Sunday, November 30, 2003


Scott MacMillan, who is guest blogging over at Fistful of Euros, has written a very fine post on the recent decision by France and Germany to ignore some of the strictures of the EU's "stability pact" which was instituted to help insure the success of the Euro. His analysis of the situation brought up questions about the possibility of democratic (not to mention fiscal!) accountability in "postnational" or "non-national" state arrangements, which is what the EU--in the eyes of some, at least--aspires to be. Given my recent post about Europe and nationality, I could resist jumping into the discussion, and Scott and I go back and forth in the comments section a few times. Scott also links in the comments to an old post of his on the proposed EU constitution (scroll down to June 25), which is brings up some interesting issues as well. I'll probably write more on this topic sooner or later, but for now Fistful seems to be where I'm doing my Europe-related thinking.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

He Forgets Not His Own

We Gather Together (Prayer of Thanksgiving)

We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known;
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to His name; He forgets not His own.

Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
Ordaining, maintaining His kingdom divine;
So from the beginning the fight we are winning;
Thou, Lord, wast at our side; all glory be Thine!

We all do extol Thee, Thou Leader triumphant,
And pray that Thou still our Defender wilt be.
Let they congregation escape tribulation;
Thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!

(Text anonymous, 17th-century Dutch; trans. by Theodore Baker, 1851-1934)

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! May your day be filled with friends and family, gratitude, good food, and good cheer.

Monday, November 24, 2003

Nationality and European Identity

For a few months now, I've been wanting to write an essay on the future of Europe as a "nation"--whether it has such a future, whether anyone (European or otherwise) actually desires such a future, what kind of relationship such a future may or may not have to the current European Union or the proposed European constitution, and so forth. Maybe the reason I haven't written it yet is because my thoughts on the subject are too broad; they touch on too many matters pertaining to political theory, history, and world politics to cast much light on any of them in particular. The closest I've come to finding a hook to hang my reflections on is, first, Juergen Habermas's provocative and perplexing call last summer for the formation of common European identity (recently published in the journal Constellations; the only English translation I'm aware of on the internet--and it isn't the official one--is here), and second, the ongoing and fascinating debate over whether or not proposed European constitution should include some reference to God. What do these two have to do with each other, or with the future (or lack thereof) of national or supranational or postnational identity in Europe? Quite a bit actually, considering that Habermas includes "secularism" in his list of the fundamental building blocks of European society. But even to wrestle with all that is to cast my net too widely, so let me try to narrow things further, to the specific cause of this post: a wonderful, touching post by Tobias Schwarz from the group blog A Fistful of Euros. Tobias, quoting Goethe's powerful lines on the necessarily priority of feeling to any understanding, tries to articulate what it is to "feel European" today. He writes about

"an email conversation I had with an American friend in early 2002. Much like many of his countrymen and especially his colleagues within the Washington Beltway, he never really understood what happened in Western Europe after 1945....Maybe the idea of a nascent European identity based on cherishing diversity--not a common outsider--is impossible to explain--'Unless you feel, naught will you ever gain.' Those who do feel will recognize it, even when it [is] disguise[d] as a 3-hour-long poetry reading in fifteen different languages that even the publicly subsidized elite tv-station 3sat decided to hide entirely from the public by broadcasting it from 1-4 on a Friday night....Yes, sometimes this [identity] means hard work. Sometimes it means listening to poetry in languages no one in the audience will understand. But sometimes, it just comes naturally."

The trouble with Tobias's American friend, according to Tobias, is that he is "still intellectually locked up in the rationality myth of zero-sum strategic competition": that is, the territorial/cultural boundary-struggles of sovereign states. To cherish diversity in contemporary Europe, on the other hand, is in Tobias's view to liberated from such competition; that was the lesson of WWII. That's a powerful lesson, to be sure, and very possibly one very much worth learning. However, I wonder to what extent whether what follows such a lesson really is an "identity" at all. You don't have to be some kind of Robert Kagan-Samuel Huntington-type realist to acknowledge that the whole original point of identity, long before it become an opportunity for subjective expression and recognition, was political: that is, it was about locating where was (and who was, and what was) the polis. Where is this city, and where is that one, and which one am I in now? In that sense, European identity can't help but be, along with all the other important cultural markers (poetry, film, travel, education, etc.) which Tobias notes, also a matter of identifying a European location, a collective European space, a linguistically and/or historically and/or culturally connected commonality. This is a point made pretty strongly, I think, by Habermas in not only his rallying cry for European unity, but also in other essays he has written about Europe over the last several years.

