of our preaching. A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing. The homily is the touchstone to measure the pastor’s proximity and ability to meet his people, because those who preach must recognize the heart of their community and must be able to see where the desire for God is lively and ardent. The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.”

He said lots more, but those three paragraphs were the main ones that got people up in arms.

There were lots of reasons for this.  Some people said they'd never heard these homilies about moral imperatives, that all they ever got were touchy-feely Jesus-loves-you sermons (because apparently hearing that Jesus loves you is a bad thing) and they would just love to hear one about abortion once in awhile.  (To which I say, move to the diocese of Arlington -- we almost never get one completely without either abortion, gay marriage, or birth control.  Sometimes we get some where Jesus is barely mentioned, though.)

Some people were angry that the Pope was addressing orthodox Catholics at all.  With two-thirds of Catholics being blatant heretics and apostates (not sure where they came by that figure), wouldn't it be more appropriate to lecture them?  After all, we are the ones working for the Church!  We're the ones who follow the Pope!  We're the embattled minority!  This just gives fuel for outsiders to criticize us and say, "Hey, cool it about abortion, even your own Pope said you've beaten that topic to death."  (My answer to this is, he addresses everybody and has criticized others in the past -- why should any group be left out?  Especially the group that is his real audience, because they actually read what the Pope says.  Christmas-and-Easter Catholics mainly don't.)

Some said it couldn't possibly be directed toward them, because they aren't obsessed with a few moral rules and they always oppose the main evils of the day in context.  (However, this line disturbed me: "Pope Francis is right that in some contexts proclaiming the Gospel is a powerful aid to conversion to moral goodness."  I think they've got it backwards.  Moral goodness, without the Gospel, is a gong clanging in the wilderness.  Not to mention that Catholic moral teaching comes from God and can't be convincingly taught without reference to Him.  To think of using the Gospel as a way to get people to do what we want -- when there isn't another convenient way to do it -- rather sickens me.)  But after all the long disclaimers of how they aren't the group the Pope is talking about and how they don't need that message, they still get offended.  If the shoe doesn't fit, why get upset?  It's not your shoe.

But most took issue with his real message.  The message, as they boil it down -- and as I feel it can be fairly boiled down -- comes to this: "Don't just push your moral view on everybody.  Don't treat this as a battle.  Bring people to the truth because you love them.  And start with Jesus.  He is the source of all truth, and all your other efforts will be meaningless if you don't start there."

And no matter how you explain it, and parse it, and put it in context, that message shows a clear conflict with the attitude of conservative Catholics.  Most conservative Catholics do see it as a battle.  They are not interested in dialogue, or that worried about converting people.  The battle isn't between God and the devil, it's between the "religious right" and the "gay lobby" and/or the culture of death.  So they cheerily post article after article and meme after meme, many of which are extremely offensive to some people.  (In particular, aborted baby photos.  I'm as pro-life as anyone and I find those HIGHLY offensive.)  And then when they get themselves unfriended, they say, "See, it really is a battle.  There is no tolerance for my views.  But I have to keep at it, even if it means martyrdom."

But there's a big difference between being unfriended and being martyred.  The word martyr means witness -- by accepting death rather than deny Jesus, you witness to just how important He is.  But if you're unfriended, the only thing that happens is that this person now lacks your positive witness in his life.  If every time you open your mouth you drive people away, you are not evangelizing anyone.  You'll soon be preaching to the choir with a sense of contentment at how fearless you are, how unafraid of offending anyone.  This will make you feel good, but do no one any good.

I believe in every aspect of the Church's infallible moral teaching.  However, I don't believe, as some do, that people can figure pretty much all of it out without reference to God, and so we can convince people of it simply by talking about the natural law.  If you claim everyone secretly knows the truth in their conscience, you can justify demanding compliance out of everyone, but I have never known of one single person who gave up a life of sin and embraced one of moral rectitude without converting to some religion or other.  Specifically, I've never heard of a homosexual who broke up with their partner and lived in celibacy for the rest of their life simply because a Catholic told them it was the natural law.

If it was all so simple, why has no one figured it out?  Why did no one ever figure it out before Christ?  Why is the Old Testament full of God giving commands and people getting into worse and worse trouble?  We can't know the best way to live without reference to the one who made us.  In fact, the best way to live has to include a relationship with the one who made us.  Our lives will be lacking without that.

If we really love unbelievers, we'll want to bring them into the fullness of the joy that we have, which comes from a relationship with Christ.  We follow the moral law out of our trust we have in God, knowing that he loves us and wouldn't ask us these things to make us unhappy, but rather for our benefit.  Imposing the same rules on other people without bothering to introduce them to the reason is senseless.  The only reason I can think of for it is the desire to avoid having to deal with things we disagree with.  That's hardly a spiritual motive.

