Welcome to TP Ideas‘ weekly roundup of the best conservative writing! Every Friday, we take a look at three pieces by right-leaning writers that constructively articulate core elements of their worldview. The goal isn’t to find conservatives telling us how right liberals are, but rather to pick out writing that helps liberals understand where their ideological foes are coming from.
So let’s get started.
1. “Uplifting the Cities of the Poor” — Edward L. Glaeser, City Journal
Over at City Journal this week, Harvard economics Professor Edward Glaeser noted a fact that bedeviled the world of international development: as recently as mid-Century, increases in urbanization tended to go hand in hand with increases in economic development. But since then, the link has broken down. Countries like Bangladesh, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have seen massive new cities emerge even as their populations remain entrenched in poverty.
Glaeser presents a fascinating story for why this happened. In earlier decades, cities got their food from surrounding rural areas, producing a positive feedback loop: both the city and the farmers grew wealthier and more productive from the trade, thus lifting up the entire country. But today, with a truly global economy, food can come from anywhere. So urban industries and agriculture no longer reinforce one another within the same nation, and people flee grinding rural poverty en masse for only slightly-less-grinding urban poverty.
Farms in Argentina or Australia or Kansas are providing abundant, inexpensive food to Port-au-Prince and Karachi and similarly poor cities. The Democratic Republic of the Congo doesn’t need to feed Kinshasa, and couldn’t if it had to rely on its own agricultural output; a caloric river flows into the city from the outside world. To pay for the city calories, the poor countries sell minerals or other commodities or rely on foreign aid. They tend not to export industrial manufactured goods because they don’t make any. Almost 50 percent of Liberia is urbanized, for example, but manufacturing of goods that might be exported accounts for only 3 percent of GDP.
For a subsistence farmer in Bangladesh or the Congo, a move to the city, poor as it might be, still makes sense. He often has a better chance of getting food coming off a boat in a city port — living off the scraps of globalization — than he did getting it out of the ground, left fallow by poor soil and worse organization. When cities can rely on external sources of food, including foreign aid, moreover, they also become refugee magnets — as Dhaka, Port-au-Prince, and Kinshasa have become. Sustained by the vast wealth of the wider world, these struggling megacities can expand without a surge in national prosperity.
Anti-urban critics look at agglomerations of the poor like Port-au-Prince and despair at their filth, crime, and dismal living conditions — negative externalities of density. Over time, developing and developed cities have mitigated these effects with competent government and money, both of which poor cities lack. But sending people back to the even more impoverished countryside isn’t a viable option; there is no future in rural desperation.
This is an interesting backstory to the long-running debate over whether what the developing world needs is more aid (generally the “liberal” position) or better institutions (generally the “conservative” position), as it roots cities’ early success in beneficial but historically impermanent ecology. But Glaeser also goes on to draw several lessons from the history New York to lay out how modern cities can improve their lot. Some of them liberals will love — like public but independent entities to setup clean water and sanitation infrastructure — and some they’ll hate — like relatively draconian policing policy. And some cut across the ideological divide, like deregulating housing. But either way, there’s a lot to chew on here.
2. “Food for Thought” — Rachel Lu, Touchstone Magazine
Liberals tend to be big fans of organic farms and urban gardening. But self-described Catholic Aristotelian Rachel Lu took to the pages of Touchstone Magazine to explain how her return to farming in her backyard put her back in touch with ideas about human nature and the universe that are generally held to be more conservative. First off, she argues that — by rooting us in a far larger physical lifecycle that we instinctively enjoy participating in — the experience of gardening is sort of intrinsically hostile to the idea that material reality is all there is. More deeply, she argues that gardening promotes the Aristotelean idea of human flourishing: that only certain ways of life work to achieve flourishing, and that these ways are objective and universal for everyone. “No one is a moral relativist when fertilizing his tomatoes,” as Lu puts it.
[Gardening] immediately disarms our more cynical impulses by throwing us into a world of childish pleasures: sun, wind, dirt and insects. Now the mother of three small boys, I appreciate even more how naturally these appeal to young minds, and how young hands start to quiver with anticipation at the very sight of a muddy plot squirming with earthworms. It may take adults a bit longer to capture the joy of dirt, but the experience of working with it is likely to be wholesome from the very start. It forces us to contend with something real, and after a job is finished, it rewards us with the satisfaction of having accomplished a concrete task.
