Trees, Squash, Goldfish, and The Talented Tenth

Tom Schade has directed us to a marvelous sermon by Cynthia Landrum, which declares that the vertical “tree-planting” model of denominational growth does not fit with the “spreading squash” social patterns of today’s young adults. The new Millennial lifestyle challenges more than liberal protestant institutions: it gives us a framework for asking how middle class culture will recover from the social, financial, and ecological violence it has suffered since 1980.

When a gardener wants to plant a tree or welcome spreading squash, the first step is not to find and clear an “under-developed location,” but to gather seeds and uproot seedings with which to populate the new gardens. Our national mythology applauds this self-appointing first step, and truly, it is neither good nor evil of itself. And it isn’t voluntary as often as The American Dream asserts: too many folks wound up here due to violence, injustice, bad fortune.

This morning on Turner Classic Movies, Frank Capra unfolded the tensions that affect a family when “a rising businessman tries to make his immigrant parents assimilate.”  His protagonists are Eastern European Jews with solid social ties and skills from the shtetl (the father’s jokes, the mother’s pushcart business), and son Morris has new world ambitions. He sells papers. When his tenement burns, he organizes a fire sale. Eventually he is able to move his parents and sister to Fifth Avenue.  Mother loves it, but Father pines for the old friends with whom he joked and worshiped; Morris’s sister marries her childhood sweetheart and has a baby.

Here is the fundamental question: Will Morris treat that baby as an offshoot or as a weed?

That question, rather than race, religion, ethnicity, even gender, defines the class war that splits today’s global population.  So far, Morris has been imitating the Northern European American Dream, casting off old social and cultural ties to establish himself in a culture-free community of success stories. Capra announces the English vision when Morris swaps his family’s Ellis Island name, Goldfish, for the English-sounding, “Finch.”

In Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America, Eugene Robinson describes a transnational 21st century elite which does not battle, but rather appropriates, the most successful achievers in all demographic groups. Together they build a network of social bubbles wherein to encounter only each other while jaunting through every landscape and culture on the blue marble. This is the real class war: not between particular cultures, but pitting various Beta cultures — the followers, the familial, the local, the traditional — against universalizing Alphas.

Could he really mean, the Goldfish vs the Finches? To prove that Alpha culture isn’t the same as English culture, I offer a series on Masterpiece Classic,  “Lark Rise to Candleford.” Here we see plenty of very English Beta folk, hoping for any progress that increases security, convenience, amusement. At the same time, they examine with suspicion any novelty that eradicates (uproots) their social fundamentals. The premise of “Lark Rise to Candleford” is that these are people for whom life’s markers and measures are physically smaller but much more intensely felt. And why are those little Beta events felt so strongly? It’s not that Betas feel so much, but that Alphas feel so little. (As Exhibit A, I offer Lady Mary Crawley, who demonstrates every Sunday that some women can eat their own flesh and blood for breakfast more quickly than most males can swallow a Happy Meal.)

Finches appear on both sides of the class war divide; that happy discovery seduced New England settlers into an honest belief that they could engineer a nation which would prosper the offspring of Alphas and Betas. Our parent denominations, in their heydays, valued those now-despised “Big Donors” because everyone worshiped together, shopped locally, traded regionally at most, by which means many an industrialist rescued many a floundering parish. Unitarianism and Universalism flourished before the true Age of Alphas, by fostering what W.E.B. DuBois called The Talented Tenth: “the preachers, teachers, physicians” and local artisans who strengthen themselves in order to support weaker tendrils, nourish aspiring volunteers shade fragile seedlings from hot sun. But when plunder capital gutted local economies landscapes began to wear out, our English-based culture reverted to its ancestral model of self-preservation. “Strike out toward more fertile fields,” we told our young people, tempting them to uproot themselves by paying for enjoyable four-year colleges. (I won’t bore you with the details of how this pattern arose because of the particular way feudalism broke down in England, as compared to its death patterns in Germany and, most famously, France. But it’s an interesting story for another time.)

So contrast this English-based American Dreams with the versions lived and love by African Americans, Asian Americans, Roman Catholic and Jewish families. These cultures may alter their theologies and marital boundaries, but they still see reaching up and spreading out as mutually supportive. Cast upon these shores by Old World violence, and therefore not imprinted with voluntary self-amputation, these cultures relish family reunions, bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, wakes and funerals, Quinceañeras, Eid-al-Fitr, and Lunar New Year.  How different are their sprawling feasts from those tiny nuclear families dotting college graduations.

WASP culture defines success as having the resources “to send our children away,” while everyone else is saving their money “to show our children where they came from,” and, if possible, “spend more time with the rest of the family.” My own belief is that Unitarian Universalism will reach its stratosphere by aggressively multiplying and strongly supporting a regular calendar for each age group to return, to remember, to commemorate, to rededicate. “Prophetic vision” means nothing to me; I see it as a fancy disguise for that ancestral call to either uproot oneself, or if that’s not possible, torch the landscape one cannot escape.

Perhaps this religion has reached its apex of population penetration in Vermont because, although  our children usually have to make their money somewhere else,  we’re too small to forget them, and so fond of them that they strive to “make enough money to settle back home in Vermont.” Vermont has maple trees, Vermont has squashes, and it’s probably no coincidence that we also have the only legislature in the nation that has mandated universal compost collection by 2016. This is a state without weeds (Emerson’s name for a plant you don’t want where it is). What we try to uproot is the Alpha mutation, that anomaly in every species that gorges itself without ceasing on other people’s products, and decapitates every social network that threatens to limit Alpha self-perpetuation.

And yes, we were originally mostly English.

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