But there is a problem with this space--it is not clear how it is to be constructed, or even if any actual European wants to do the constructing. For that will mean taking the raw materials one has on hand, as it were, and making building out of them some new institutional form for Europe. Habermas and others have tended to see the EU as the near-perfect embodiment of this construction, for all the best reasons: it is (supposedly) a post-national organization, evolving in accordance with broad universals rather than particular interests, removed from history and thus old allegiances. And yet, in the comments to Tobias's post, Scott Martens calls this organization (though perhaps he was quoting someone else) a "monstrosity"--a sentiment widely shared, if polls are to be trusted, by many Europeans (particularly those outside of the French-Benelux-German core). If the EU (and the whole matter of "constitutions, foreign policy, norms, [and] bureaucrats," as Scott puts it) really does have nothing to do with "feeling European"--if being European is not only "postnational," but even "postpolitical," or at least aspires to be--then the identity which Tobias touchingly invokes seems to me one of three possible things. Either it is 1) something utterly new in the whole history of identity; 2) bound to fail, or at least never develop beyond the sort of sentimental fraternity which dormmates always feel when they spend an enjoyable afternoon watching a football game together; 3) merely a way-station on the route towards a truly cosmopolitan world-state. Habermas is, I think, willing to acknowledge the third option; that what he calls "the European nation-state" is really what he (like all good Kantians) rationally believes ought eventually to be the proper postnational form of sovereignty for humanity as a whole. Certainly not a bad goal, but not exactly the same as building a common consciousness out of Europe's historical diversity either.

What do I think of all this? I think 1) is unlikely: perhaps, between modern technology and contemporary secularism, the very ontology of identity really has been changed in the West, and "cherishing diversity" need not any longer involve any kind of political perception of the world whatsoever--but given that traditional nationalist conceptions continue to break out throughout even Habermas's contemporary Europe, I doubt it. I find 3) philosophically defensible, though I suspect it is neither practicable nor wise. That leaves 2). So I'm a Euroskeptic, then? To a degree--but I'm not sure that simply dismissing Tobias's very real experiences as a contemporary European is possible either. The only remaining alternative is to bring politics back into it, and suggest that, whether or not anyone cares to admit it, what is going on in Europe via the EU is "nation-building." (Actually, Charles Taylor has at least recognized this and named it properly; as he very simply put it, sovereign regimes require a political identity if they are to have democratic legitimacy, and hence the future of Europe "depends on [what kind of] shared European identity can be forged out of the 25 nations that will soon make up the European Union.") At first glance, any talk about a truly "European nation" or a "European nationality"--with a more or less united culture, an embedded way of life, a common European sittlichkeit to use Hegel's terms--presumably runs counter to most everything Habermas has wanted to accomplish. He has, after all, described his goal as creating a kind of republicanism--or more generally, a system of citizenship--that can "stand on it's own feet"; i.e., without the supporting boundaries of communal or cultural identity. Habermas is justly famous for denigrating actually existing politics--i.e., with nationalist or volkisch overtones--in favor of a cosmopolitan Verfassungspatriotismus (constitutional patriotism). In other words, he seems to have little interest in the "love of one's own," but only concern for abstract Kantian, republican principles.

All true--and I've been more than clear on the political character (and necessity) of acknowledging the love one has (or should have) for one's own. But to leave the criticism at that point misses what conceptually seems to be work in all these various types of state and/or civic nationalisms or patriotisms. For instance, what happens when, on the ground, in people's actually lived lives, a certain "political-ethical will" (as Habermas puts it) regarding, say, some "cosmopolitan" law, truly replaces an understanding and devotion to local laws? It's not like this can never happen: between the memory of the struggles of the Revolutionary War, the fear of a repeat of Shay's Rebellion, the arguments of the Federalists, dozens of other factors, the American will as of 1787 came to be constructed around a "federal" (national) state, rather than around thirteen separate, historically distinct sovereignties. (Obviously the process was much more complicated and extended than that, but that such a transferal of attachment took place is indisputable.) Trudeau's effort to reconstruct Canadian attachments through a repatriated constitution and official bilingualism was similar--far from an overwhelming success, to be sure, but nonetheless, his (and other's) acts of political/civic "will" changed Canada (for better or worse) into something which was hardly there 30 years ago.