As our garden begins to grow, more lessons unfold. Life is good. Health is preferable to sickness, and order to chaos. Prudent living yields beautiful, nourishing fruit. The obviousness of these truths should make them utterly redundant, but sadly, to the modern mind they are not obvious at all. Taught from youth to celebrate deviance and to sneer at normality, the modern gardener may find in his backyard vegetable plot an oracle of ancient wisdom, the likes of which he has never seen before. He is elated to see his seeds germinate, and, watching the tiny seedlings develop, he feels fully the preciousness of each new, developing leaf. Then, noting a purplish color on the underside of his tomato leaves, he anxiously begins checking sources: are they “supposed to” look like that? Heaven forbid they should depart from the path of thriving tomatohood!
When the fruits appear, the gardener is overcome with elation and gratitude. He probably feels some yearning to paint or photograph the splendid specimens, wondrous in their testament to the beauty of a successful life. He happily pores over recipes, treating his zucchini and sprouts like prized delicacies. He delights in giving away the excess to friends, feeling somehow that this triumph was made for sharing. And even if his friends are inclined to smirk a little, his enthusiasm is understandable. There, in the vegetable patch, he has been liberated from the prison of deviant “originality,” and permitted at long last to celebrate the healthy and normal.
In fact, Lu contends that these aspects are precisely why many upper class liberals have taken to the urban gardening and organic food movements with such enthusiasm. By her theory, modern education, the loss of religious belief, and the rise of perpetual ironic detachment in pop culture has left us yearning for the experience of being anchored in a concrete moral ecology that is far bigger than we are and that exists independent of our own beliefs. But these changes have also left us unable to access that world. So gardening could provide a sort of elementary, backdoor re-acquaintance with that experience.
Interestingly, Lu ends with the eyebrow-raising hope that urban gardening could bring more liberals around to the conservative Catholic position on matters like abortion and IVF — a notion that sort of inadvertently reveals how opposition to abortion or IVF often arises from the conservative version of a particularly intense back-to-the-earth hippiedom.
3. “Ted Cruz Crashes Defense of Christians Summit” — Jonathan Coppage, The American Conservative
Something rather dramatic happened at the In Defense of Christians Summit this week. The gathering was put together to highlight the persecution and murder many Middle Eastern Christians have subjected to ISIS,and included participants from Christian sects across the Eastern world. As Jon Coppage at The American Conservative reported, there were speeches in favor of Christian unity, in favor of pluralism and separation of church and state, and in opposition to religious persecution of people of any faith. All were met with applause. Then Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) took the stage as the event’s keynote speaker:
The crowd applauded faithfully as Cruz made the argument that ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah, as well as Syria and Iran, were all equal participants in genocidal bigotry. Cruz then transitioned. After saying, “Our purpose here tonight is to highlight a terrible injustice. A humanitarian crisis. Christians, are being systematically exterminated,” Cruz then turned to the 1948 formation of Israel, a sensitive subject for many Palestinian Christians, and declared that ”today, Christians have no greater ally than the Jewish state.”
It was at that point that some in the audience objected to Cruz turning a celebration of Christian unity into a lecture on a divisive subject that many in the crowd experienced as part of their everyday lives. Cruz returned accusations of hatred. Even then, most of the crowd tried to reconcile with him as Cruz continued on to speak about “Jews and Christians alike who are persecuted by radicals [applause] who seek to — [applause]. If you hate the Jewish people you are not reflecting the teachings of Christ [applause].” As he continued to press the issue, however, the crowd increasingly urged him to “move on” and booed, leading him to lament those “consumed with hate” and depart. […]
In Defense of Christians executive director Andrew Doran later came to the stage to acknowledge the sensitivity of the Israel-Palestinian issue, but urged, “For the love of God, we’re here to talk about Christians and we’re here to be united.” When Cardinal Raï took the stage after the dinner, he related an old Lebanese saying, “At every wedding, there are a few wedding crashers,” said he was sorry for the events earlier that evening. He urged all in the crowd to put the unpleasantness behind them, an urging that echoed through the remarks of all the leaders speaking that night.
The circumstances of Christian communities in the Middle East — many of whom go back to the dawn of the religion — are complex. Many have to shelter with various Muslim groups or even maintain accommodations with Hezbollah or the Syrian regime to protect themselves from sectarian conflict in the region. A significant minority of Palestinians are Christian, and with their fellows in the West Bank and Gaza they’veendured injustices under Israeli policy. (Though Christians also serve in the Israeli Defense Forces.) And there’s an argument to be made that, due to domestic politics, many Americans — including liberals and leftists — can have a hard time wrapping their brain around the idea of Christians as a persecuted minority in another area of the world.
The incident offers a window into an important struggle within conservatism — the ensuing throwdown between various conservative writers and outlets has been intense — and one that liberals should be aware of and perhaps even productively engaged with.
But it’s also a loss: some people tried to achieve something fragile and genuinely valuable, and a member of the American political class wrecked it, as Gobry notes, for nothing other then their own political self-aggrandizement.