Tuesday, October 28, 2003

The Middle Class and the Public Sphere

I can't recommend too strongly this wonderful post by Timothy Burke. He takes his daughter to a museum in Philadelphia, finds it swamped by rude, unsupervised, mostly minority kids, struggles with guilt and resentment, and leaves. Then he takes his daughter to another, more "elite" museum, and finds a different sort of problem. From this, Timothy works out, simply put, one of the finest reflections on the often deeply confusing way in which socio-economic realities have infected and affected the way we (academics, intellectuals, everyone) think about the common good that I've read in a very long time. A beautiful post. I've struggled in my own way to address some of the social complications inherent to these themes (in my own context--namely, being a philosopher in poor, rural Arkansas), but the way Timothy framed things makes for superb reading. Of course, the fact that I miss living in the Mid-Atlantic and taking my kids to those same museums maybe just makes it more poignant for me. Anyway, hats off to Tim--and read the whole thing.

Friday, October 24, 2003

Amazon.com and the Future of Research!

Jacob T. Levy is excited about the new "search inside the book" at Amazon.com, and he is right to be. I've been getting e-mail about it from friends and students. Jacob writes that "looking at this feature I [had] the strongest sense I've had in ages that it was something revolutionary and marked a profound change in how I would read." He also links to Alec Nevala-Lee, who writes that: "between this monstrous djinn and Google.com, I have no excuse, no excuse whatsoever, for not writing a grand synthetic essay of everything, or a brilliant, glittering, Pynchonesque novel...because millions and millions of beautiful connections between people and ideas are already out there, at my fingertips, ready to be made without effort or erudition. I hate to say this, but it's all up to me now."

Information really is getting ever more accessible, and ever more thoroughly so. How will this change research in the long run? Where are we heading? Reading Alec's comments, something popped into my head: an old science fiction story, by someone I hadn't read in ages. Running to my bookshelf I found it, and realized: this has all been foreseen....

Leyel Forska sat before his lector display, reading through an array of recently published scholarly papers. A holograph of two pages of text hovered in the air before him....When he came to the end he did not press the PAGE key to continue the article. Instead he pressed NEXT.
The two pages he had been reading slid backward about a centimeter, joining a dozen previously discarded articles, all standing in the air over the lector. With a soft beep, a new pair of pages appeared in front of the old ones.
Deet spoke up from where she sat eating breakfast. "You're only giving the poor soul two pages before you consign him to the wastebin?"
"I'm consigning him to oblivion," Leyel answered cheerfully. "No, I'm consigning him to hell."
"What? Have you rediscovered religion in your old age?"
"I'm creating one. It has no heaven, but it has a terrible everlasting hell for young scholars who think they can make their reputation by attacking my work."
"Ah, you have a theology," said Deet. "Your work is holy write, and to attack it is blasphemy."
"I welcome intelligent attacks. But this young tube-headed professor from--yes, of course, Minus University--"
"Old Minus U?"
"He thinks he can refute me, destroy me, lay me in the dust, and all he has bothered to cite are studies published within the last thousand years."
"The principle of millennial depth is still widely used--"
"The principle of millennial depth is the confession of modern scholars that they are not willing to spend as much effort on research as they do on academic politics. I shattered the principle of millennial depth thirty years ago. I proved that it was--"
"Stupid and outmoded. But my dearest darling sweetheart Leyel, you did it by spending part of the immeasurably vast Forska fortune to search for inaccessible and forgotten archives in every section of the Empire."
"Neglected and decaying. I had to reconstruct half of them."
"It would take a thousand universities' library budgets to match what you spent on research for 'Human Origin on the Null Planet.'"
"But once I spent the money, all those archives were open. They have been open for three decades. The serious scholars all use them, since millennial depth yields nothing but predigested, pre-excreted muck. They search among the turds of rats who have devoured elephants, hoping to find ivory."
"So colorful an image. My breakfast tastes much better now," Deet said. ("The Originist," Maps in a Mirror: The Short Fiction of Orson Scott Card, pgs. 214-215)

The parallel? Well, just as the capitalist Leyel Forska opened up the archives for his own purposes, so has Amazon.com done so for its own reasons. And now--well, there's the world of information, for better or worse, at your fingertips. Search away! And if you are--like Jacob and I--a scholar who depends upon research, then you had especially better get searching. A few more new electronic toys like this, and we may all find ourselves getting hammered by those more aggressive searchers, who realize that 10, or 100, or even 1000 years of simple title and keyword searches just won't ever be enough.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Some (Long) Thoughts on Class and the Democratic Party

Peter Beinart's typically insightful take on recent moves by Howard Dean in pursuit of the Democratic nomination, and the way Dick Gephardt, of all people, is slowly emerging (to the DLC's great surprise) as a genuine alternative to Dean in the continuing struggle for the Democratic party's demographic soul, should be required reading. It smartly puts together the recent history of such intra-party fights (Hart vs. Mondale, Tsongas vs. Clinton, Bradley vs. Gore), rightly puts the cultural as well as the economic dynamics of this struggle into the mix, and comes out with an insightful, succinct conclusion: "Dean, who learned fiscal conservatism from his investment-banker, Republican father, embodies today's Democratic Party better than Gephardt, the son of a Teamster from working-class St. Louis. Perhaps nothing explains the fight for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination better than that." I'm not going to be nearly as succinct as Beinart, but I'm going to cover some of the same territory, because the more important story behind this particular struggle is, to me, the question of class--or more specifically, what is going to happen to it, and therefore to political concern for the economically and culturally marginalized, when and if the Democratic party completes its current transition.

