Free riding

Patrick Deneen writes bluntly yet beautifully about a tough issue facing anyone who is trying to pursue a traditionalism that is in opposition to modern industrialism (or, really, any alternative to mainstream culture), what he calls “free riding,” the fact that it is the benefits of the mainstream that make it possible for us to pursue an alternative.

Among this group here at this electronic outpost and like-minded fellow travelers, there is a fair amount of self-consciousness about the various ways that “traditionalists” (or “paleo-libs??) free-ride on the broader culture that they otherwise criticize, no more evidently by employing a medium that can, at best, create only a “virtual” community  (Fr. J. Gassalascas said it best).    Farmer’s markets, new urbanism, bike paths, “the Benedict option” – most all of the various ways that community is forged today is less and less a result of organic communal forces required by necessity (e.g., live near water and arable land, don’t live too far apart since we don’t have internal combustion engines), but achieved by our prosperity. 

In his at-times uncharitable review of Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons, Peter Lawler nevertheless was correct to note that not a few of the “crunchies” arrived at their destination by a circuitous, often well-travelled path, often ending up far from places of origin (or at least with many stops in-between departure and return), and benefit in oft-unacknowledged ways from the umbrella of security offered by America’s armed forces and the orderly world it largely affords.  Few of us would survive very long in Augustine’s world.

We just finished watching The Seven Samurai, my birthday treat. The treat was that the rest of the family would let me devote one of our two monthly videos to a 3 1/2 hour subtitled film about life in sixteenth century Japan. (They enjoyed it quite a bit more than they expected, which I knew they would.)

The story centers around a Japanese farming village that is plagued by bandits. The village elder decides that they need to finally stand and fight, and to do so they need to engage the services of samurai warriors. The first two hours are devoted to the preparations the villagers make at the direction of the samurai, and the last ninety minutes to the battle with the bandits.

Before we started the movie, I asked the kids to think about how critical it was to the defense of the village that it was a village, rather than scattered and isolated houses each set plunk in the middle of a multi-acre property, such as we have around here. In fact, in the movie the villagers immediately abandon three of their twenty-three houses—including the mill!—to the bandits because they are located across a creek from the main village, a short distance that makes them nearly impossible to defend.

Given that point of view, it is sobering to watch this movie. The story isn’t Mad Max, taking place in a post-apocalyptic world. Most of the world was exactly like this until 1900 or so, small farming villages that were largely untouched by the mechanisms (including the protections) of modern civilization. Being able to live in the rural isolation that many Americans prize is really a luxury that could disappear at any moment, as the result of excessive strain on the police force, or lack of funding for police because of the worsening economy, or a further coarsening of conventional morals that would make people less reluctant to just go in and take stuff from other people provided they can get away with it.

Another thing I like about The Seven Samurai, at least while thinking on such things, is that the scale is exactly right to make the story excruciatingly realistic. Seven samurai. A hundred or so villagers. Twenty-three houses. Thirty-three bandits. A battleground that covers only a few acres. Drenching rain during the final battle that turns the battleground into a mud pit. Ninety minutes devoted to the details of the battle. At this scale you can track the death of each samurai (four die) and bandit (all die), and many of the villagers (maybe twenty die?). This is not Braveheart, or the battle for Helm’s Deep. You can imagine yourself as one of the villagers, and what the threat of the bandits would mean to you, and what it would mean to defend yourself against them.

Anyway, read Deneen’s post, and begin to think about whether your own efforts to follow an alternative path are really a break with the mainstream, or more a dilletantish and parasitic lifestyle choice that the mainstream merely puts up with for its own purposes, along the lines of rebellious youth whose tastes in style make them a lucrative market for the very forces they rebel against. And in case you don’t read the post, I’ll repeat the Wendell Berry joke he begins it with, which is pretty good:

A friend from Berea likes to call witless people “wittees.”  Well, one time there was a wittee who was walking down the road and came across a large hole in the ground.  A fellow was at the bottom digging, throwing up dirt and dust and rocks and stone.  Wittee looked down and said, “what’s the hole for?”  The fellow looked back up at Wittee and replied, “It’s where we’re going to bury all the sons o’bitches.”  Wittee regarded the hole for a moment and asked, “Well, in that case, who’s going to fill it in?”

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One thought on “Free riding

  1. It may be “free riding”, but it is actually more like being afloat in a river, and having to go with the flow somewhat, because of it’s power. Not necessarily because a individual might like it. Even St, Benedict, when he left the Roman empire to it’s own ends, to create a new world for him and his followers, still lived with the advantages that Rome had created, roads, aqueducts, writing, knowledge, etc. One can never be entirely “separate” from the culture one lives in. In fact, it’s not even really “fair’ to ask such a thing. You can’t escape it, even if you want to. You just take whats best for your needs, and move on. If “modernity” failed, people would just create their own law and order. Their own form of government etc.this happened on the western frontier. I grew up near Tombstone, Arizona. Like many such towns, they existed far from normal civilization. A remote hamlet. hundreds of miles from nowhere, that before long, had a mayor, law enforcement, newspapers, laundries, mines, business district, saloons, ranches, farms etc. I have read records from medieval villages. You would be suprised how much interaction, and trade with places hundreds of miles away there was. People have always been less isolated in most places than people think thru history. They couldn’t leave easily, but people still came and went.
    I remember once seeing how a piece of chinese bronze work, ended up all the way around the other side of the wold, in Canada, in a Inuit village. It had been traded from one person to another. When it is declared that the agrarian lifestyle is just a “choice among many'” i remind people that urban life in cities existed in the past too, Rome is thought to have had a million people. So I think It’s really a point of no distinction, to even worry about this. If it makes me a “hypocrite” because I take advantage of some of societies benefits, so be it.

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