Friday, December 7, 2007

At Home in the Exurbs - A Review of Peter Lawler's Homeless and at Home in America

“We Americans are the most homeless and the most at home people of the West today.” This is the central paradox of Peter Augustine Lawler’s latest book, Homeless and at Home in America: Evidence for the Dignity of the Human Soul in Our Time and Place (St. Augustine’s Press, 2007). The book is a collection of essays (often published elsewhere) on a wide variety of topics, from Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons and bioethics to Casablanca and Tocqueville. The chapters, though, fit well together and are linked by a set of related themes. The book, written in Lawler’s usual engaging and often humorous style, presents a fascinating argument from one of the chief proponents of what he calls the “‘crowd’ of American faith-based, non-libertarian, Strauss influenced thinkers.” This group is part of a growing school of thought Lawler refers to as “conservative postmodernism – postmodernism rightly understood,” which “…is associated with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and American literary Thomists such as Marion Montgomery, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor.” Tocqueville is one of their favorite authors. This line of thought is a reaction against modernity for its failure to comprehend what it means to be truly human; that is, as creatures that occupy the ‘middle class’ between beasts and God.

The first chapter, which sets up the framework for the rest of the book, explores how Americans are at home and how they are homeless by contrasting Heidegger’s view of America with that of G.K. Chesterton. Heidegger, according to Lawler, sees the American middle class as being “…in the thrall of a technological utopianism that is making human beings everywhere ever more displaced or homeless.” This process of Americanization leads to an obsession with science and technology insofar as it can prolong our lives. “But that means,” Lawler says, “that we are more defined by our working against death than ever before: our material prosperity has done the opposite of freeing us middle-class beings from the need to work.” Americanization has also altered what it means to be human: “The ‘soul,’ for example, means less and less to us, and we have nothing to say about death. Anything that eludes the technological thinking of calculation and control is nothing, an illusion, we say. In that sense we are nihilists.”

For G.K. Chesterton, on the other hand, America is “…a nation with the soul of a church.” Like a church, America is an asylum for the homeless and a place where the individual is not rootless, but “newly rooted as a free and equal citizen.” On this view, atheism is un-American and “our technology is subordinate to our real souls and our real God.” Chesterton also recognized the influence of modern technological thinking on America and the consequent sense of homelessness. This, though, is not necessarily at odds with a Christian understanding of the world since “…no Christian can experience himself as completely at home in this world.” For this reason Americans are the most at home and the most homeless people in the world.
For Lawler, this uneasy tension in fact mirrors “…the truth about our middle-class existence under God.” Against the technological view that sees the world in terms of mathematical and solvable problems, Lawler recognizes that “[t]he moral and spiritual conflicts or at least tensions that constitute the human soul aren’t problems to be solved, but just part of our being.” The heroes of Lawler’s book are church-going middle-class natalists (those who have large families) who live in the exurbs (those indeterminate places beyond the suburbs), who probably shop at Walmart and who see themselves as created beings rather than evolved animals. These exurbanite natalists are the real core of America and the only thing that really distinguishes Americans from Europeans, who are not at home with their homelessness and are “losing themselves in postpolitical, postreligious, and postfamilial fantasies.”
In chapters dealing with the work of Thomas Pangle and Allan Bloom, Lawler explains why Leo Strauss and his followers were wrong to view Americans simply as relativists who have not yet succumb to some form of totalitarian thought only because of a blind and uninformed preference for liberal ‘values.’ In fact, Lawler claims, in large part because of this religious backbone, Americans are “the least Americanized or least technological or least hopelessly homesick and nihilistic nation in a Heideggerian sense today.” American ‘values’ therefore, are not simply the result of blind choice but the reflection of a truer way of life than that of Europeans.

Part of this truth is that we are creatures with souls and are not reducible to either bodies or minds. The tendency to identify ourselves primarily with our bodies leads to “…an increasingly paranoid, puritanical, and prohibitionist attitude toward health and safety,” while the tendency to understand ourselves somehow as minds apart from our bodies allows us to treat our bodies, and even our moods, as property to be sold and manipulated technologically (Lawler discusses the latter in his excellent chapter, “Is the Body Property?”). Part of understanding ourselves as creatures with souls means rejecting the premises of “Darwinian sociobiology” and its reduction of man to drives and instincts. One of Lawler’s strongest arguments for the untruth of this doctrine is that those who do not believe in it are often much happier than those who do. Ironically, as he points out, this means that in evolutionary terms, those who reject Darwinism have a competitive advantage over those who do – they have larger families and are more willing to make sacrifices for their children and thus are more likely to perpetuate the species.

Lawler’s argument for changing our view of what it means to be human is a strong one, as is his argument that we are in need of manly virtue (in Harvey Mansfield’s and Tom Wolfe’s terms). On the other hand, it seems to rely on belief in a personal God – many of the chapters end with an appeal in this direction. But what about those readers who recognize the power and to some extent the truth of this argument, but who are not religious believers? If Pangle has “…propped up [revelation] to be stronger than he really thinks it is on its own,” Lawler might be accused of neglecting the side of reason to an even greater degree. Although Lawler claims that “…we students of political philosophy really live the tension…between reason and revelation insofar as we’re not perfect philosophers,” the implication of the work as a whole seems to be that belief in Christianity and a personal God is fundamental to living well for all but the true philosophers. This seems to be a rather limited account of the resources available to human beings when it comes to understanding that they are more than matter in motion.

Lawler claims that his is a “very pro-American book.” But it doesn’t take long to discover that what he really means is that it is a very pro-red-American book. The criticism that he levels against Europeans could just as easily be leveled against great swaths of ‘blue’ Americans. As he says, “Remove our observant religious believers from the American scene, and our birthrate is the same as that of the demographic time bomb France.” But this raises a question about the book’s aim: is it intended solely as an intellectual justification of a way of living and thinking that already exists, or is it meant to influence a wider audience that may not accept Lawler’s starting premises? The book may be more successful at the former. For those who do not accept these premises, however, it remains an enormously thought-provoking book.

An edited version of this review will appear in the March 08 edition of the Canadian Journal of Political Science