In 1969, Kevin Phillips wrote a book called The Emerging Republican Majority. In it, he argued that the Democratic party of the 1960s, by pursuing a national collectivist approach to fulfilling its traditional (since FDR at least) mandate for economic, racial, gender and education equality, as well as by tolerating the antiwar counterculture, was successfully alienating not only long-time white southern Democrats (something which Lyndon Johnson had predicted would happen immediately after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act), but also long-time white working-class Democrats in the northern cities. Put this alienation together with demographic shifts to the suburbs and to the West, Phillips wrote, and you have a winning strategy for Republicans. The Republicans took it, and it worked. Through the 1970s, you saw white flight from the cities across the country, the "Sagebrush" and anti-tax rebellions in the western states, the rise of a popular California politician and the emergence of "Reagan Democrats," and an explicit Republican effort to cultivate the "Solid (conservative, evangelical, white) South." The result was a more or less general shift rightward in our national politics, serious tax cutting and reform, 12 years of a Republican White House, and a slow but indisputable change in (or at least the rise of a serious challenge to) the dominant ideology of our judicial system.

Of course, Phillips's book didn't tell the whole story--there was a Cold War going on at the time too--but he told enough of it that his strategy was taken to be true story of American national politics, from the early 70s to the early 90s. And thus, Phillips's story also provided the key component of the bitter liberal backlash during the 1980s: race. Sure, that wasn't the only theme (there were also the "Republicans hate women" and the "Republicans hate the poor" mantras), but race dominated or at least colored all domestic politics for more than a generation. The Republicans were "playing the race card," they were winning because of bigoted rednecks in the south, paranoid surbanites in the north and midwest, and wetback-fearing racists in the southwest. Conservative white Americans can't handle affirmative action, can't handle busing, can't handle integrated neighborhoods, can't handle immigration, can't handle racial justice, can't handle progress, and Republicans were providing them with a political home. True or not (and there's a fair amount of truth to the charge), this was national politics in the United States, until Bill Clinton and the 1990s began to rewrite the rules.

Now we have a new book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira. Their argument is that, just as seeds of the Republican majority were planted in the mid-1960s and came to fruition by the late 1970s, so has a new Democratic majority--a post-New Deal, post-Great Society, "progressive centrist" Democratic majority--been slowly hatching ever since the mid-1990s, and demographic and policy trends make its eventual emergence basically inevitable. Their thesis rests on three pillars:

1) Women. With every election cycle, not only do more women relative to men turn out to vote, but also single working women increasingly tend to dominate that female vote, and Republicans continue to fail to win anything like a majority it. By being so strenuously opposed (in rhetoric, if not in practice) to abortion rights and the expansion of day care and other "family friendly" laws, Republicans have put themselves in a gender hole that they won't be able to climb out of for decades to come.

2) Minorities. Of course, African-Americans have been largely voting Democratic since the 1960s--they remember who it was who fought to get them registered. But Judis and Teixeira also maintain that Hispanics and Asians are also, with the end of the Cold War increasingly Democratic. But this second pillar isn't nearly as important as the third...

3) "Professionals." This isn't exactly the best term for what they mean to describe; what they're getting at is "idea workers" in, I think, Robert Reich's phrase, or what Nicholas Lemann called "Mandarins." They are lawyers, actors and other media folk, doctors, computer jockeys, academics and teachers, insurance agents and money managers, internet gurus, architects, engineers and scientists, nurses, social workers, therapists and counselors and inspirational speakers, fashion designers, interior decorators, artists, editors and free-lance writers. These people--as opposed to their corporate and bureaucratic managers and employers--are all voting Democratic. Why? First, because they aren't as profit-minded as their bosses; they do what they do, according to Judis and Teixeira, because of they love ideas, providing a service, etc. And second, related to the first, because their vision of ideas and service is open-ended: tolerant and experimental and sympathetic. They are "liberation-minded," and are fundamentally at peace--indeed, are the greatest coverts to--the ethos of liberation which found a home in American universities in the 1950s and 1960s. Unsurprisingly, they--more often than not--live in or near urban areas (not the old blue-color industrial cities, but progressive, happening, "Ideopolises"), are into "soft technology" (i.e., private gizmos) and don't go to church; they are socially liberal and fiscally moderate; they don't really like unions or big government but they dislike heartless corporations and moral busy-bodies most of all. As Judis and Teixeira put it, "the Bush administration can scour the coal pits of West Virginia or the boarded up steel mills of Youngstown for converts, but America's future lies in places like Silicon Valley and North Carolina's Research Triangle."

This seems pretty plausible, especially in light of the "continental divide" which Beinart (and many others) have described. Hispanic and Asian immigration, and the long-awaited emergence of a real, solid African-American middle class, have diluted and transformed the old intensity of the black-white divide; while racial politics remain very visible in many regions of the country and many facets of our society, I think one of the real consequences of the Clinton administration--a man who completely sewed up the black vote while simultaneously giving Jesse Jackson the cold shoulder--is that the "race card," to whatever extent it ever existed, has been altered. Welfare reform has made it possible to talk about "the underclass" without tip-toeing through a racially charged minefield. At the same time, the "feminization"--or "domestication"--of American politics has continued to soldier on; maybe 9/11 has returned us permanently to foreign-policy orientation, maybe it hasn't, but either way, you can't deny the fact that when today's politicians aren't talking about Iraq or al-Qeada, they're talking about prescription drugs, after-school programs, child care, abortion rights and so forth. The "anti-woman religious right" has been pretty firmly entrenched in the popular imagination, at least for a big slice of the electorate. And finally, who can deny that the high-tech boom of the 1990s, and the promise of yet further leaps in marketable technologies, combined with globalization and--perhaps most important of all--the efficient exporting of as many industry-heavy, unglamorous, low-wage jobs overseas as possible, has given the highly-educated, tech-savvy, university-accredited, upper-middle-class white-color professional the cat-bird seat in American culture? Just turn on the TV: a good 70% of our fantasies seem to be about upper-middle-class professionals hanging out in coffee shops.

