“If you can’t control your own house, how will you be able to control the White House?”
– Michelle Obama, 2007 presidential campaign speech
The word “economy” descends from the ancient Greek word oikonomia, meaning ‘law of the home.’ Whereas the market can be considered to be an institution whose main task is the preservation and sustenance of the already-developed Adult, the home is an institution whose main concern is the growth and progress of the ethically and morally maturing Child.
Since many religions think of the human as a “child of God” in the process of moral development rather than as an adult who has graduated from or completed this process, it is theoretically, then, more appropriate to speak about religious principles using the language of the matriarchal oikos—the home and its economy rather than by using the language of the patriarchal agora—the marketplace—or polis—the government.
How did this transition from economic ethics to political ethics come to be, and what are the end results of this change for the people whose lives are governed by religious commentary? Are there truths expressed within economic language that are lost when the body becomes a question of politics?
This essay will explore this question based upon media source-text from Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama—two public speakers who have theorized human development in both political and economic terms.
Ye Are My Friends: Group Performance in the Polis
The first discourse in question is Clinton’s speech at the 1996 Democratic National Convention, a talk that might be called “Ye Are My Friends” because of Hillary’s attempt to describe her ideal community as a select gathering of her obedient and esteemed friends. Just as Christ is recorded as saying in the New Testament that “ye are my friends if ye do whatsoever I command you,” Hillary’s speech presents a spectacular parade of still images where families and individuals are able to work to enter into her consciousness and become her friends by virtue of their obedience to her favorite values.
Hillary quoted an African proverb in 1994, saying that “it takes a village to raise a child.” Taking the stand at the pulpit the 1996 Democratic National Convention, Mrs. Clinton elaborated upon her first statement, telling the roaring Chicago audience that “Chicago is my kind of town [and] Chicago is my kind of village.”
Under the weight of political convention, the dense inner-city geography of the political convention seemed to give way to a magical-realist parade or panorama of Hillary’s intimate social network, her regal village agora.
Arriving first on the stage is Binti the child-saving gorilla. Gorillas are generally scary, but Binti is but a paragon of Midwest American industry. “You know,” Clinton said, “as my friend explained, Binti is a typical Chicagoan, tough on the outside but with a heart of gold underneath.” But almost as quickly as the gorilla arrives, his fifteen words of prominence come to an end, and Hillary summons him away to conjure up the facetious image of a basketball player—“another friend advised me that I should cut my hair and color it orange and then change my name to Hillary Rodman Clinton.”
The men, the women, and even the animals that the First Lady introduces are spectacles of public amusement, but when it comes time for a serious decision of the oikos—Hillary replaces the scenes of the agora with the sober image of herself, her husband, and her daughter contemplating their personal lives in the polis.
“Sometimes late at night, when I see Chelsea doing her homework or watching TV or talking to a friend on the phone, I think to myself her life and the lives of millions of boys and girls will be better because of what all of us are doing together… and that is what this election is all about.”
The civilian home and the president’s home are one for her—the civilian drama of the oikos becomes subsumed into the Clinton family’s metanarrative of elections, laws, and federal political offices. Her words echo the sentiments of Walt Whitman in the poem, “Song of Myself,” to wit:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself, and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
As First Lady Clinton became Secretary of State Clinton, the rigid and foursquare narrative of choreographed village dancing continued to govern her thoughts as she traveled to such locations as South Africa and allowed herself to be captured on camera, wiggling and wiggling away. However, one cannot help but to wonder whether the righteous wiggling of the polis is truly diverse enough to account for the loose and multifaceted energies of a nation’s many oikoi.
I Am Aware Who They Are: Patterns of Individuality in the Oikos
The second discourse in question is Michelle Obama’s 2012 dance performance of “the dougie” at a Washington DC area grade school. We might call this discourse “I Am Aware Who They Are” because Michelle seems to be interested in engaging with the common people in their own skin.
Where Mrs. Clinton asked the families of America to submit their home economies to the unitary political vision of the White House, Mrs. Obama experimented with the notion letting the unitary law of the White House become a reflection of the nation’s multiplicity of many laws of and houses. There was a day in 2012 when the First Lady came to a Washington DC area high school, planning to act in her capacity as a state representative, to watch the children exercise and to ratify the experience by virtue of her presence. However, the choreography of statehood quickly unraveled into the spontaneity of speculative philosophy—Michelle asked the youth to teach her one of the varied personal interpretations of the dougie.
