As readers of my blog have discovered (perhaps with a measure of irritation) my favorite cognitive style is free association. The following post is an exercise in putting together bits and pieces—in the event: flea markets, cowboys, hobos and the root insight of anarchism.
This exercise was triggered by the issue of The Christian Century on January 23, 2013. The cover story, a rather surprising one for this usually staid banner publication of mainline Protestantism, has the title “Flea Market Capitalists”. The story is by Arthur E. Farnsley II (a mainline Protestant name if there ever was), who holds a Ph.D. from Emory University, teaches and researches about American religion, and also proudly identifies himself as a repeated tomahawk champion of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association. The article summarizes some of the findings of his recent book Flea Market Jesus (2012). I have not read the book, but I can warmly recommend the article.
Flea markets are marginal businesses—literally dealing with bits and pieces of discarded merchandise. The businesses are generally operated by poor people who use its scanty profits to augment equally scanty income from other sources (many of them are on disability). Farnsley’s research into flea markets was conducted over several years in central and southern Indiana. He was not primarily interested in the economics of the business, but in the culture and religion of its entrepreneurs.
The culture is peculiar. It characterizes people “who do not see themselves as belonging to any community… they experience institutions as centers of power and control who do things to them, not for them or with them”. They are icons of radical individualism. They are (sort of) small business people, express patriotic sentiments, and are quite religious (generally in an orthodox but unaffiliated form of Christianity). Yet they are distrustful of any institution—including large business (some keep money under the bed), government and church. Their religion has magical undertones (they believe in miracles), their God helps “little people like themselves”. They are attached to guns, “the ultimate ability to say no to coercion”, but they are unlikely to be loyal members of the National Rifle Association.
The quality that sticks out is a fierce devotion to individual freedom—“not to freedom to do whatever you want, but to freedom from being forced to do what you do not want”. Most of the flea market dealers are against abortion and homosexuality, but “I wouldn’t want to tell anyone else what to do”. This is a basic personal value, not based on some libertarian or anarchist ideology. Farnsley, who describes himself as a libertarian, obviously sympathizes with these people, but he admits (one surmises, almost regretfully) that “most of us have too much to lose to chuck it all and sell socks at a flea market”.
The story in The Christian Century made me recall something that my colleague Christopher Marsh told me about a year ago. He was thinking of doing some research about a group calling itself “Cowboy Baptists” and who were about to have a convention in Texas. The research did not occur, but I was intrigued by what seemed to be an incongruous name of this group; I then forgot about it until now. It turns out that quite a lot of information about it is available on the Internet. As recently as October 08, 2012, the newsletter of the American Baptist Press carried an informative story by Jeff Brumley.
Going back to the 1970s, the Cowboy Baptists have become a sizable group. They have an organization, the Cowboy Church Network of North America (the name suggests some Canadian affiliates). As one would expect, the group is strongest in the Southwest (though there are branches as far north as Minnesota—or maybe Saskatchewan?); in Texas alone there are about 800 churches. The group is characterized by an emphatically Evangelical faith and a cowboy lifestyle. The Evangelicalism expresses itself in intense missionary activity—“church planting”, in the customary Evangelical parlance. Once “planted”, every church immediately prepares to clone itself. The cowboy lifestyle is omnipresent—worship is very informal, people come to services in cowboy gear, services are held in connection with rodeos, preachers arrive on horseback, baptisms are often performed in cattle troughs. All of this is meant to make a certain category of people feel at home, as against the “roadblocks” they have encountered in more conventional churches. However, one cowboy pastor admits that most of his flock are “armchair cowboys who just love watching ‘Gunsmoke’ and don’t ride horses at all”.