And how do we introduce people to Christ?  Is it by lectures, sarcastic memes, and self-righteous rants?  That approach isn't working; it's never worked.  It has to be with kindness, with love, with openness.  It has to come with listening to another person's stories and sharing our own.  The Pope is right -- you can't lead with "you're a sinner."  You have to lead with, "There is such a thing as goodness."

People say "the problem with the world today is that we have lost the sense of sin."  I don't believe it.  We have lost more than that -- the sense that there is any answer at all, that there is any universal standard, anything to which one could appeal.  How do you give someone a sense of sin when they don't know there's anyone they have offended?  You have to lead with God.

Because the fact is, everyone knows the Church is against abortion and birth control and homosexual acts.  What they don't know is that we're not all a load of judgmental jerks who ONLY care about those three issues and no others.  What kind of a conversation is it when you only focus on those issues on which you disagree?  It makes more sense to talk first about common ground: about how Catholics, like other decent people, are opposed to slavery and poverty and injustice and unkindness.  We could talk about how our moral code is based on profound respect for the human individual, that we don't exclude anyone from that respect, regardless of age or ability or color.

Overall I think this conversation is best had one on one; but insofar as Catholics-as-a-group are in dialogue with non-Catholics-as-a-group, the dialogue is going badly.  All you need are to read any of the comments on an article about the Catholic Church in any secular paper.  The Catholics shriek about being persecuted, misunderstood, etc., while condemning everyone else .... and the non-Catholics say that they would like to see Catholicism banned and wiped out entirely because the only things it stands for are judgment, domination, and sex abuse.  This is not a dialogue.  Does it have to be like this?

I read that famous gay-marriage article by Joseph Bottom -- yes, the whole thing, though this post is a good summary -- and I agree absolutely.  Our "this is war, make no compromise" attitude has polarized the conversation to the point where conversation can barely happen at all.  We won't stand for even civil unions because the second we do, it'll be a slippery slope and the next thing you know, the Gay Lobby will be hauling us off to prison for saying in church that we think homosexual activities are sinful.  But they won't let us refuse to bake a cake with two grooms on it, because they know perfectly well that if they let Those Intolerant Christians have their way, next think they know we'll criminalize sodomy again and they'll all be hauled off to prison.  There's no room for discussion in an atmosphere like that.

The narrative inside the Church is that Catholics, having the truth, will be good and those outside won't be as good.  They like to compare, say, Padre Pio with Miley Cyrus and say, "See?  Life in the Church -- Good.  Life outside the Church -- Bad."  But how does that leave room for the others .... that priest who seemed so holy and had such a following and molested all the altar boys?  Or that lesbian couple with six foster children who would give you their last nickel?  There's evidence all over the place that no matter how much you know, you can still act badly, while people with none of the advantages we see ourselves to have are still living out pretty good lives all the same.

But our way of explaining things leaves no room for virtuous atheists.  We imagine we're speaking to an evil world that wants to wipe us out.  How would we speak if we thought we were talking to individuals, individuals who also thought Miley Cyrus' performance was disgusting, who also give money to the poor, who believe in love and truth and goodness and human rights?  Wouldn't we start with our common ground?

I think maybe we should listen very carefully to what Pope Francis is saying.  He isn't saying we should never mention our moral teaching, or try to conceal from new converts what they will have to give up if they are baptized.  He's saying we should be a little less loud and strident about the "difficult issues" and maybe try to meet people where they are a little bit.  And it seems to me that he's been working for the Church for most of his life; he has some wisdom we could benefit from.

But what has been the response?  Loud declamations from Catholics online, or awkward excuses.  When they can't explain it away, they denounce the Pope as "naive" or "misguided" or (my favorite) "crazy Uncle Bergie."  Then, having put the Pope soundly in his place, they turn to gloating about Nancy Pelosi having been excommunicated (she wasn't).  Way to miss the teaching moment!

Maybe it's impossible for the Catholic Church, a religion of unchanging teachings and a strict moral code, to get along even politely with a world that runs on such a different standard.  And yet, if we don't try, we'll never know.  Somehow the early Christians managed to get along all right with pagan Rome, just by being noticeably more loving than anybody else.  That was the main thing anyone noticed about them.  The Romans exposed their infants, but the Christians didn't.  It impressed people that the Christians didn't.  And yet where are the documents of early Christians lambasting the Romans for that?  How many times is abortion mentioned in the New Testament?  They knew these were big problems, but they also knew the only way to address them was to bring people to Christ .... which they did, dramatically.  Maybe we could take a page from their book.