So maybe we have gotten to the point where the Democrats can put forward a new kind of "progressive centrist" platform, one which doesn't necessarily present the Republicans with an obvious alternative strategy. But what really bothers me is the deep class bias present in this thesis. Judis and Teixeira put forward some (I think weak) arguments suggesting that some of the American working class will, in certain situations, absorb the professional, centrist liberalism of their better-off cultural superiors, enough to supplement the women, minorities and professionals in putting Democrats over the top. But that won't happen because of any government action or promises of action; it'll just happen naturally. And in the meantime, the actual economic and social needs and desires of the working class won't be present in the new "progressive" politics of the new Democratic majority. Indeed, they will want to avoid anything that smacks of reaching out to the (usually still church-going) working poor and lower-middle-class (unionization, anti-free trade policies, vouchers, faith-based initiatives, etc.), because that will turn off their new "progressive" upscale electoral base.

As long as we have capitalism, we will have a working class--until robots replace labor, there will be laborers, farmers, and factory workers. That means there will a class of people left out of most of the benefits and trends of society, both economic and cultural. The Democratic party, from FDR all the way up to Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, built policies which included the working class in its calculations; whether they served the working poor well or not, they certainly thought about them. Paradoxically, in their own way (limited but entirely insignificant way) so did the Republicans through the 1970s and 1980s: while their tax-cut fetishes certainly did not serve the needs of poor people well (particularly poor minorities), for better or worse the Republicans did at least take seriously the traditional cultural and social worldview of the "Silent Majority," the rural church-goer, the lower-middle-class and working class "Angry White Male." If Judis and Teixeira have their way, the Democratic party will sign on to a politics which is (socially, at least) cost-free, which simply talks about how to move around money and opportunity and respect at the top, or the near-top, rather than from the near-top to the bottom (or the middle). I hope it doesn't happen, because as long as there are only these two major parties, old-style Democratic rhetoric remains one of the few things which, in my view, prevents the Republicans from falling entirely into the hands of their old reliable friends, the corporate barons who have never deserted them. If the Democrats stop talking about class, can we count on the Republicans (who arguably turned to class and regional issues in the first place only because they saw a political opportunity back in the mid-1960s) to do so? Was Bush's compassionate conservatism for real? Will the Republican religious right start worrying about health care as well as gay marriage? (Given recent events in Alabama, it's unlikely.) Or may we be entering an era of American national politics in which, for the first time in nearly a century, poverty and cultural marginalization really is truly off the radar screen?

Mother Teresa, St. Augustine, and the "Real World"

Christopher Hitchens's screed against Mother Teresa in Slate this week hasn't attracted too much attention in the blogosphere; Matthew Yglesias gets in a nice joke about it, thereby unleashing a torrent of commentary on his site, but that's about it. Perhaps not much attention is being paid because everyone has heard Hitchens's line on Mother Teresa before; indeed, he got a whole book out of it: The Missionary Position. (Ha! Good one Chris.) I read that book; and believe it or not, I found it deeply persuasive. But not in the way Hitchens intended, of that I'm certain.

Is there real substance to Hitchens's claim that Mother Teresa was "a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud"? Let's concentrate on that last one, because I think it is entirely possible that, in terms of Catholic orthodoxy, Mother Teresa and those who knew her would happily reply "guilty as charged" to the labels "fundamentalist" or even "fanatic." So what about the fraud bit? Well, she claimed to be working to help the poor, but Hichtens writes: "MT was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction. And she was a friend to the worst of the rich, taking misappropriated money from the atrocious Duvalier family in Haiti (whose rule she praised in return) and from Charles Keating of the Lincoln Savings and Loan." There is plenty of evidence to back up those claims, though the evidence can be read in different ways. And regardless, it is reasonable to assume that all the money and adulation which flowed towards Mother Teresa later in her life and work resulted in an environment (which Mother Teresa herself could not avoid being part of) that sometimes probably took on suspicious "cult of celebrity"-type air, with unseemly consequences. "The primitive hospice in Calcutta was as run down when she died as it always had been...and her order always refused to publish any audit," Hitchens writes. "But we have her own claim that she opened 500 convents in more than a hundred countries, all bearing the name of her own order. Excuse me, but this is modesty and humility?" Good question. However, the terms by which Hitchens comes to his conclusion are flawed. He misunderstands the measure of her life, because he does not believe in the manner of measurement appropriate to it.

The upshot of Hitchens's accusations is that Mother Teresa was only interested in "selfishly" pushing her "ideology" (we would say, her mission), and cared not one whit about how or through whom that ideology/mission found expression. She accepted donations (probably knowingly) from crooks. She wrote kind letters of appreciation to dictators. She posed for photos (perhaps knowingly) with blackmailers and murderers who allowed her sisters to operate in their territories. All this screams "hypocrite!" to Hitchens, who sees her as nothing more than faker (either wittingly or unwittingly so); as one who didn't care about her actions, but only her cause. Which certainly is hypocritical--if you think that cause and action are connected, as they are in this world. But what if you aren't of this world? Then, perhaps, we can call it something else: saintly. That is, a life lived not in the world--a life characterized by a mission that demands such self-sacrifice and commitment that worldly consequences and ramifications and reputations are swallowed up in the saint's creation of a space governed not by the struggle for human virtues like justice and freedom, or human goods like liberation and enlightenment, but by a devotion to something, strictly speaking, inhuman.