What I find interesting in this phenomenon is a mélange of two cultures that are usually (and quite correctly) seen as opposites. It makes me think of a man I knew some years ago: He despised what he called the “health cult”, and he ceremonially desecrated it by pouring rich whipped cream over granola bars. (Or, if you prefer, imagine a big building in Washington containing the national lobby of flea market dealers.) Cowboys have been associated with riotous living, both in historical fact and in the myth that has been propagated in American popular culture. Baptists (especially Southern Baptists) are associated with the very opposite: an uptight and abstemious way of life. (Old joke: “Why are Southern Baptists against premarital sex? – Because it may lead to dancing.”) A white-washed sanctuary is the proper locale for good Baptists. The meeting place associated with cowboys is the saloon (and the whorehouse, frequently located one flight up—if one gives credence to Western movies). It is worth mentioning that the cowboy culture, at least today, is no longer exclusively male: There are many cowgirls, whose participation in the historic antics of the saloon may have some limits, but who apparently enjoy swaggering in their distinctive getup as much as their men. In any case, Cowboy Baptists celebrate a very distinctive form of ecumenicity, as embracive as any under the auspices of the World Council of Churches.
The lone cowboy riding into the sunset is a distinctive American icon. There are analogues elsewhere of solitary individuals moving from place to place. Both the loneliness and the freedom of the open road make up a cross-cultural narrative. There are the Travelers in Ireland, still today a distinctive and officially recognized “social group”. Of course there are the Gypsies (who now prefer to be called Roma and Sinti), who may be the descendants of a Hindu caste of musicians who at some time began to move westward. The Jewish peddler was a well-known figure in eastern Europe. And going back into the Middle Ages, there were the wandering artisans appropriately called “journeymen”, the vagrant scholars, and last not least the troubadours in search of romantic encounters.
Back in America, there has been another myth, that of the hobo. He did not drive cattle across the prairies, but rode the freight trains criss-crossing the vast spaces of the continent. Here too is a figure of loneliness and freedom. He even had a kind of national anthem, the song “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum”. There are different versions of its origin. According to one story, it was scribbled in 1897 on a prison wall in Kansas City by a hobo known as “One Finger Ellis”. It is sung to a tune that was originally a Protestant hymn “Revive us Again”. It was adopted by the famous Wobblies, the anarchist group whose official name was the Industrial Workers of the World; the IWW published the song in 1908. Its refrain went as follows:
Hallelujah, I’m a bum,
Hallelujah, bum again,
Hallelujah, give us a handout
To revive us again.
The Wobblies were the American expression of a much larger international phenomenon, which played an important role in European revolutionary movements in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Known as anarchism (the word in Greek means “without ruler/without government”), it become prominent in Russia and was associated with spectacular acts of terrorism. Dostoyevsky drew a very negative picture of anarchists in his novel The Possessed. Possibly its last moment of glory came during the Spanish civil war. Its militia, known by the acronym POUM, helped defend Barcelona against the Franco forces, until troops controlled by the Soviet security service massacred the anarchists from behind, literally shooting them in the back. (George Orwell wrote a memorable obituary to the POUM in his Homage to Catalonia, 1938.)
When I was a student at the New School for Social Research, where most classes let out late in the evening, a group of us often stayed around in the “Oviedo”, a bar on 14th Street owned by a veteran of the Spanish civil war. Over the urinals in the men’s room hung an inscription “Muerte a Franco!”, so that you could solemnly piss on the hated dictator. I cannot recall the beginning of a conversation I had with the owner; it may have been an occasion when I mentioned my passionate opposition (then as now) to the death penalty. The anti-fascist veteran put his hand on my shoulder and said: “It is clear that you are a decent person. All decent people are anarchists deep down”.
Was he right? No and yes. No, anarchism as a political ideology typically begins with senseless murders and ends in tyranny. But yes, there is a root insight, not in anarchist theories, but in what could be called an anarchist sensibility. The insight is that most institutions are based on fictions, often homicidal ones, and that individual freedom is a precious and precarious commodity that must ever again be defended—both against the coercive institutions of modernity and against the more subtle coercion of traditional community. The sociologist knows that society must provide a morally legitimated order of institutions, without which human life would descend into chaos. Balancing order and freedom is the challenge to the institutions of liberal democracy. But it is salutary to remember that all institutions, however benignly constructed, contain the potential of oppression—and that the core of individual dignity is the capacity to say no to the oppressors.