All I know is, as long as we treat this dialogue as a war, we ensure no dialogue will ever take place.  We ensure that people of good will will avoid us like the plague because we do not appear to be open to anyone.  And that, quite simply, seems not at all to be what God would want.

To hear similar things said, but much more eloquently, try a few of these excellent posts:

A Contemporary Reflection on the Becket Controversy
This one's old, but I loved it.  "If we are to die for our faith, let us make sure that it is the Truth of Jesus Christ and his Gospel that is the price of our blood."

Seek God in Every Human Life - Barefoot and Pregnant
"“Speaking the truth in love” does not, I think, mean that speaking the truth is love. Just speaking the truth, that’s not enough. It has to be in love. In a state of love. In an environment of love.... The truth part has to spring out of the love part, or we’re using Christ as a sword."

The Love Comes First - House Unseen
"Do you think it's possible to repent if one doesn't love God and love oneself?  I mean, what harm does sin really do if we don't matter and neither does God?"

Five Reasons to Think Differently About Pope Francis - Catholic Culture
"We have gradually drifted into secularism in ways we do not recognize, and one of those ways is to believe that all significant change is political. One consequence is our fear that if we cannot engage in political battles, on the accepted political terms, then we have failed to do anything at all."

Friday, September 20, 2013

Seven quick rants

Yeah, I know, Friday is supposed to be for pleasant randomness.  But what can I say?  I've been reading a lot of things lately that upset me/worry me/tick me off.

I've been reading a book about North Korea called Nothing to Envy.  It's pretty good, if a book about a communist dystopia that still exists in real life can be considered "good."  The famine parts are the hardest for me to read; I have a visceral fear of famine.  These two paragraphs about made my hair stand on end:

"Creditors were increasingly fed up with North Korea's failure to repay loans that had amounted to an estimated $10 billion by the early 1990s.  Moscow decided that North Korea would have to pay prevailing world prices for Soviet imports rather than the lower 'friendship' prices charged Communist allies.  In the past, the Chinese, who provided three quarters of North Korea's fuel and two thirds of its food imports, used to say they were close as 'lips and teeth' to North Korea; now they wanted cash up front.

"Soon the country was sucked into a vicious death spiral.  Without cheap fuel oil and raw material, it couldn't keep the factories running, which meant it had nothing to export.  With no exports, there was no hard currency, and without hard currency, fuel imports fell even further and the electricity stopped  The coal mines couldn't operate witout electricity because they required electric pumps to siphon the water.  The shortage of coal worsened the electricty shortage.  The electricity shortage further lowered agricultural output. . . . It had never been easy to eke out enough harvest from North Korea's hardscrabble terrain for a population of 23 million, and the agricultural techniques developed to boost output relied on electrically powered artificial irrigation systems and on chemical fertilizers and pesticides produced at factories that were now closed for lack of fuel and raw materials.  North Korea started running out of food."

Can you think of another country that runs a huge debt and trade deficit?  Perhaps one whose currency is becoming less and less valuable--a currency that is not, in fact, backed by anything?  One whose agricultural system requires vast quantities of oil, both for production and transportation?

Ding ding ding!  That would be us.

I looked up the page and imagined a world where oil was harder to get -- even, say, twice or three times the price it is now.  Do you know how much oil goes into every bite you eat?  I wanted to rush out to the yard and plant stuff that very moment.

The comment, on an article about genetic modification, which announced authoritatively that "the vast majority of plant life on this planet is toxic in its wild form; only careful breeding has made it possible for us to eat it."

Do they not know humans used to be hunter-gatherers, and that some still are?  It is in fact possible for a human being (not all human beings anymore; there are too many of us) to live entirely on wild food.  Very few plants are toxic.  A larger percentage just aren't nutritious to us, because our stomachs can't handle cellulose.  But most fruit, a wide variety of fungi, most seeds, most nuts, many kinds of tubers and roots, are perfectly suited for a human diet.

I suppose you all know that, but it was post it here or post it on the New York Times, and I try to stay well out of comment wars on news sites.  That level of stupidity really burns my cookies.

This article on HuffPo: Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy.  I'll save you the trouble of reading it: Millennials are unhappy because we think we're special snowflakes and were so disappointed to find out that the adult world contained actual work and we couldn't all start our dream jobs at 22.  Must be all those ungraded tests and unscored soccer games that taught us that everybody's a winner.

Turns out grades and soccer scores are both pretty meaningless and don't appear to be good for anyone, but have no fear, baby boomers!  Turns out that whole no-grades no-scores thing is something of an urban legend; I don't know anyone my age who experienced this.  And as a teacher, same thing.  Parents nowadays won't stand for no grades; they need something to use to compare their kids with other kids.