This is where St. Augustine comes in, who teaches the believing Christian that, while human virtues and goods aren't bad in themselves, they certainly aren't good in the eternal measurement of things. What matters is one's citizenship in the City of God; that is, what is crucial is where one's heart is. If one's heart is not here, in this world, then the measure of the world is more or less irrelevant. Of course, this is not the only possible way of being a consistent Christian in our fallen, political, economic, material world--but Augustine makes a powerful case for it being the only truly saintly way of being. Did criminals and murderers and wicked men contribute money to Mother Teresa's cause, hoping to gain something from their proximity to her? Very likely. Should that have troubled Mother Teresa? Not at all. After all, as Augustine reminds us, outside the City of God (and not one of us is fully in it, not now, not until the rest of God takes us), we're all criminals anyway:"What are kingdoms but great robber bands? What are robber bands but small kingdoms?" (City of God, Bk. 4, Chp. 4) This is hardly a good way to interact with others in a political sense: we must seek out standards of justice, build communities that exclude and include, form principles of law, all so that the limited goods of this life can be shared, rather than made subject to raw power and wealth. This is solid Catholic doctrine, and solid Christian doctrine as well: "If you want peace, work for justice." And it's true. But it's only true right here, right now, and the final supreme good of the believing Christian is neither here nor now: it is the eternal peace which the rest of God promises. In the meantime, justice is, well, valuable--but, in a very fundamental sense, it is limited too. "What about justice, whose function is to render to each his due, thereby establishing in man a certain just order of nature, so that the soul is subordinated to God, and the flesh to the soul, and consequently the flesh and the soul to God? Does it not demonstrate in performing this function that it is still laboring at its task instead of resting in the completion of its goal?" (City of God, Bk. 19, Chp. 4) Justice, and all mortal concerns, are by definition incomplete. Holiness, by contrast, in wholeness. If one wholly adored God, then the moral complications of discerning between what some deserve and others do not, of working out compromises when faced with hard moral choices, of deciding between just and unjust wars, indeed of all the necessary vicissitudes of ordinary life, would not trouble you one bit--and, as Hitchens proved (to me at least), that describes Mother Teresa's lack of care for the "real world," or "the big picture," or "the long term" very, very well. In short, I think Hitchens helps us understand why Mother Teresa really was a saint--and why most of us don't want to be one.

Fact is, few of us are cut out to be, or should seek to be, saints. And it's very possible that those who think they are cut out for such are in fact being motivated at least as much by some quirky, desperate, not-entirely-respectable complex of, shall we say, "inhuman" emotions as they are by the Spirit of God. Not too long ago, First Things ran a wise, somber essay asking a rather difficult question: why is it that Mother Teresa, who was a living saint if anyone was, apparently went throughout her life without much by way of spiritual comfort? What could drive a woman to so fully resign their citizenship in this world--its rewards and pains, its pleasures and difficulties--in favor of one which, by her own testimony, offered her little emotional solace? Perhaps she was crazy. Or perhaps, just perhaps, she had a saint's faith, a faith that took her completely out of this world. This is the conclusion reached by one anonymous respondent to Hitchens's piece; the author plainly isn't particularly religious, and I'd hardly agree with all his sentiments. But at least he or she recognizes that Mother Teresa demands a measurement which this "real world" can barely provide:

"Mother Teresa was not perfect. Whether she ought to be a 'saint' or not, I could give a rat's ass....But here's the thing. Is there any denying that this woman spent her entire life in the service of people so repulsive and destitute and unwanted that no one, not even God himself, gave a shit about them? Is there any hypocrisy, moral failing, misjudgment, or lapse that can trump that? If so, I'd like to know what it is....Recently, it was reported on NPR that, contrary to what many people, including myself, thought, Mother Teresa was not buoyed and comforted by any continued ecstatic experience of Christ or the presence of God. She apparently went virtually her entire life without feeling the presence of God at all—struggling alone with only other puny, weak and vacillating human being to help. She spent an entire life of service to others on pure faith. That kind of strength of character is beyond comprehension. It is beyond anything that Mr. Hitchens can accomplish if he had another 40 lifetimes of gin swilling and pontification."


Friday, October 17, 2003


Remarkably, Josh Cherniss has followed up his long post on the thread on conservatism over at John Holbo's site, the post I commented on yesterday, with another long and excellent post which attacks the original question of John's which began the thread--namely, are the traditional ideological clusters of contemporary America (cultural collectivism/economic laissez faire in one corner; economic collectivism/cultural laissez faire in the other) at all coherent? Most of those of us who have commented on the thread have said "no" or "not really"; Josh argues, in a contrarian vein, "yes" (or at least, "mostly"). It's a smart post, and worth a read. He's says he'll get around eventually to responding to my actual comments; if so, wonderful, if not, well, he's in good company...

Incidentally, to those few who have wondered: Yes, I am pretty much on a one-post-a-week schedule (Thursdays, usually), and no, that probably won't change. I doubt I'll have the time, energy, or inclination to be prolific in my blogging the way I once imagined I could be, at least not until the new year and next semester. But we'll see. For the foreseeable future, I'll be content with being able to put together at least one nice, coherent, interesting blog-essay each week; I hope you will be too.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Even More Thoughts on Political Labels

Twice before, I've written posts that relate to a discussion about political labels--initially dealing with conservatism, but later going in all sorts of directions--which developed on John Holbo's blog. Amazingly enough, nearly a month after John's original post, the thread is still alive, having been visited by such luminaries as Jacob Levy, Matthew Yglesias, Henry Farrell, and others. Now, Josh Cherniss has weighed in with a post on the thread which is actually longer, I think, than even my usually interminable posts, which is remarkable in itself. But the length is worth it; Josh's perspective on political ideology, pluralism, and many other related issues is informative and thought-provoking. In fact, I think I'll throw out a few provoked thoughts (I'll address them to Josh) right now.

Josh: "I take ideologies to refer to families of political philosophies which, in being associated with one another and with particular practical applications and goals, become both fuzzier and simpler--and, generally, cruder and more demanding. This is not necessarily to say that ideologies are bad, though. They're useful, and are as intellectually unsatisfying [to me at least; not to ideologues] as usefulness demands. I would also say that while political philosophies properly called are directed as discovering the truth about political things, ideologies are directed at justifying certain political arrangements or commitments), such as libertarianism, conservatism, etc."

Me: Speaking of how you tend to find that, when you reach a conclusion, Michael Walzer's ideas are somehow "already there"...isn't what you're describing as "ideology" essentially the same as the "moral minimalism" which Michael Walzer discusses in his book Thick and Thin; namely, the practice of taking a "thick" moral position and turning it into a caricature, a stick figure or bumper sticker, not as a better way to understand that philosophical position but as a way to make it politically useful across particularist boundaries? This isn't a criticism, just a thought.

