Friday, March 31, 2017

Four Tips for Living Localism

In the past 15 years I have moved more times than I care to count. I have lived in four states and the District of Columbia, as well as spending a semester in Italy and a summer in Germany. Both of my parents are from states other than that where I grew up, and I married a gal from yet another state. I am what David Goodhart calls an "Anywhere," a person at home in the globalized, cosmopolitan world.

But there are problems with such a globalized view. As R. R. Reno recently pointed out in First Things, self-government necessarily requires some sort of localism. The larger the entity involved - epitomized by that largest of all entities, the global community - the more likely that political and cultural elites run the show in a insular world that common folk can rarely penetrate.

In the last few years my wife and I have settled down in Greene County, Virginia, where we own a home and raise our children. I am ready to become a "Somewhere," a person rooted in a given place, a person committed to living in solidarity with one's neighbors. But how do you go about doing that, in concrete ways? Let me make four suggestions:

(1) Get to know your neighbors. Yes, your literal neighbors, the people whose homes are within sight of yours. Wave when you see them getting the mail. Talk to them on a Saturday afternoon when you're both out mowing the lawn. Invite them and their kids over to have take-out pizza on your porch some Friday evening. There's no substitute for actually knowing actual people.

(2) Subscribe to your local paper. I have had a subscription to the Financial Times, a British newspaper focused on international business and politics, almost continually for the last decade. It is emblematic of my status as an Anywhere. But lately I also took out a subscription to the Greene County Record. The journalistic quality is hardly the same, the problems discussed are hardly as large. But I think subscribing to the local newspaper, however modest it may be, has a couple virtues. It helps us understand the problems and opportunities of our local area. I have been surprised to discover how many concerts and classes there are, at little or no cost, near our home. Moreover, a subscription to the local newspaper encourages investigative journalism - or at least some level of coverage - regarding local politics. And that's important. One reason so many local political scenes are run by a good ol' boys network is that there is so little media attention focused on local politics. My 50 cents per week is a modest contribution toward improving such coverage.

(3) Take an interest in your lowest level of government. Who represents you on the city council or county board of supervisors? Do you know how long their terms are? Where they meet? How much authority does your local body have? Given the limited media coverage, you'll have to do some homework on this one, but the local newspaper will help you. And you may be pleasantly surprised to discover that, in conjunction with your neighbors and other informed citizens, you can actually make an impact on local politics, with visible results in your community. It's not always easy, but probably a lot easier than trying to change the outcome of a presidential election.

(4) Get involved in your house of worship. Don't just show up for worship once a week. Get to know your fellow worshipers. Join a Bible Study or men's or women's group. Find a ministry that needs your help. Serve on a committee. Teach a class. So much of the basic fabric of civil society has been destroyed, but one of the few places you can still reliably find its remnants are in houses of worship. I don't think that's a coincidence: our faith in God has implications for how we love one another. So if you want to see your local community reinvigorated, your fellow believers may be a good place to start.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Pontificating on Dylann Roof - Is It My Place?

I recently published a blog post calling to spare Dylann Roof from the death penalty. But as I was pushing the button, I heard a little voice in my head. The conversation went something like this.

Aaron Linderman, the Reader: Back in November you wrote a post about boundaries, about not having an opinion on things that aren't really your business. You don't live in South Carolina. Your family wasn't among the victims. You're not on the jury. Is it really your place to be commenting on this?

Aaron Linderman, the Writer: Does seem rather inconsistent, doesn't it?

Reader: Yes, it does.

Writer: Well, I suppose I was trying to articulate a principle, namely, that in cases like Roof's, we - and by that I mean the people of Virginia, my state - should show mercy.

Reader: Perhaps you should have been clearer about that. Perhaps you should have written about some of the people currently on death row in Virginia.

Writer: That's a good idea. But I think the argument would be basically the same: These are unsavory people who have grievously hurt society. But rather than continuing the cycle of violence, we should demonstrate that we live in a humane civilization and spare their lives. Moreover, in the overwhelming majority of instances, there's no serious case that they pose a threat of escaping and striking again.

Reader: But on that point about the ongoing danger to society: Are you aware that, here in Virginia, six death row inmates escaped from the Mecklenburg Correctional Center in 1984? It can happen.

Writer: Indeed, it can. A group of seven who escaped in Texas in 2000 also comes to mind. The state has the responsibility to protect society.  For this reason, I think we should probably keep capital punishment on the books, but with several strict limits: (1) There must be the utmost certainty of the defendant's guilt. These days that probably means DNA evidence. Here in Virginia Earl Washington was wrongly sentenced to death, and there are many other cases as well.  This is utterly unacceptable.  (2) It must be a particularly heinous crime that is being punished. (3) The prosecution must make the case that there is a real probability that the defendant could escape from a maximum security prison and kill again. Speaking of prison security, I'd be quite happy to vote for extra money for maximum security prisons, so that we can have confidence in a life sentence.

Reader: This is all interesting, but aren't we getting away from the initial question? Is it really your place to comment on this case?

Writer: Carnes Lord, in his book The Modern Prince, discusses the "right to be wrong." He argues that our elected leaders - not bureaucrats or investigative journalists or other backseat drivers - have been vested by the people with decision-making authority. A bureaucrat has a duty to describe a situation as best he can and to subsequently carry out his orders as well as possible. He does not get to decide, in a fundamental sense, what to do. Elected leaders are vested with that power. We can criticize their decisions, but we must also recognize that, in giving them the authority to make such decisions, we are also granting the possibility that they will make poor ones.

That concept may be relevant here. A jury of ordinary citizens in South Carolina has been given the authority to decide Dylann Roof's fate. I contend that the best choice would be to grant him mercy - even, and perhaps especially, if he is uninterested in it - and spare his life. But I also recognize that government is best conducted, whenever possible, at the local level. And if the above discussion has demonstrated nothing else, I think it shows that this is a complex question. The South Carolina jury is free to make their decision as they see fit. But I do hope they choose life.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Mercy for Dylann Roof

The trial of Dylann Roof, the murderer of nine worshipers at a black church in Charleston in 2015, has now moved to the sentencing phase. The basic question is whether Roof will received life in prison or be executed for his crimes.

There is no doubt that Roof's attack was heinous. In addition to the deaths themselves and the attendant suffering inflicted on the community and the families of the victims, Roof's motive casts a further specter: he sought to ignite a race war in America.

In spite of all this, Roof's life should be spared. His execution would potentially make him a martyr to those few people who share his twisted views of racial superiority and violence. In contrast, sparing his life demonstrates that American society retains the moral high ground and will not stoop to the kind of vindictive actions Dylann Roof has taken.

To my knowledge, no one is making the case that Roof poses a significant threat of escape. So long as he remains behind bars, he poses no threat to society. His blood need not be shed to protect the rest of us.

Human life has dignity - all human life. If we embark on the task of choosing which lives are and are not worthy of respect, as Dylann Roof did, we enter morally dubious territory. Human dignity is innate and inalienable; even acts as heinous as Roof's cannot erase the sacred calling given to him and every man and woman on the planet: to love and to be loved.

Perhaps, as he lives out his days in prison, Dylann Roof might yet come to see that. I'm not optimistic, but I can hope.

UPDATE: For further discussion on this topic, see the follow-on post.