No point in trying to answer that dumb article, because it's already been done better than I could: this one gives the stats for what is really bothering Millennials (hint: unemployment, underemployment, debt) and this one is more poetic.  The comments on the latter article are very much worth reading, including the subthreads.  People have been posting their life stories, making me feel very lucky indeed.  We are homeowners at 27, we have kids, and we live on one income.  Apparently lots of people our age only dream of that kind of success.

The Dust Bowl.  Yeah, I know, it's okay to laugh at me.  It happened almost a century ago now and I shouldn't still be upset.  But I'm watching a documentary about it and this was so avoidable!  People knew the southern plains weren't suitable for cultivation.  But dadgum if they didn't go and cultivate them anyway.  Speculators told people the climate was magically becoming moister, that plowing the grassland up would somehow bring rain clouds, and that there was no better farmland anywhere for growing wheat.  So they plowed up everything they could, and when wheat prices crashed after the Depression they plowed up even more, because that's the only way a farmer has for dealing with low prices.  Then all it took was a few dry years, and there wasn't a patch of prairie anywhere to hold the dirt down.  It all blew away, and the farmers lost everything.

And now, of course, America's farmland is eroding more slowly, and into drainage ditches instead of in huge dustclouds, so no one notices.  But topsoil is one precious resource that we literally cannot live without.  Why do we give it so little thought?

So the Pope gave this interview, right?  I thought it was wonderful and really very comforting.  It felt like he has been sitting next to be in the pew, Sunday after Sunday, while our priest rants on politics and barely mentions Jesus.  He knew how I felt.  And he knew that focusing less on politics and more on Jesus doesn't mean dissenting from a single Church teaching or backing away from the responsibility to evangelize -- it means speaking the truth in love.

No complaints there.  But instantly everyone jumped all over it.  I'm not talking about the secular media; I didn't read any of that.  I mean the Catholics.  They felt angry, betrayed, like the Pope had handed a victory to the enemy.  Because apparently saying that you don't talk much about abortion or homosexuality is tantamount to stabbing all conservative Catholics in the back at once.  I spent a lot of time trying to answer these people on Facebook and I'm only just now trying to step away.  It isn't worth it.  It isn't worth more division.  Lord knows the Catholic Church in America has enough of that as it is.

Michael is at that stage where he can't make it through the day without a nap, but he always takes it too late in the day and ends up staying up till nine or ten every night.  I hate that.  The one thing of most value for keeping my sanity is having no-kids time from seven to ten pm.  And it's not like Michael is quietly sitting on my lap all that time -- he's tearing the house apart (which I like to tidy up before dinner so I can wake up to a clean house in the morning) and making a ton of noise and being super demanding.  Argh.

On the other hand, when one kid gets tough, sometimes the other gets easy.  Marko's bedtime routine is this: we read a book or two.  Then I tuck him into bed, give him a kiss, and ... leave.  That's it.  He goes to sleep.  Then he sleeps all night, and if he wakes up before me, he quietly comes out of his room and sits in my rocking chair until I get up.

And what's most encouraging of all is that he slept worse than Michael when he was that age.  He was up till 11 pm sometimes, and if he woke at night he screamed bloody murder.  And here he is at three and a half taking care of everything himself -- which he has for months now.  So maybe, just maybe, two years from now Michael will be doing the same.

John's had a lot of trips lately.  I won't say when, because I'm afraid of being burgled (hey burglars!  you ought to know our dog is very nervous and hates strangers!  just keep that in mind k?), but it has been a lot.  I've been keeping up with the home front just fine, really, but when he's gone, I just miss the guy.  When I feel like North Korea, the Dust Bowl, the Huffington Post, and Facebook are all out to get me, it's nice knowing he is on my team.  He gets all this stuff I'm upset about, gets why I'm upset, and for the most part agrees with me.  I'm a pretty opinionated person, and it means so much to me to have one person I don't have to argue this stuff with.


What would you like to rant about today?

This week's linky is here.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

More reasons to be agrarian

Last time I tried to answer the question, "Why be agrarian?" I only managed to give one reason -- that land provides a measure of security that nothing else does, because land offers direct access to the goods of creation.  But there are a great many more reasons, so let's talk about a few of those.

First, I should define agrarian.  An agrarian is someone who values the small farm, and who believes in widespread land ownership to make farming possible for more people.

If you run a diversified small farm, you may be agrarian.

If you live on an acre or two and try to produce a little of your own food or other needs in your spare time, you're probably agrarian.

If you bypass the grocery store and buy your food from a local small farmer, that also counts as agrarian.

If you support legislation that supports small farms and encourages wider land ownership, you're agrarian -- whether you are looking for less regulation, like this law which I support, or more.

And if you deliberately avoid big-box stores and seek out small, local businesses, by analogy, I would still call you agrarian.  (I think the proper term here would be distributist, but I tend not to use that term because I am too free-market for most distributists.)