It's been commonplace in the literature on nationalism and national attachments lately to criticize theorists like Will Kymlicka and others by claiming, contrary to their position, that one cannot willfully "choose," for personal or political (presumably liberal) reasons, to embrace or construct a particular civic nationalism (which is essentially what Habermas is talking about here, whether he would admit it or not): there will always be a cultural/ethnic element to identity as well. I fully agree with that criticism. But as I've also come to believe that this must run both ways: there also can be no cultural/ethnic identity which doesn't get "negotiated" in a political/civic arena. (Bernard Yack has made this point in several important articles.) Does this mean that Habermas's preferred Kantian principles could potentially become, through the civic development of an economically connected Europe, a new kind of sittlichkeit--could they become "ethnic," "embedded" in a new kind of distinctly European life? Personally, I still have my doubts--primarily because (and here my commitment to Johann Gottfried Herder is most apparent), whatever else one might patriotically will, it seems to me that the specificity of language will remain an enormous obstacle and constraint on the human political imagination. (The thirteen colonies all spoke English, after all. And the Canadian example can be read both positively and negatively...) And yet...I don't think we've ever seen anything like Europe today before in the history of the world. As I mentioned above, the levels of technology, the levels of secularity, the ease of association (even the levels of language-sharing), are, arguably, completely unprecedented. And so Tobias's talk fascinates me--there's something happening in Europe today, something clearly "national" (and those who hold to an anti-political vision of Europe will, I fear, only misunderstand and possibly warp that process), but something which goes beyond it as well. I'm not saying I think Habermas is right; all I'm saying is that I think it's useful to look where he's looking. History isn't finished with the nation yet, not by a long shot.

Friday, November 21, 2003

Service to One's Own

I really have meant to write more than I have lately for a couple of weeks running now, but I just keep running out of time. And now here it is Friday afternoon and once again, I'm thinking I should put off blogging until next week. However, I've just discovered over at Winds of Change a very nice essay I missed from last Veteran's Day: Rob Lyman's reflections on "The Moral Duty of 'Tribal Patriotism.'" He succinctly touches on the collective responsibility to care for "one's own" that must, or at least ought to, characterize every sovereign democratic community: "[e]ach nation-state, or at least each democracy, is a tribe: we must hang together, or we will surely hang separately....I say that the citizens of each country have an obligation to protect each other which supersedes any obligations they may owe to those outside of their country." I'm not sure how far I would want to defend Rob's language: there are, after all, ways to talk about international commitments--and even the emergence of an "international community"--that do not necessarily undermine the national/tribal basis of human solidarity and trust (consider the challenging words of Tony Blair, for example). But in general, I can't disagree with anything he said.

Not unexpectedly thought, many other people did disagree with what he said. An enormous number of comments followed his essay; some were intelligent critiques, but just as many weren't. The next day, Armed Liberal posted a smart response of sorts to some of those who commented on Rob's essay; in it, he indicted the perspective of his critics as exemplifying "one of the defects I see in liberalism today; the notion that one can, personally, have clean hands despite the acts of one's [own] people. You get to that position, I think, because you have a fundamentally cosmopolitan viewpoint - you are an individual whose connections are equally [strong] to all other individuals...[meaning your] connection to the nation is therefore arbitrary and, most of all, chosen rather than accepted." I like how A.L. brought up cosmopolitanism there; it's a comforting illusion, and an old one, which can't ever be put down enough. Johann Gottfried Herder, who I've written about plenty, put it best over 200 years ago when he described the "saturated heart of the idle cosmopolitan," which "offers shelter to nobody."

More specifically, regarding "clean hands" and the very idea of collective or national or "tribal" responsibility, there was--again, not at all unexpectedly--a libertarian rejoinder to Rob's argument from Julian Sanchez. Julian's claims essentially amounted to presenting the (apparently to him) scandalous notion of democratic citizenship as substantively and logically equivalent to the sort of theological hive-mind mentality which presumably exists among Osama bin Laden's soldiers. A.L. once again very ably rushed to Rob's defense, pointing out that the well-understood logical claim that "we take on obligations by living in a society; some of the obligations are not of our choosing or making, but we bear them nonetheless" is hardly comparable to some kind of cultish anti-individualism. Of course, Julian's viewpoint is basically just the usual libertarian conviction that our choices are, and must be, all or nothing; either total liberty or soul-crushing totality. That there might be social groups, civic spheres, tribal allegiances, national ties, and collective entities that are neither necessarily subservient to absolute individual choice nor always opposed to it--indeed, that there might actually be communities that can, through our solidarity and service to them, actually enrich our individuality--never occurs to them. As A.L. puts it, it's "ahistorical, atomistic individuality," through and through.

The Winds of Change guys can handle their own fights, of course, but Julian's condescending dismissal of Rob's intelligent comments in favor of national duty and obligation put me in mind of some old posts of mine, written originally in response to some comments made by Jacob T. Levy, a libertarian who recognizes (unlike Julian, at least in this case) the complications of his position. The topic was the various national service proposals which some politicians like to float around (but rarely back up with full-funding: see Bush administration, AmeriCorps). But the argument quickly went beyond that, towards the whole idea that belonging just might entail service, and that a legitimate sovereign community can and should both expect and cultivate such service. I won't repost those old posts, but I will quote from them (the originals are here and here). First, a general comment...