J: "I think that talk of shared values often over-estimates the level of consensus in any culture or society. This isn't to say that some underlying consensus doesn't exist. It's to say, rather, that in certain cases the disagreements within a society are more significant, for political theory and practice, than the agreements (sometimes the opposite is true), and that shared values often give rise to vastly different interpretations. In many societies or cultures one has different camps who, appealing to the same shared values, interpret them in different ways, or draw different conclusions from them--and try to guide the society in the direction that their own views points to."

Me: Aren't you confusing "shared values" with "consensus" though? Rigorous communitarian thought is not ignorant of the contentious way in which values particular to a linguistic/cultural/historical community get worked out and then reworked again; but the ability to speak of a consensus or a lack thereof bespeaks the centrality of the shared worldview. Without that shared worldview, there'd be no way of knowing that the effort at consensus-building had broken down. This is a big part of Hans-Georg Gadamer's argument (which I think has strongly influenced better communitarian thinkers, like Charles Taylor) about the fusion of horizons in Truth and Method: there must be some mutual recognition of the space within which one speaks for people to acknowledge disagreement; otherwise, you're two ships passing in the night, completely unaware of what it is you're disagreeing about. To dismiss or criticize communitarian arguments because they don't appear to match the reality of lack of consensus within a community is to ignore or (I think wrongly) minimize the moral importance of the shared experience which must be present in every disagreement.

J: "It seems to me that political communities can sometimes abridge individual rights when upholding those rights would threaten the well-being of the members of that community in a suitably serious way, though it would have to be pretty serious. But I'm uncomfortable with the idea of a communal entity that is seen as having its own common, single interest, its own common, single good, and its own rights (and could thus impose obligations on individuals) in the same way as an individual does."

Me: The essential communitarian argument (which is also, speaking of various labels, a "social democratic" and a "republican" one) is that, as Michael Sandel famously put it in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, "we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone." Such goods may not be secured by way of a regime of rights, as is usually conceived in connection with individuals. While there is a tremendous amount of literature out there on "group rights," most of it is driven by the sort of "liberal culturalism" which Will Kymlicka has often described: the idea that linguistic/cultural/historical groups can make claims on the state, and even (perhaps) on their participating members, because there are individual goods which depend upon the preservation of collective contexts within which said individuals can construct themselves. This is certainly a kind of communitarian argument, and I'm sympathetic to it. But thinkers like David Miller (or Sandel, or Walzer, at least in certain circumstances) are suggesting something more: that (at least some of) the sort of goods that can only be known in common are good in themselves; they are not relational but are inherent to the nature of the community. As such, to speak of these goods as in terms of the community having "rights...in the same way an individual does" is to apply the wrong sort of argumentative frame to the issue. The communal entity, in this sense, doesn't have "rights" that it has to exercise as a claim against some neutral background; rather, it has a nature (or a set of virtues, or a historical telos, or a socio-economic imperative, or whatever, depending on if your communitarianism is more Aristotelian or Hegelian or Marxist) that it expresses as its own background, and it is the authentic recognition of which thinkers like Miller are addressing. Obviously, it's a debatable premise--but to debate it properly, you need to put the individualistic framework into brackets, at least momentarily.

Perhaps Josh will respond; perhaps not. In any case, if you're at all interested in political philosophy and ideological labels, check out Josh's post, and especially the long, meandering thread over at John's place. All in all, some of the most intelligent observations on political thought that I've seen on the web in quite a while.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

Why this Recall was Wrong

Well, now it's all over, and everyone has had a good laugh (Jay Leno, in particular, seems to have gotten a lot more mileage than any expected out of being California's newest political impresario). Certainly I've been joking about it and needling my friends out in California. But now that the whole thing is done with, and Arnold is Governor Schwarzenegger, and Gray Davis is fated to slip away in humiliation, and once again a Kennedy has given star-struck Americans and legend-flogging journalists cause to gape in adoration at their magic, let me put on my political theorist cap and explain why I think the recall was bad news, from beginning to end. Nothing original here; just my two cents, not that I think all the combined cents of all the intelligent critics of the recall out there in the blogosphere are going to make much difference in the addled California political air.

Let's begin with the basics. Good government and civil liberties both equally depend upon stability and the rule of law. Self-government is tricky; there are particular problems and issues which arise when the power to rule is placed in the hands of those being ruled (as opposed to having a hereditary kingship or an educated aristocracy or an exclusive priesthood, or any number of other authoritarian systems, determine who is in charge, all of which have their own problems). One of the complications inherent to democratic forms of government is the drive to assume that the people's will is always paramount--after all, the government exists by, for, and on behalf of the people, right? However, "the people" is, by definition, fickle, given to factionalism, and rarely capable of perceiving the common good, all of which can threaten both decent government as well as the liberties of individuals (at least those not lucky enough to be in the majority). Hence those thinkers that have tried to develop free (or at least freer) societies over the centuries have again and again come back to the insistence that outside of the very specific rituals and forms of popular participation that have been made part of a society by law (and in our case, that means periodic elections, both primary and general), "the people" need to restrain themselves. Too much democracy, in other words, isn't democracy at all: it's the actions of mobs, and mobs can easily be tools in the hands of elites.

Is this a conservative argument in the traditionalist sense, a complaint about the seemingly (from an elite point of view) "crazy" things the people will do when given the power to act? Mickey Kaus seems to think so, labeling the "East Coast anti-recall harrumphers" (like George Will) a bunch of "anti-populist[s]...clinging to a reified concept of elections." But being devoted to traditional rules of election law isn't an act of "reification"; it's a responsible way of dealing with the inherent dangers (to, again, both good government and personal liberty) which representative self-rule cannot help but bring along with it, alongside all of the innumerable and (by me, at least) uncontested benefits which democracy and liberal freedoms provide. Leftists like Chris Mooney, normally never to be found occupying the same ground as conservatives, agree: "hyper-enfranchisement," the license to vote willy-nilly, isn't much better than complete disenfranchisement, because too often they mean the same thing: no time or opportunity for deliberation by the people, meaning no meaningful participation, meaning that one is still being ruled by whim--either the whims of those who are pulling the strings, or the collective whims of whatever mob shows up on Election Day. As for Kaus's famous "faster thesis," which holds that in the internet age people are that much more empowered to deliberate on the available information and thus still hold onto the strings of power...well, count me as one of those who somehow doubts that the very nature of human beings as political animals has changed so dramatically in the last, oh, ten years.

