Follow this lively brouhaha between four friendseach classic examples of one of John Courtney Murrays classifications of the American political landscape. A drive through Cambridge, Massachusetts, reveals some surprising shifts in the landscape, as each friend responds to the architecture and design of the various neighborhoods. The author, a Catholic and a Murray traditionalist, is surprised to discover he may have more in common with his radical friendfavoring nature, human values, and beautythan with his more progress-oriented liberal and conservative friends.
I was driving through Cambridge, Massachusetts, with three friends recently, when it struck me how well we divided into John Courtney Murray's four American political types: radical, liberal, traditionalist, and conservative. But what I learned from our conversation convinced me that, however valid and useful Murray's typology may be, it also leaves out something important and surprising.Dick is a radical of the left. As a teenager in the sixties, he had all the right (which is to say, left) opinions. He loved Woodstock, grass, free sex, rock, folk music, proletarian Marxism, and the civil rights movement. Still, today he hates authority, organized religion, the rich, tradition, big business, and classical education. When he pronounces the word "republican" I hear the same spirit speaking as when I pronounce the word "fascist," and when he says "religious right" I hear "Satanist." But he has a great sense of humor, a sharp mind, good taste, genuine personal compassion, and total honesty. We have met only half a dozen times, always like two suspicious stranger-dogs sniffing and growling with warning signs, mainly because he knows I am strongly pro-life and pro-church, and I know he knows it, and he knows I know he knows it. A polite standoff. His religion is some combination of atheism, agnosticism, and pagan-polytheistic-pantheistic-ecological-mysticism.Dwight is a liberal. He has always voted democraticexcept in Massachusetts, where he likes many of the "republicans." He is a polite, helpful, intelligent, and very sincere man who has devoted his life to public service. He worked in business for a few years (very successfully), then ran for local office (also successfully). He is a reasonable man, and distrusts extremes, whether of personal passion or of political ideology. The only politician I ever heard him get exercised about was Pat Buchanan. Dwight is also pro-choice, though not as passionately as Dick. (In Massachusetts politics, the more pro-choice you are, the more certain you are to be elected.) Dwight is a Unitarian.Newton is a conservative. It may be because of the name that I keep associating him with Newt Gingrich, but he is younger, handsomer, and more personable. We share an enjoyment of Rush Limbaugh and jokes about liberals. He is in some sort of finance-and-computer business, a whiz at it, and seems perpetually happy. He is some sort of Protestant (Presbyterian, I think), and pro-life, though not passionately.We all knew enough about one another and were good enough friends to enjoy joking about it. The expected conversation had evolved in the car that morninghalf-serious debate, half-friendly gibesalong the usual lines of liberals (Dick and Dwight) vs. conservatives (Newton and myself). Newton had repeated some hilarious segments from Rush that involved both the "Feminazis" and the "environmental wackos," and (of course) I was the only one laughing. Then, suddenly, everything changed, and we entered a different world.We were driving through a part of Cambridge that had been a slum a few decades ago. Then it had been torn down and replaced with big, clean, new, red-brick office buildings and apartments, with plenty of space, lighting, greenery, and walkways: a planned city within a city. I had always classified the architecture as "colonial Nazi": intimidating, inhuman, Bauhaus lines, but in red-brick softness. Everything was either square or scalene and off-center. There were no arches, whether pointed or rounded; no palladium windows, no fancy doorsin fact the only thing fancier than it needed to be was a modernistic outdoor sculpture. What shocked me was Newton's comment: "That's my new apartment, there. Isn't it great?"I looked at the abomination of desolation he pointed to, and gasped, "You're kidding." "It's absolutely perfect," he argued. "It's got everything: location, roominess, parking, workout room, low condo fees. And it's a real community. Look." He directed my sight to the variety of people walking through the commodious walkways: businessmen, teenagers, a family with a baby carriage. "What don't you like about it? It's designed for people.""People, that's good," I said. "But designed, that's bad. It's artificial. It's not a real neighborhood. It's the liberal concept of a neighborhood. I can see how Dwight would like this place, but not you.""Well," Newton said, irritably, "It's not something we should be arguing about. It's not important. Let's get back to politics, if we want an argument."Dwight started to do just that, when Dick interrupted, "Not important? Of course it's important! It's your world. It's your image of the real that you see every day. How can you say it's not important what you see every day?""You artsy-fartsy types," Newton snorted. "You think beauty is the most important thing in the world and ugliness is the worst, don't you?""Yeah, I guess I do think that," Dick replied. "Why don't you?""I think I have higher ideals than just sensory beauty. Aristotle said ...""No, don't give me Aristotle. Give me Newton. What's more important to you than beauty?"I was hoping he'd say "God," or "being a saint," or "going to Heaven," but instead he mumbled something so vague I don't remember what it wassomething about the good society, or the good life. I found myself suddenly spiritually far from Newton and close to Dick. Then we turned into an older section of Cambridge, where the houses were crowded, tiny, old, and poor. Newton sensed that Dick and I were together now, against him and Dwight. Gesturing at the rundown and ramshackle houses we were now passing, he challenged us, "I suppose you two would rather live in one of those?" I surprised myself with the vehemence of my answer. "Damn right we would! This is at least a real neighborhood, with real people." "Small is beautiful," Dick explained. "It's not plastic," I added. But nothing we said could move the other two to more than patronizing little smiles.In the ensuing ten minutes Dick and I discovered that we both loved bluegrass; madrigals; the Beatles; Peter, Paul, and Mary; fires; storms; caves; waves; mountains; Victorian houses; Martha's Vineyard; England; Provincetown; San Francisco; and Seattle. (Why, by the way, do those with the worst moral tastes so often have the best aesthetic tastes? Why is Sodom such a pretty city? Why do the nicest people live in Iowa?)It became obvious to all four of us that there was some sort of a serious spiritual division between "us" and "them": with the radical and the traditionalist on the one side, and the liberal and the conservative on the other. It was more than a set of aesthetic preferences. It soon became clear that it unexpectedly flowed over into social and political issues. Dick and I discovered that we shared a preference for "small is beautiful" populism, a suspicion of bigness whether in government or business, a lack of interest in economics, a dislike of suburbs, a love of nature, and a concern for conserving the environment. (I've never understood why "conservatives" aren't in the front rank of conservationism.) We didn't get into moral and religious issues, but I suspect that even there we would have found a psychological kinship beneath our philosophical differences.Perhaps the key was a willingness to be passionate about something, however different these things were. Or perhaps it was the preference for the concrete and specific over the abstract and general. (Was that why we both dislike computers and the other two love them?) But whatever it was, and whatever political significance it may have, I think it means at least this: that beneath the current political left-right alignments there are fault lines embedded in the crust of human nature that will inevitably open up some day and produce earthquakes that will change the current map of the political landscape.John Courtney Murray's fourfold classification was based on four different attitudes toward the organized church and the organized American state: the conservative affirmed both; the traditionalist affirmed the church but mistrusted the current state; the liberal affirmed the state but mistrusted the church; and the radical said, "A plague on both your houses." There is much truth here, but much missing, toosomething certainly less important than religion, but possibly more important than politics, and, as I found in my drive through Cambridge, it has something to do with architecture. Copyright © 1996 First Things
Originally published in First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life (November 1996, No. 67). Please visit their Web site at http://www.firstthings.com.