"In many ways the libertarian position is an exceptionally powerful one, but I've never been able to grasp it's problem with social duty. Basically, I fail to understand why on earth these questions should always be framed as a choice between "belonging" to oneself alone, or "belonging" to the government. Don't you also belong to a neighborhood, a community, a society, or at least a segment of it? If so, why is it so appalling to suggest that, just as the individual is constituted in part by the social continuity she emerges from, so does the individual have obligations and duties to that social context which is her own?...Of course, the response is usually that such communitarian language is all fluff, because in the end, it still is the state which does the asking, right? Two rejoinders: first, such a response assumes that there cannot possibly be a national community on whose behalf the state speaks. There is, of course, a large body of communitarian argument which insists exactly that point; the nation, these thinkers claim, can never be the proper recipient of authentic social, collective obligation, because the nation is too large/too diverse/too historically compromised to ever actually aspire to being a "community." But these arguments are not being fundamentally engaged by libertarian talk about the individual vs. the state, since they would probably expect their response to apply even if mandated service arose from a social entity which "authentically" could claim "community" status...Second, [regarding the implication] that nothing socially beneficial can come from the state's asking....there is much evidence that state involvement is an essential part of civil-society-building-voluntarism."

And second, following up on that last point, in response to the legitimate libertarian complaint that sovereign duties will always undermine the associational spirit that communitarians like myself supposedly desire...

"[Of course] no public-spiritedness campaign, no national service program, could ever or would ever replace the associational spiritedness which arises because of the norms and mores which the American people have (thus far) internalized. And if it could be shown that such national projects diminish associational spiritedness, I would be absolutely in the wrong if I continued to defend them. However, I think the very best you can say is that the evidence is mixed....I think there is also good reason to believe that associational spiritedness in the United States was stronger when there was an involving and reciprocating state playing its part in backing up the authority or voice of said associations, whether national or otherwise (the draft is the best example, but not the only one). In other words, mandatory "public-spiritedness" might actually contribute to and enrich subsequent volunteering in society."

Not that I expect anyone's mind to be changed by all that. Still, when you run up against the blogosphere in all its libertarian glory, you gotta do what you gotta do.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003


Josh Cherniss has taken notice, via the entry below, of Timothy Burke's wonderfully reflective essay on what taking his child to some local museums taught him about class and the public sphere. This reminds me that I meant to update that post with some comments from a friend of mine, who lives in Fairfield County, CT: another location where, as in Philadelphia, the urban (mostly minority) poor and the professional (mostly white) upper-class live in practically the same civic space. Emphasis on the "practically." But let me allow my friend to explain himself:

"Here in the burbs we have a fairly interesting YMCA system. By accident or design, the Y has three physical locations: A sprawling complex in a predominantly white affluent suburb, a "conference center" on a 200-acre lot in prime wilderness terrain, and an urban recreation center in a poor, predominantly Hispanic downtown area. Upper-middle suburbanites join the Y for facilities that resemble those of a country club - in fact, old, towel clad men actually close business deals in the mint-infused steamroom - but these goodies only come with a deluxe membership. Patrons can also purchase a standard membership, but they don't get all the perks (bring your own towels, no steam room, etc). Likewise, people in my community pay market rates to send their kids to Y camps -- either the expensive camp at the nature center (akin to the private museum [which Burke talked about]) or to the traditional day camp (akin in terms of crowds to the public museum). Here's the kicker, though. Regardless of whether you choose the deluxe or the standard membership/camp, a large part of the money is earmarked to support the operation of the urban Y, most of whose patrons receive memberships gratis. The organization also provides a large number of scholarships to both the nature center and standard summer camps, depending on the need of the camper. Most people feel quite good about this arrangement.

"I recognize that this system works largely by the accident of geography; the urban poor lack the resources to travel to a distant suburban location, even though their membership technically allows them access to the facility. This means that the suburbanites can enjoy the homogeneous, quiet civility that gives this particular Y its country club-esque flavor and can still claim equal access to all levels of society. Nevertheless, I think that the system also points to a potential for community participants to take responsibility for those in their midst who are unable to do for themselves. Socialism in capitalist clothes, but [an arrangement] less onerous for the suburbanites and less degrading and dehumanizing for the urbanites....It simply requires a community willing to transfer its excess from the wealthy to the poor without organizational compulsion."

