Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Open

I am reporting back to the common fire after months (years?) of silence, this time from Eugene, Oregon, a small university town with a very visible aging hippie population and, as I am slowly discovering, real money hidden in discrete quarters. Having come from Chicago and Hyde Park, I am used to the company of Democrats. A long-time member of American liberal academia, I am used to things like feminism, post-colonial studies, race theories, Marxism, Frankfurt School, etc and etc. None of these things seems to suffice in describing the climate in Eugene, however.

In Hyde Park, being liberal means supporting Barak and pledging to the Hyde Park Jazz Society. In Eugene, it seems to imply buying locally grown heirloom tomatoes and organic tampons. This town has no shortage of fancy organic grocery stores, cooking boutiques and bike shops. All things are ecological and green. The most peculiar thing is that everyone disappears into the mountains at the end of the day. Every upper middle-class professional seems to own a house somewhere on the hills in south Eugene. When the sun goes down, they retreat from civilization into their private garden and palace, often spectacular. In their private kingdom, they need not deal with the ugliness of the American society.

A colleague told me that this town went mad last November during the presidential campaign. People had 20 Obama signs in their yard and entered into fierce fights with their neighbors across the Williamette River, Springfield, which is a predominantly working class town of Republican persuasion. (A colleague at the university whom I met at a reception referred to my town Covina in Los Angeles County as a place for "rednecks"; I corrected her by saying that it was inhabited by the working-class and immigrants.) Springfield is far from being a charming town; it looks just like the kind of town for the Simpsons' and has lots of strip malls and large retail shops. At the same time, I felt indignant as I started to discover that liberal Eugenians speak of the "redneck" Springfielders with contempt. I realized that they are liberal but not exactly Marxist. The boys at the Social Theory workshop at the University of Chicago might wear nice shirts (some of them), but at least they make a point of drinking beer and eating Doritos. The liberal Eugenians don't even pretend to solidarize with the workers, who are white, overweight and anti-Obama.

Religion is not exactly popular here, especially the ones that involve Jesus. (My colleague who teaches colonial Latin American art got hostile student evaluations expressing anger that she was trying to convert them to Catholicism by teaching them about Catholic art.) However, they do have three Episcopal parishes. I went to two: one was smug and had an ugly chapel, the other was low church and does folk mass once a month, but it has an interesting female priest who is visibly concerned with social justice. I decided to stay in the second one for now (while avoiding the guitars on the third Sunday of the month). The congregation is still very white; they don't lift every voice and sing either. (Interlude: I know that I will forever miss Sunday mornings in Hyde Park, when Hispanic and black families all come out in their best clothes for church. The black grandmas at St. Paul the Redeemer would sit in the pews with their fantastic hats, with little lace trims and flowers on top; sometimes they wore white gloves like my own grandmother used to do. I would pretend to follow along the hymnal while checking out my professors amongst the faithful: Rob Nelson the Byzantinst from my department who is always at the front, David Wellbery the Germanist who is always at the back, and my friend the Islamicist Fred Donner who sings in the choir.) But at least here, in the Church of Resurrection, I can see elite white people being open. Here, they are quiet and listening, instead of complacently advertising themselves as they do at receptions and potlucks. They have a very interesting priest, a younger woman who reminds them that being well-t0-do and content is not enough, that the world is filled with people who are treated as non-persons, and the obligation for every Christian is to not be content with what is but to imagine what may be. Here, they confront their own frailty and finitude, and for that reason, I can share their company. More importantly on a social level, they are taking responsibility for their own spiritual tradition, not becoming consumers of exotic occultism (there are many shops here where they could purchase paraphernalia of various kinds) or aggrandizing their ego with popular forms of atheism.

As time goes on, I hope to find other people in Eugene to whom I can talk about the plight of the American working class, and who will not speak of the religious right as if they were the devil. Maybe I will even find one or two people who could understand why I put U2's *Rattle and Hum* on the same level as Bach's kantatas, Latin plain songs and Negro spirituals. But before then, I think the progressive Episcopal church here in Eugene is my best bet in finding the intermediary ground of openness without which I would suffocate.