Many of the defenders of this recall insist that putting it in terms of the nature of self-government is much too much; this was a "one-off," never to be repeated, and has more to do with the particular problems of California at this particular moment. Well, ok, lets look at the particularity here. You have Governor Davis--an arguably lousy governor, a disliked governor, but one that was nominated and elected, not just once but twice. The fact that the process which led to his nomination and election was very likely far from open or fair, that the level of support he received from the electorate overall was miniscule compared to the total number of registered (to say nothing of potential) voters--all this is important and tragic, but not pertinent. Bad elections and bad democracy is not rectified by departing from the regular rules which govern democracy, even "just this once." I am fully aware that often--especially when the "margins of error," whether literal or metaphorical, are small--exactly where the rule of law begins and where it ends can be debated. The Florida recount in 2000, the last-minute replacement of a Democratic candidate in the 2002 New Jersey Senate race, the Texas redistricting controversy this year: did any of these political power plays, always made on behalf of "the people" (confused Dade and Miami County voters! party-line voting New Jersey Democrats! the frustrated Texas Republican majority!), go beyond the rules, and if so how? Not easily answered. But in this case, the answer is clear: Davis, whatever else one has to say about him, cannot plausibly be accused of being a crook, personally corrupt, or having fraudulently dealt with the people of California. They got what they (some of them) voted for. That's the law, those are the rules, and there things should have remained.

Even given all this, supporters of the recall may argue: but it wasn't a departure from the rules! It wasn't an attack on the rule of law! The recall happened because there was a law which provided for it; everything proceeded legally--and even, one may argue, "democratically" in the best sense, if one looks at the number of ballot complaints (very few), the voter turn-out (quite high), and other factors. Another cap in the hat of those who favor "progressive" democratic reforms? Hardly--because the recall was not just bad for California, but bad law. The recall would not have been triggered if a millionaire Republican and some of his buddies didn't decide to trigger it. There was no popular outcry against Governor Davis, at least not in the sense of an popular agitation: instead, there were hundreds of people throwing around cash to hire people to walk around malls with clipboards, to put on dinner parties to wine and dine contributors and media personalities, and so forth, all for the sake of getting to the magic number and putting the recall into effect. Even if one defends the idea of recall elections in principle, as an improvement to our democratic machinery and a nice supplement to our representative institutions, I don't see how this particular version of the principle can be defended. From beginning to end, this recall election was a thoroughly elite operation; the only significant difference being that, rather than traditional party elites (who are, in theory if admittedly not in practice, subject to popular involvement in the political process) dominating the election, media and Hollywood and business elites got an even bigger piece of the action than usual. John Scalzi's comments, though unnecessarily harsh, are appropriate here (as well as darkly funny):

"This was, at its root, one of the most flagrantly un-democratic (small 'd') elections in the history of the United States, and you [Californians] followed the script as if you were giggling, squealing paid extras. The recall was bought and paid for by one guy and orchestrated by a few zealots with an extremely narrow agenda, and both these parties were more than happy to push your emotional buttons to get you to do what they wanted you to do, which was boot the current and conventionally-elected office-holder for a chance to install someone more amenable to their own interests. Florida 2000 paranoids aside, this is the closest thing to a coup we've had in the country, and you swallowed it like it was a tasty treat. It's sickening, really....Yes, you say, but what about the voting percentages? More Californians voted in this special election than in the regular election! My response to this, of course, is: This is supposed to make me feel better? Californians are too damn apathetic to vote when they're supposed to and should have, but are more than happy to get off the friggin' couch for a stage-managed monkey show? I want to be clear, so there is no misunderstanding here: Every single person who voted in this election who did not vote in the actual gubernatorial election in 2002 is a complete and total fucking tool. You could not have been any more used if you were a spent condom. You are certainly not the same as, say, the folks in Minnesota who got out of the La-Z-Boy to vote Jesse Ventura into office: Ventura was voted in during an election not bought and paid for by political extremists....Yes, Gray Davis was unpopular. That's what you get when you don't vote, people. You want your leaders to reflect your interests, haul your whiny asses to the polls on a regular basis."

One last thing: fellow political scientist Chris Lawrence--besides making it fairly clear that a lot of his support for the recall has a lot to do with bottom-line "whatever it takes" Republican electoral success--has argued that recalls are in fact compatible with representative democracy, by way of analogy to the parliamentary practice of issuing a "vote of no confidence" when those ruling face great unpopularity. In his view, the recall procedure "allows the electorate to remove an executive or member of the legislature who is no longer acting consistently with their preferences. Since there is no continuous assembly of the electorate, and we don't schedule election days on a regular basis with no expectation of some election taking place, the recall petition procedure allows the electorate to schedule a recall election if one is needed...generally speaking, the recall provision is sound and there is no good reason why it should not be adopted elsewhere--it's one of the few 'progressivist' reforms that actually is good for democracy." This is a valid point, which addresses some of what I wrote above. However, the problem with this argument is twofold. 1) We don't have a parliamentary system, which allows for a fairly stable set of actors (i.e., elected representatives in a legislative body) to work out the details of executive power, or the dismissal of such; a recall provision in a political culture like our own, on the other hand, allows for a potentially endless supply of actors (in the case of the California recall, nearly 150 as it turned out!) to dilute (and thereby allow for the manipulation of) whatever democratic energy there may or may not be directed against a particular executive. 2) As Chris himself admits, recall elections serve well the aims of "proponents of the 'delegate' model of representative democracy (as opposed to the Burkean 'trustee' model)." Obviously, as basically a communitarian, I'm more sympathetic to the Burkean model than Chris is--but aside from that, surely an intelligent guy like Chris can recognize that, ideally, self-government requires elected representatives to constantly balance both of these imperatives (to reflect the wishes of their constituents, and to make the best judgments they can on their behalf)...and the more we applaud recalls, the more the balance will surely slip to the delegate side, perhaps until such a point that there isn't much difference between "the people" and the will of the government at all--at which point, all the aforementioned fears about the disappearancece of law and deliberation can come to pass.