So why be agrarian?

*Because you want to be a producer, not a consumer.  If you desire to create things yourself instead of buying them, thus ending up with goods that have uniqueness and meaning instead of mass-produced articles, be agrarian.

*Because you don't want to be a wage slave.  I think it's funny that anarcho-capitalists think that having to pull over when a cop car flashes its lights is slavery, but having to wear a tie or lose your livelihood is simply employment.  When you have no property, you don't have a choice whether to work or not, and so you have to kiss up to the people you work for.  Some people don't mind that.  For some of us, it gets awfully old.

*Because you don't like the industrial food system and want to opt out.  The more you learn about it, the less you want to participate in it.  (I just finished The Omnivore's Dilemma and highly recommend it -- that is, if you want to never go to McDonalds again.  I'm afraid it will spoil your appetite for some kinds of food.)  There's the corn additives in almost everything we eat.  There's the cruelty to animals that takes place in feedlots and egg factories.  The quality of the food is also very low -- in fact, the industrial system ensures that it will remain low.  When an apple is sold without any reference to how it was produced, all apples, high and low quality, will sell for the same price.  Therefore there is zero incentive to grow a high-quality apple.

Last week, I bought a chicken from Aldi, as I always do, for 85 cents a pound.  This is an amazingly cheap price, but you get what you pay for.  When I unwrapped the chicken, I saw it had a massive bruise on one wing.  What happened to this poor chicken?  I'll never know, but it made me feel ill and not at all like eating any.  I want the chickens I eat to run around happily eating bugs to the very end -- not battered by rough treatment or its cage mates.

When you grow your own chicken, or you buy a chicken from someone you know and trust, you don't wonder about this stuff.

*Because industrialism is a Ring of Gyges.  In The Republic, Plato tells the story of a shepherd who finds a ring that makes him invisible.  Naturally he immediately forsakes all morality: since he has no fear of being caught, he murders and steals with abandon.

Some people would be good even if no one was watching them.  But it's a fact that many people behave much worse when no one is watching them.  You can read up a bit on colonialism, and see how those considered good citizens and family men at home in Europe were capable of committing horrible crimes in Africa or India.  The same thing happens when the supply chain for a product stretches halfway around the globe and money changes hands in complex and non-public ways.  In a small village, if the grocer added sand to the sugar, it wouldn't take long for the villagers to wise up and go to his competitor instead.  Nowadays, most people have no idea what goes into their food, so they keep buying it.  It's come out recently that most of what is sold as honey is adulterated with some other sweetener or contains no honey at all.  Many expensive kinds of fish turn out to be other, cheaper fish.  Olive oil also tends to be cut with cheaper oils.

To turn more serious, some products we buy from around the world come with a connection to exploitation and injustice.  I've been reading an eye-opening book called The Land Grabbers which details human-rights abuses around the world.  The most blatant I've read about so far has been the outright theft of land from Cambodian peasants to plant sugarcane plantations.  The owners of the plantations are making vast amounts of money selling the sugar to developed nations.  I want no part in this.  But I can't seem to find out if the sugar I buy is from Cambodia or not.  It sure as heck isn't printed on the label.

I am a strong believer in the power of the boycott to stop injustice in the market.  However, it can be awfully hard to keep track of all the boycotts.  Was this shirt I want to buy made in that sweatshop in Bangladesh that had that fire where so many died?  How can I know?  Why not make my own shirt?

(As a side note, John told me about a solution to this problem described in The End is Near, and it's Going to Be Awesome: a credit card that keeps track of all your boycotts for you.  It does the research, lets you select what sorts of things you want to boycott (environmental degradation, human-rights abuses, abortion supporters, whatever you want) and then declines your purchases if you try to buy something you're boycotting.  Then it automatically sends an email to the producer of the item saying, "One of our customers wanted to buy X, but they won't because they are upset about how your company did Y."  After a few hundred letters like this, a company would start to change its ways.  This is an awesome idea and I only wish it were available in reality.)

*Because you care about the earth.  I believe that we are stewards of the earth, not owners.  That means we have to tend it so that it is still useable for future generations.  Industrial farming doesn't do that, because of the intense drive to increase profits now.  We can't leave a little land fallow for a year, because we need to produce more.  We can't add organic matter to the soil, because it's quicker to spray ammonia.  Margins are slim and they have to squeeze every penny.  Many farmers are on rented land; there is no profit in giving anything back to land you don't own.  A small farmer who hopes to hand down his land to his children has a vested interest in caring for his land.