In many worlds, including the world of the English gentry in Evelyn Waugh's novels or of the French noblesse in Proust, church-going was the sign of respectability. In Eugene, respectability is marked by shopping at the right stores, eating at the right restaurants, etc. This makes the church-goers somewhat non-conformists. After all, they didn't have to go. (Many of them are also old and very frail.) If they did go, it must mean that they, too, understand that eating organic vegetables alone does not suffice in making one a good person. At least I have that in common with them.


gale said...

I think the organic food movement/gardening can be linked to the arts and crafts movement and the anti-modernists of the late 19C and early 20C in the US.

It had weird iterations: white southerners who wanted to go back to the Old South instead of toward industrialization; high-church Episcopalians who reveled in Latin plain song and neo-gothic cathedrals, and who built faux medieval museums like the Cloisters; and back-to-the-land types who embraced nature, like Teddy Roosevelt.

I think your Oregon people can be worked into this tradition, in part. But I also think that one shouldn't be too hasty to condemn organic food - the more wealthy people buy organic, the cheaper it'll become for everyone. Many organic farms also have much better working conditions for poor migrant laborers, and so the act of using your consumer power to make a political statement is not without some value.

Along these lines, if Oregon's organic foodies fail to recognize that church agencies do good work for migrant workers and immigrants, they are only seeing part of the picture. But I suspect that for the majority, their reasoning isn't bigotry against religious groups, but ignorance. A quick Google produces the following:

An LA church favors illegal immigrants getting health care:

Or the National Farm Workers Ministry:

Joyce Cheng said...

Thanks, Gale. I think I'll make a point of linking Arts & Crafts to the Ore-ganic phenomenon in my History of Design class in the spring.

Indeed - between anti-modernism and progressivism we have a very narrow strait to sail. The A-G did that sail - amazing feat.

Laura said...

An interesting problem is that the more wealthy people buy organic, the cheaper it becomes for everyone - in part because you're no longer getting the better working conditions for poor migrant laborers. Instead you're getting organic food grown under otherwise traditional industrial ag conditions. True, I imagine we all win when we cut down on pesticides, farmworkers included, so it's still probably not a bad thing.

But that's why I support people who write about food choices from a human ethics perspective (Peter Singer & Jim Mason), rather than an environmental aesthetics perspective (Michael Pollan et al.). This is one of my favorite descriptions of Michael Pollan, who apparently was shocked to find migrant labor crews working an organic farm he visited:

"In fact, pleasure isn’t merely the motivating force in Pollan’s books; it’s the goal. His chief criticism of Chicken McNuggets is that they are insufficiently delicious. (Has he tried them with the hot-mustard sauce?) He is both a gourmand and an idealist, which means that he tastes the entire food economy each time he has a meal. When he saw those migrant laborers, maybe he was thinking about their wages—but he was also thinking about his supper."

He "tastes the entire food economy" with each meal! It's so perfect!

gale said...

Joyce - You should definitely connect the Arts and Crafts people with the modern day back-to-nature types. They're following a long tradition in U.S. History - think Thoreau and Walden Pond.

And Laura - Oh, Michael Pollan. I remember reading a review he did of the Green Revolution, where he tied himself in knots about sustainable agriculture and the need of the world's hungry people. Interestingly, when the Green Rev. biologist died a few weeks ago (he was a prof. at A&M), no one mentioned any of Pollan's (and certain other environmentalists') concerns.

Jacqueline Schmitt said...

Joyce - it heartens me tremendously to read that you think your best bet for any kind of middle ground is in the Episcopal Church you've stumbled upon in Eugene. Here in way-over-the-top liberal Massachusetts, the Episcopal Church seems hopelessly polarized and dysfunctional, just cracking under the strain of trying to hold it all together.

I am also delighted in your explicit mention of the working class -- a group, along with immigrants and anyone with a different culture, the Episcopal Church gives lip service to but largely does not see. That contradiction is all the harder to sustain in this end-of-the-Gospel-of-Mark year for the Sunday lectionary: every Sunday we read of how the people on the bottom "got" Jesus and how the rich went away sorrowful.

So glad to read your thoughful comments!