I'm hardly opposed to all "progressive" reforms of our current democracy, though frankly I think few of them serve deliberative self-government the way their proponents believe. Indeed, I'm not even opposed to recall provisions. But this one, in California? This one was a mess.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Plato meets Mamet

This was written a week or so ago, but who cares? It's wonderful. Thanks for the link to Chun's Mametesque philosophizing via John Holbo:

The Parmenides as Performed by the Characters in David Mamet's Heist:

JOE MOORE: Well that's the thing.


JM: No. the other thing.

BB: The many.

JM: What thing is that?

JIMMY SILK: Are you prepared to assert that we shall the find the single form actutally being divided? Is that the shot?

JM: You see, me and my men we know there's a single form for each distinction you make. We went in there and thought it.

JS: You have to admit that no such real being exists in the world. You're the help.

BB: (Violently) Oh. I'm the help. Suppose one of us is a master or slave of another: why then did the chicken cross the road? (Punches SR in the gut)

SR: (Muttering) The forms which we do not possess.

PINKY: I feel like the old race horse in Ibycus.

JS: The one in no sense is.

JM: Now can this possibly be the case with the thing?

JS: I do not think so.

JM: Then you hadn't ought to say it. It's insincere.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Community, Conservatism and Liberal Redistribution

Last week, when I wrote my post on "bad labels," I was sort of responding to a couple of different blogs: a comment by John Holbo on conservatism, and one by Will Baude on libertarianism. My basic point was, from my point of view, the dominant divisions in our political life here in the United States seem built around groupings which I find, personally, shakey at best: on the one hand (the "liberal" side) you have redistributive, interventionist economic policies joined with cultural laissez faire; on the other ("conservative") side, you have economic laissez faire hooked up with community-minded, interventionist cultural policies. This is overly broad, of course, but it's also true enough to make people as different as Will and John notice it, in their own fashions. My secondary point was a more personal one: while there aren't enough libertarians out there to really change the terms of debate in America today, at least they are very much present (certainly in the blogosphere at least!); communitarians like myself, however, have to content ourselves with being marginalized as a bunch of desperate socialists and fascists. This led me to complain, in both my post and in the comments section of John's website: "Try to find a social conservative who is willing follow through on their cultural beliefs to a demand for stability and equity in the fabric of the economic order. Or worse, try to find an economic redistributivist who understands that achieving fairness in society requires a collective concern for the moral prerequsites for said society. Unfortunately, you probably won't have much luck."

While I was out of town for a few days, the discussion continued. My post was linked and responded to by Will, Stephen Dunn, and several others who went off into an interesting thread on the problems, and possibilities, of voting one's conscience--as opposed to just holding one's nose and embracing the options given--in our first-past-the-post, plurality voting system. Important as that topic is, I'm more concerned with clarifying my original claim, which both John and Walt Pohl followed up on in John's comments section. Or rather, I need to clarify one particular part of that original claim--the part which asserts that, just as cultural conservatives ought to recognize the necessicity of some kind of economic intervention to any preservation of cultural mores, economic liberals ought to recognize that their redistributionist intuitions require a vibrant communal context in order to be practicable, or even coherent. This latter part they both disbuted; as John put it: "The first of these failings [you mention] does seem hopeless to me. That is, if you are a social/cultural conservative, you have just got to distrust capitalist creative destruction. Otherwise you're incoherent. The second has its risks but strikes me as not patently hopeless. You can be a redistributivist without being a communitarian."

Well, can you? Obviously, as I acknowledged above, I'm being overly broad here. (Aren't we always when we discuss these matters?) But let me try to put it this way: You're committed to the idea that people ought to enjoy some kind of basic equality in their goods and opportunities. (You're some sort of egalitarian, in other words.) You see a people that suffer from grave inequalities--massive inequities in civil rights, standards of living, incomes, social acceptance, etc. You assert that, since a great many of these different elements of social differentiation were unchosen, the result of events entirely outside of one's control, dependent upon luck, and the product of arrangements (whites being favored over blacks, more and better options for schooling available for the wealthy rather than the poor, etc.) that no one would rationally choose unless they already knew exactly how they would fair in life's lottery, there is no basis to claim that any of, or at least a certain portion of, the existing inequalities our essential to the persons who possess/enjoy them, and consequently egalitarian concerns can justify redistributing them among the people as a whole, on whatever basis. Of course, I'm describing John Rawl's "original position" theory of justice. Rawls's redistributive argument is an extremely powerful one. But notice how it operates on the basis of a somehow already-existing "people." Who are the people who suffer from inequalities? Americans? But in what sense does this argument differ for those born south of, as opposed to north of, the Rio Grande? How can the inequalities which characterize the United States's relationship to Mexico be accepted if they are, from the perspective of the individual, arbitrary? Many liberal egalitarians, noting this obvious point, extend Rawls's (and other) redistributionist schemes in a global direction: all forms of national division thus become enemies to the individual-based egalitarian conviction. But this, of course, just multiplies problems enormously. Most crucially, it makes the "people" whom Rawls originally imagined to be an ever more thin, ever more disparate, ever more broad and disconnected (one might even say "arbitrary") group. Rawls himself noted in A Theory of Justice that "social life is a condition for our developing the ability to speak and think," and that such a social matrix depends upon "the collective efforts of a long tradition" (TJ, p. 522). But where can we find such social traditions, where can we base our "peoplehood," if the fundamentals of egalitarian politics (rational choice behind a veil of ignorance) excuse us from such?