*Because you care about animal cruelty.  The only reason Americans eat so much meat is because they don't know much about where it comes from.  A common reaction on seeing a feedlot is to become a vegetarian for life.  Industrial animals are fed corn, because that's what we have a lot of.  (Oh, how I loathe thee, subsidies.)  Cows aren't intended to eat corn, and they become terribly sick on it.  Chickens and pigs are better off, but they're crammed into disgustingly tight quarters where they don't thrive.

However, there's a world of difference between eating meat that comes from a lifetime of misery and eating meat that comes from an animal that lived a happy life doing what it should do.  Not everyone considers the happiness of animals to be important -- but if you do, you should be agrarian.

*Because you care about your health.  Of course we know that industrial food isn't good for you; it's not produced with health in mind, and it is full of additives which may be harmful.  If you make it yourself, you know what's in it.  My latest shift has been baking my own bread exclusively.  We eat less bread, and better bread -- and I know that it is made from flour, water, and salt, not corn syrup and soy lecithin.  That matters to me.

*Because the industrial world is lacking in so many things.  We sit in chairs in front of computer screens all day -- but we all know that sitting in a chair all day will kill you.  We lack deep connections to others, and some people seem to fall through the cracks and lack connections to anyone.  Depression, anxiety, tension are all more common than colds; and total breakdowns, suicide, mass shootings happen frighteningly often.  We know what is good for a human being, but we can't seem to make it happen.  It's good for kids to have two involved parents, but many have one overworked parent.  It's good for them to play outside, but there's nowhere safe to play.  It's good for families to eat a homecooked dinner together every night, but there's just too much work and too many activities for anyone to have time for that.

It's madness to me to say it's a good thing that we have developed so far away from drudgery that we can work with our minds instead of our hands -- and then have to spend another hour after work, and some of our hard-earned money, to go work out.  What a racket -- they've gotten us to pay for the privilege of lifting heavy things and running!  Someday, some smart person will stick generators in the exercise bikes and make a killing.

*Because you want to create a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul.  Why do we slave, day in and day out, to do things that we don't enjoy, while there are things we do enjoy that might make us a living instead?  If you want to make crafts and sell them, what does it matter if you never make a fortune and your friends ask you when you're getting a real job?  If you find a way to make ends meet doing something you love, you should do that thing.

Those are the reasons I can come up with off the top of my head.  Can you think of any more?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A glimmer of hope

I'm sure you don't need one more person telling why we shouldn't get involved in Syria.  Most Americans agree, and only 9% want to commit to war with Syria.  Briefly, I think we are likely to do more harm than good.  Any action we take against Assad will help the rebels to win, and those rebels are radicals allied with al-Qaeda.  Once in control, they will oppress the people even worse than Assad does.  Already, they have been initiating violence against innocent minorities, specifically Christians.

Anyway, our track record isn't good.  It seems every year or two there is some situation that we absolutely have to get involved in, and every time, we commit more than we meant to, stay in longer than we meant to, and when we finally do go home, we leave the country worse off than it was before.

But I don't need to convince you of this, because odds are good you already agree with me.

Until recently, I thought that didn't matter.  All my life, I've felt that war isn't something I have any control over.  We're just supposed to pray that the grown-ups make the right decisions and keep us out of it.  But if the order comes to go to war, that's what you do.  Growing up in a military family, this always caused me a great deal of anxiety, and I prayed for peace many times.  But my prayers weren't answered, and I felt like we just had to deal with it.

I figured this time it would be the same.  Obama had made up his mind to get involved, and it didn't matter to him how many of his people were opposed.  He doesn't have to face re-election.  And whatever his reasoning is -- fear of losing face when he said he would punish Assad if he used chemical weapons, or a desire to "stimulate" the economy with a massive bolus of war spending -- none of the counterarguments seemed to matter to him.

But I am tired of waiting for our leaders to tell us what we can and can't do.  I'm tired of opposing this law and supporting that law, voting for this candidate and against that candidate, and never being heard.  And it just boggled my mind that everyone I know, every facebook friend I have, appeared to be agreeing for once on this one single topic.  If we ALL agreed, why were we here talking to each other instead of putting some pressure on the President?

So I called the White House.  I tried to do it by email, but the White House website 404'd me instead of submitting the webform I'd laboriously filled out.  The switchboard itself was busy and I had to wait for half an hour to talk to someone.  They said they were experiencing unusual call volume ... that, in itself, gave me a little stab of hope.  My main intention in making the call was just for my own conscience.  More and more lately, I've been making decisions that I know won't do a lick of good, just because I am tired of doing things the easy way.  I didn't want to just sit back and let this war happen without even saying something.

