New Urbanism and Christian Faith

Our small group just finished discussing Eric Jacobsen's _Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith_ (Brazos, 2003). Jacobsen makes a solid case for why Christians should be concerned about and dwell within urban spaces--not just as another place to "save souls," and not as a Saturday "outreach" activity, returning to suburban enclaves guarded by gates and massive garage doors. Rather, we are to _inhabit_ the city, actually live there, and "seek the welfare of the city."

The book is best when it is showing what's wrong with suburban sprawl (including the philosophical and quasi-theological underpinnings of this "American dream," showing the government policies--such as zoning--which foster it, and the market's vested interest in it). However, it's hard to know just how this would fly with readers who actually live in the suburbs. (Our small group is all drawn from within the city.)

The book also does a very good job of pushing us to be passionate about two very simple axioms: (1) walk more, and (2) buy local. Good discussions of what's wrong with a car-dominated culture and how we inhabit our cities differently when we walk or ride the bus. Also very good on resisting the lure of the big box stores and paying a little more to support local economies.

Jacobsen is more frustrating when it comes to some of the specifics of urban life. This is not to say he doesn't address the right issues or questions; he does--but I sometimes felt like he punted just when we got to really hard questions. Take gentrification, for example. Jacobsen basically concludes it's a good thing (albeit a kind of necessary evil, at the same time). He's not willing to go far enough in his critique of market economy (I think the only answer to gentrification is socialism).

There's lots in the book to like; the rest will certainly generate good conversation.

Our small group is now hoping to dive into David McCarthy's new book, _The Good Life_ (Brazos, 2004).


French Liberty Fries?

When I was in France last summer (2003), we visited a couple of bookstores (I scored Jean-Luc Marion's new book, _Le phenomene erotique_) and found huge displays of just what you'd expect from the French (and why we love them so much): tome after tome criticizing the current version of the American empire.

But a couple of weeks ago I came across a strange beast: Jean-Francois Revel's _Anti-Americanism_ (Encounter Books, 2003). Revel is a shrill critique of European, especially French, anti-Americanism. But the book is so deeply sycophantic and pro-capitalist I'm having trouble making it through. His logic echoes that of Bush: "They hate us because we're so good." (That's a quote, by the way!: see Robert Bellah's essay in _Dissent from the Homeland_ [Duke, 2003]). So Revel reduces anti-Americanism to a kind of political penis envy: "America is the object of their loathing because, for half a century or more, she has been the most prosperous and creative capitalist society on earth" (p. 34).

His critique of anti-globalization protests is so sad it's almost laughable. Anti-Americanism is castigated throughout the book for a kind of performative contradiction. So too with anti-globalization. But listen to Revel's remarkable ability to miss the point: "This is not the only contradiction in their impoverished mental bric-a-brac. For example, they brought mayhem to Seattle in the name of combatting a "savage" globalization that "profits only the rich." Yet who were convening in Seattle? Representatives of the World Trade Organization (WTO), whose role is precisely to monitor international economic transactions and make them conform to rules--so as to prevent them from being 'savage'" (34).

The point of such protests, of course, is that the WTO does _not_ effect such protection or regulation, but instead legitimates a system of global dependence which benefits the G-8 at the expense of others. Is Revel really so naive or wilfully ignorant to see that anti-globalization just doesn't buy WTO's official account of itself? (He goes on to point out that even poor countries want to join the WTO. Of course: because they control channels of distribution and access!)

He concludes that "purporting to oppose globalism, [they] were really attacking capitalism" (35). Oui, M. Revel, c'est vrai. And that consitutes the bulk of his argument: people are anti-American because they're really anti-capitalist, or anti-democratic. But that is only an argument against anti-Americanism _if_ one is committed to capitalism and/or liberal democracy (which Revel assumes any rational person must be). But what if we don't buy this assumed premise? What if we reject the enthymeme? Then Revel's book will be convincing only to the choir already watching FOX News.