Rawls realized this early on, which is why in his writings after TJ he spoke more and more about justice as a "political" conception which assumed a kind of "citizenship" on the part of all those who embraced its principles. But this puts Rawlsian (and, again, other) liberal redistributionist schemes in a bind, as David Miller insightfully explains:

"In [Rawls's] earlier presentations of his theory...justice is identified as the set of principles that rational individuals could endorse to fix the terms of social cooperation....In later presentations, however, Rawls signal[ed] that the principles of justice are developed for people who are already citizens of a liberal-democratic state: they are supposed to think of themselves as citizens, and Rawls aims to show them what they are more concretely committed to when they adopt this perspective....It may strike us straight away that this is a particularly cerebral view of citizenship. A citizen is just someone who subscribes to a certain set of principles. Rawls appears to assume that citizens are always citizens of some national society...but this assumption is kept well hidden in the background, presumably for fear that if it were to be brought out into the open, it might cause trouble for the distinction between justice and [particular] conceptions of the good....Once you adopt the liberal conception of citizenship, as Rawls understands it, then you are committed to a certain way of justifying social and political institutions, but [the] problem [is] to see why people [or, "a people"]...could be induced to give it priority....Rawls argument here appears to leave a liberal with only two alternatives. The first is to retreat to a pragmatic defense of liberal institutions....The second alternative is to go on to the offensive, admit that liberalism is a distinct and morally contestable way of life, but declare that it is valuable and worth defending politically." (Miller, "Citizenship and Pluralism," in Citizenship and National Identity, pp. 45-49)

In other words, if you're going to make a redistributivist argument, then one way or another you're going to have to address the particularity of the people who experience that redistribution. You can't just call them all "liberals," because even if participation in a joint political project in the real world really did only depend upon consent (there goes the Mexican-American border! we're citizens of the world now!)--which of course it doesn't--you still have to explain how it is that there is a rational public culture which would respond to your consent; indeed, which would make your consent even intelligible. There has to be some attention paid to the generation of, the parameters of, the presence of, the particularity of the social contexts within which the liberal imagination can find a home. Of course, not all redistributive egalitarians are Rawlsian, but I think this sort of argument can be easily made against most every possible liberal scheme.

Now, it's important to acknowledge that in all this, I may not have made much of a point at all. As Walt wrote: "What you're saying can be interpreted to either be a) obviously true, or b) controversial. (By obviously true, I mean, a world where everyone agrees that the most desirable thing is to stick it to the other guy is not one where the value of equality is going to make much headway. A controversial interpretation would be one that required, say, everyone to be a devout Christian.) Which do you mean?" A fair question--is there any sense in which this claim against cerebral Rawlsianism is anything more than an sociological observation? That is, is it "communitarian" in a strong sense: does the particularity which liberal redistribution assumes really have to be deeply particular, and require some sort of truly collective affirmation and defense? If not, why claim that liberal and/or social democratic ends require anything that might be conventionally called "conservative" and/or "communitarian" at all? The latter may require the former (i.e., perhaps you must be willing to intefere with unjust socio-economic arrangements in order to prevent the market from messing up the community), but maybe the former doesn't need the latter (i.e., perhaps any community, just so long as it involves some bare minimal rule of law and degree of tolerance, can sustain the social requirements of socio-economic intervention).

I think this is wrong; to think so is to put put the cart before the horse. What's at stake here is understanding the difference between, as Charles Taylor put it, ontology and advocacy. Rejecting certain ontological presumptions does not necessarily dictate what sort of political society one will pursue; however, it will profoundly affect the way you will pursue that society (and hence put certain "side-constraints" on one's pursuits, but that's a secondary point). Certain thinkers like Will Kymlicka, who no one would describe as "conservative," have done a tremendous amount to bring the communitarian/culturalist argument into dialogue with liberal egalitarian social goals, and show how what he calls the "liberal culturalist" position can clarify some of the complications which redistributivists face without embracing a communitarianism whose particularity is uncomfortably (to a liberal, anyway) essentialist. I'm very sympathetic to Kymlicka's work; as I've written in the past, rejecting philosophical liberalism hardly means rejecting the enormous value of the practical, negative role which liberal critiques of communities, power structures and forms of government have played over the last several centuries. Still, I must admit, when pressed, to be arguing for something more "controversial," more "essentialist," than otherwise. Taylor wrote, in a wonderful little essay some years back in Critical Review titled "Can Liberalism be Communitarian?," that while Kymlicka's basic move certainly broadens the Rawlsian or Dworkian tent, it still fails to address the "thickness" of "all really existing cultures"--cultures which do not exist concomitant to a individualist commitment to make everyone equal participants in a particular peoplehood, but which are regarded as good in themselves, as they are, simpliciter. I tend to suspect that, fundamentally, such simple communal convictions--expressions of faith, really--are the horse that must come before the cart. In the mostly secular societies of the modern West, the sort of cultural/national/religious/civic "faith" (complete with social norms that presuppose and work to affirm that faith) that grounds the modern individual who imagines herself capable of taking a laissez faire attitude about practically anything is so far in the background that it's practically invisible. But it's there. Does this mean I think we all have to hang tightly on to our "Judeo-Christian heritage," for example, if we're to have social justice in the U.S.? Depends on what you mean by "tightly." No, I don't think that being a liberal citizen in America requires an embrace of orthodox Christianity, any more than I think that being a liberal citizen in Singapore requires a genuflection before Confucianism. But I do think that those who believe that a simply rational, cerebral affirmation of citizenship in this people or that people will be grounds enough to subject that people to liberal purposes are confused. One way or another, those purposes (and while I have, in this post, dealt with only liberal, redistributivist ones, obviously any number of others would also fit the bill) must be found in "us"; and that means that we need to be able to say, in some sense or another, that they are part of an existing "us" even aside from our efforts to articulate them. Which means, even if you don't embrace your community, you should always be prepared, as a liberal, to begin there. (In the Singaporean context, consider Daniel A. Bell's wonderful immanent critique of Confucian authoritarianism, made all the powerful because of its acknowledgment of the local particularity the Confucian community.)