Apparently I'm not the only one who felt this way.  A day or two later I saw this:

For those who don't know, this is absolutely unprecedented.  Soldiers do not refuse to deploy; I've only once heard of one who did, and it wasn't political.  They don't refuse because they are volunteers -- they chose to join up, and politically they tend to support foreign intervention or they wouldn't have joined.  And they don't refuse because they will be sent to prison if they do.

But I wonder if Obama looked at these pictures and thought, "How many soldiers feel this way?"  It doesn't have to be the whole military.  If even a few refuse, if he has to put them in jail, how will the public respond?  Will there be riots?  No one wants to go to war with Syria.  Can he really force us without reference to anyone else?

Well, he backed down.  Now, he says he'll wait for Congressional approval.  For me, that is a tremendous victory.  At least we made him admit that he can't drag a whole country into war without even asking.

But the real battle is ahead, in Congress.  I'll be calling my representative and senators, and if you are American, I think you should too.  Unlike the president, every single congressman is going to have to stand for re-election at some point.  This is the single most unpopular thing they've had to vote on.  I think it's important that we let them know that not only do we oppose war in Syria, but that it's big enough for them to lose our vote over.

The whole affair has given me a big shot of confidence.  Sure, sometimes it seems like ordinary people are David, and the government and big business are Goliath.  There are so many wrongs being done, so much injustice.  If I catalogued even the ones I know about, no one would be able to keep up with reading my blog.  But if everyone stood up and tried to change things, there could be hope.

Sure, I know my refusal to buy GMO's, by itself, isn't going to stop farmers from growing them.  And I know that my decision to buy only used clothes isn't going to stop Wal-Mart from contracting with sweatshops in Asia.  My recent move to stop buying bread and bake it instead may give a few more cents to the farmer and less to the processor, but it's not going to make or break anyone's business.

But at least I know I won't be one of the crowd of people saying, "Well, I would do it, but it won't make much difference anyway."  Instead, maybe I can be part of a crowd that says, "Why not do it?  We already are, so it's not like your sacrifice is going to have to stand alone.  If we all do it, it could make a difference."

Let's stop the war in Syria.  Let's stop it right here, make sure not a single bomb gets dropped.  And then we the people, realizing our own power, can set our sights on the other battles: laws that favor big business over individuals, government spying, businesses that abuse their employees and cheat their customers, representatives who represent wealthy lobbies and don't represent us.

If we work together, if all of us agree that we're going to do something, I honestly believe we can get things done.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Why be agrarian?

I promised I'd write this post, and then I got too obsessed with daydreaming about haymaking.  And browsing Craigslist for Shetland sheep.  That kind of thing.

However, my obsession with farming is not the reason I'm an agrarian, or why I plan to homestead.  It goes way deeper than that.  I've wanted to homestead since before I knew what it was.

When I was a kid, we would often go to my great-grandpa's house.  He was wiry and mostly deaf, with a shock of white hair and a house that smelled like fish.  He lived off the land, which when you live on a single suburban acre is pretty impressive.  And my mom told me the story of how he used to be a used-car salesman.  When the Great Depression hit, no one wanted to buy cars anymore.  Things looked hopeless.  So he packed up his family and went into the wilderness.  They lived in a cabin and ate deer, fish, berries, whatever they could rustle up.  Back in the cities, people were living on sugar cubes and ketchup packets in restaurants, or deciding whether food or heat was more important.  Meanwhile farmers dumped crops and killed livestock because no one could afford to buy them.  The cash economy that everyone put their hopes in failed.  Only those, like my great-grandfather, who could truly support themselves were unscathed.

It was then that I realized: if you have land, and you know how to farm it, no one can take that away from you.  No stock market crash, no layoff, no runaway inflation, no breakdown of transportation.

I grew up not terribly poor, but poor enough that the really good fresh food was always rationed out.  One fruit per day, or we'd eat our parents out of house and home.  But every August, the blackberries would get ripe and we could eat as much as we wanted.  The luxury, the bliss of eating blackberries till you don't want any more blackberries, the knowledge that when we'd eaten all we had we could go out along the road and pick more ... it was a level of freedom I didn't usually experience.  Nowadays, when I pinch every penny at the grocery store, when I carefully calculate how many pounds of meat and gallons of milk will last us till the next store day, harvesting my garden gives me that same sense of freedom.  To say, "I have too many tomatoes to eat," is, in my book, as good as saying "I have more money than I could ever spend."  It's wealth.  It's safety.  It's knowing you won't go hungry.

Why be agrarian?  Because you have a deep conviction that the land is real, that it's safe, that it's lasting.  Our industrial economy is shakier than it looks.  On an average day, it plugs along fine: this person makes a million dollars, that person loses their job, but for 99% of us nothing much happens, and we can go to the store and buy food without giving it a whole lot of thought.