Hillary was more concerned with the lessons that the high culture of the White House might be able to teach the masses of society, but Michelle turned this power-relationship around and abandoned the White House’s high culture and ritual in favor of learning the resonant emotions and spontaneous rhythms of popular culture.
Speaking to the people of modern times, Jesus has said, “if you will be delivered, you shall set order in your own house, for there are many things that are not right in your house.” This statement suggests the critical value of the oikos within the political economy the contemporary Christianity.
Hillary’s tragic flaw was to cover the authentic beauty of oikos beneath the polis and its regulated cult of personality—Chicago becomes “my kind of village” and “my kind of town.” Michelle, however, seems more interested in engaging with the contemporary world on its own terms, dealing with its inhabitants on their natural order of random spontaneity rather than in any pre-arranged scheme. Whitman’s words again represent the scene in a compelling manner:
This is the city and I am one of the citizens, Whatever interests the rest interests me, politics, wars, markets, newspapers, schools, The mayor and councils, banks, tariffs, steamships, factories, stocks, stores, real estate and personal estate. … I am aware who they are, (they are positively not worms or fleas). I acknowledge the duplicates of myself, the weakest and shallowest is deathless with me, what I do and say the same waits for them, every thought that flounders in me the same flounders in them.
In the metaphysical urban consciousness espoused by Michelle Obama and others, the everyday practice of the masses is not a problem to be solved, an ambiguous stretch of uncharted land to be cultivated into a beautiful village. Rather, it is the solution to the monotony and limited vision of the polis. The polis leader is to be the chief student of culture, not the chief instructor.
The Oikonomia of the City
“What then remains? The question how the study of philosophy may be so ordered as not to be the ruin of the State: All great attempts are attended with risk; ‘hard is the good,’ as men say.”
The organizing sentiment in man’s and woman’s heart leads us to try to define the world around us according to a single unifying principle. However, “a city cannot be a work of art,” as urban studies theorist Jane Jacobs has said. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs writes that
instead of attempting to substitute art for life, city designers should return to a strategy ennobling both to art and to life: a strategy of illuminating and clarifying life and helping us to explain its meanings and order—in this case, helping to illuminate, clarify and explain the order of cities.
In Provo, Utah, home of Brigham Young University, a new generation of Mormons begins to wrestle with the conflict between the city and the village, and it remains to be seen which political attitude our community will finally adopt. Shall we be an edgy cosmopolitan city of interfaith theists and nontheists? Shall we be continue to be a traditional Mormon town of baptismal-covenant-keepers and temple-garment-wearers?
How should we classify new, ambiguous spaces such as the towering apartment complex that we refer to as The Village? By daylight, The Awful Waffle restaurant is The Village’s calm auxiliary—plain tables, modest chairs, and the homey smell of Belgian waffles. At night, however, the waiters and waitresses clear away the scenery and make space for the influx of a young urban crowd.
When a new person walks in, the swooning and guitar-playing men in band promise that “this is the last song,” smiling facetiously as they mentally review the remaining songs on their long proposed set list. We are not by any means listening to the last song, and the men and women in the dancing crowd seem rather uninterested in holding the musicians to account.
Here in the dark forest of the beautiful and the awful, one can see spectacles of all kinds: women standing on bar tops and women on the seats of table-stools; women in vogue and women in chaos; women revealing their shoulders and enjoying the freedom of their sleeveless black tank-tops; women dancing with women; women dancing with men; women gyrating at high speeds that cause curved ripples to appear and disappear in the tan fabric of their mid-thigh length skirts.
A short skirt is not long enough for a person to even try to present that she is wearing the Mormon temple garment, whose leggings extend down to the knee. The influx of mid-thigh skirts into The Village’s dance hall may be an example of the disillusionment with totalizing narratives that some have described as postmodernism, or the logic of contemporary capitalism.
Mormonism teaches that there are sparks of divine light that exist within the human body, and young Mormons are encouraged to learn how to truly live in their bodies–journeying, for example, on the breathtaking quest to find love with an eternal partner. In political or economic terms, these doctrines challenge societies to consider introducing the wild romantic energy of the oikos into the rehearsed order of the polis. As the youth of Provo move toward disillusionment with the practical need for everyone to wear a garment, new varieties of spiritual and ethical philosophy may begin to spread and thrive within our city’s many homes.