But let the stock market -- a purely imaginary concept -- crash, or the roads flood, or a sunspot wipe everyone's hard drive, or the price of petroleum shoot up, or the dollar lose value, or civil unrest break out, and disaster is at everyone's door.  Stacked up on each other in the cities, we have no backup plan.  Hurricane Sandy brought that reality home to a lot of people.

The industrial economy is a new invention; what it will come to in a century is anyone's guess.  Before 1800, when there was unrest somewhere or when political lines were redrawn, the great mass of people kept doing exactly what their fathers did.  There was no guesswork necessary; you simply had to follow the rules that had held true for generations.  Today, we have no idea if what we do will end up as the rule for our descendents, as a cautionary tale, or as completely useless background for some further change.

But there is one thing all our ancestors knew: land can be counted on.  If you have land, you can live.  Everything we need and use all comes, somewhere, from the earth.  If you own a place where you can access the earth -- where you have direct contact with creation -- you are safe.  You may never be rich, but you will be able to eat.

If you give up the land -- and so many people have, whether from crippling debt or from a real desire to do something else -- you will always be reliant on other people for your survival.  You will have to be able to convince someone else to hire you, and to pay you a living wage.  If you want to go in business for yourself, you will still have to convince people to buy your product.  If, through some catastrophe, people can't or won't pay you money anymore, you could starve.

Farming is like breastfeeding.  Bear with me.  Mother's milk is free; it comes, in a certain sense, straight from God, directly to the baby that needs it.  Formula costs money.  There are always those voices (in wealthy countries) declaring, "But not everyone wants to breastfeed.  We can afford not to.  We will be fine if we don't, because modern medicine can treat any problems that arise."  And for them, this is true.

But women in poorer countries see this and get sold a different line: "Women in rich countries don't breastfeed, they use this superior product from a store.  Why would they do it if it weren't better?  They have more freedom, now they can leave their baby with someone else and get a job if they want to."  So poor women accept the formula sample.

But where is the freedom they expected?  Suddenly they're paying so much money for formula that they have no choice but to leave the baby -- probably with a six-year-old sibling or an ailing grandmother -- and go to work.  And somehow that job isn't so freeing; it pays pennies a day.  And the baby keeps getting diarrhea because the water isn't really clean.  But it's too late to go back -- the mother's milk is gone.

In the same way, subsistence farmers are lured off their land with all kinds of promises.  There will be jobs in the city.  They will get to have the lifestyle that rich people have, because they'll have the cash to buy everything they want.  They won't have to work all day long in the hot sun.

What they don't realize is that the people who sell them this line want their land.  They see its value.  That, or they want cheap labor.  They're not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts.  So the farmer sells his farm, takes the cash, heads to the city to look for a job.  And maybe they even get one -- one that involves 14-hour days in a factory or sweatshop, but a job nonetheless.  However, everything in the city costs so much more that the proceeds from selling the farm are soon gone.  It's impossible to go back.  And then rich people overseas say things like, "Well, not everyone wants to farm," or, "They're better off making a dollar a day than nothing," or, "Development is good because now these people have jobs."  It makes me want to spit.  Many of these people had independence, security, and plenty of healthy food.  Now they're eating ramen noodles and going to work injured because they can't afford a day off.

I live in a much richer country, so you'd think all this wouldn't apply to me.  But America's wealth isn't guaranteed.  Prosperity comes and goes, but land remains.  I want to know that if John's job vanishes, if more work can't be found, we will eat.

Even here in America, there's a constant struggle.  Lately some of my friends have been debating the problem of living wages.  McDonalds hires unskilled employees for minimum wage, which, without benefits, is not enough to live on in most places.  There are three answers usually given: Those jobs aren't worth more than $7 an hour, so the market shouldn't give more than that -- if people don't like it, they should try to get a better job.  Or, raise minimum wage so they can get more -- but this would shift through the system, we'd all need a wage increase, and pretty soon prices would rise and we'd be back where we started.  Or, replace those jobs with robots and those people can get different jobs.

I just don't have trust that there could always be 100% employment.  Surely once all the really useful jobs are taken by robots, we'll run out of jobs in other sectors because there's only so much creative work that needs to be done.  The question just seems to come from the wrong direction.  I am not concerned that we will run out of work for people to do.  I am concerned that all the wealth is held by a few, and that the rest of us live by convincing those few to share their wealth with us in exchange for something they need from us -- our labor.  But once the richest people own everything they want, and robots to take care of their whims, it seems to me that they will stop sharing their wealth with us as much as possible.  In any event I have no confidence in the capitalist dream that there will always be work and pay for everyone.  What if it turns out to be wrong?  Give me five arable acres, and I won't have to worry.

This post has gone on long enough and I'm only at reason #1.  Part 2 will follow... at some point.
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