I think it's very honest of my friend to recognize that this arrangement has the support of the broader public (both in terms of tax money as well as continued attendance at public facilities) at least partly, if not primarily, because of an "accident of geography" which allows members of the middle and upper classes to enjoy the benefits of--as Burke described it--"a private retreat from the public sphere, where you can have as much of a share of the privately bounded always-for-sale commons as you have time and money to claim," without in fact actually making such a retreat, thus sparing the affluent white suburbanites of Fairfield County the guilt and resentment involved in having to "accept such losses [of one's ability to create a relatively genteel social-educational environment through public works] and rationaliz[e] them as justified in terms of the loser's own culturally bounded shortcomings and hang-ups." The result: everyone's happy in their (dare we say publicly segregated?) arrangements. As I see it, Burke's whole point was that, as long as the world of the marketplace (and, and must add even if Burke didn't, the decline of communal norms, the breakdown of parental authority, the absence of civic shame...) makes the "tragedy of the commons" a fact of life, those who can avoid the commons will do so, meaning the commons will ultimately decline. (In short, the free-rider vs. full-contributor problem.) If, however, a twist of geography can keep the commons "discrete," as it were, then the middle and upper classes will continue to give their support to public projects, without having to wrestle with whether or not they can stand to be tagged as one of those (dare we say conservative?) white-flight Bobos or Patio Men which David Brooks has so often taught us about.

Talking about Brooks reminds me of my old hang-ups, about class and location and occupation. My deepest internal struggle--at least insofar as politics goes--is figuring out how I should feel, and how I should belong, when my class and my location do not mesh, when the suburban retreat is not an option. But I shouldn't allow my personal crusades to interfere with acknowledging that, whatever sort of compromises Fairfield County's solution to Burke's (and my) problems rest upon, it is nonetheless a solution, and one that should not be dismissed. Should we purposefully set out to make socio-economic segregation a guiding principle in our construction and funding of in civic spaces? That's putting it too harshly, and too unfairly. But look around at your towns: look at where the parks are built, what reasons they are built for, and who uses them. It's not as if this sort of (usually unstated) reasoning is absent from where we put museums, how we pay for swimming pools, and who maintains the playgrounds. Is this the sort of thing better left unstated? Or would we better serve the commons overall by bringing this particular hypocrisy out into the light?

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

One is the Loneliest Number

This ball started rolling last week, but I never got around to blogging anything about it. Remember the "Political Compass" quiz? Well, starting last week everyone began taking it and sharing their results: Matthew Ygelsias, Daniel Drezner, Brian Leiter, and many, many others, all of whom Lawrence Solum kept track of. Now, I've expressed my discontent with the Political Compass before, not necessarily because it is flawed (though it obviously is that), but because taking the test simply reveals the strong preference for libertarian or quasi-libertarian positions in our culture--or, at least, the ease with which the presumed moral logic of libertarianism is seen to encompass what are clearly the political sympathies of the majority of Americans and other westerners. Those who take the test, whether on the "left" or the "right," more often than not find themselves occupying the bottom half of the quiz's schematic, where "liberty" is made an opposite of "authority." And who wants to be an authoritarian? Anyway, that's what I've always felt; when John Holbo took the test, I made a comment along those lines; I did the same when Chris Bertram took the test, and I left it at that.

But now behold! Sometime in the last couple of days, Tim Lambert has plotted all of those who have reported their scores on the Political Compass quiz on a single graph. And what does the result show, in all its schematic glory? That I was right: as The Plainsman puts it in his analysis (scroll down a little bit), what we have are plenty of "vanilla liberals," lots of "right libertarians" and "vanilla conservatives," a few "centrists" and "leftists," a couple of serious "right-wingers," and only "a small dotting of populists/paleoconservatives/theocons," with next to nobody occupying the upper-left hand quadrant. Actually, The Plainsman thought he was the only one there, but has since corrected himself, which is right...because I'm out there too. In fact, I'm way out there; I'm the single most isolated blogger on that graph, with no one within two data points of me in any direction. So much for believing in both social justice and civic morality! (I wonder where communitarian godfather Amitai Etzioni would land on this graph?) While I certainly wouldn't call myself either a paleocon or a theocon, the fact that such conservatives are willing to acknowledge the necessity of--as I put it in a thread on conservatism on John Holbo's site a while back--"follow[ing] through on their cultural beliefs to a demand for stability and equity in the fabric of the economic order" leads me to have a certain amount of sympathy for them. In an earlier post (again, scroll down), The Plainsman describes himself as a "moderate communitarian conservative," a man with a "slight tilt toward economic interventionism and social cohesion." He is absolutely right to insist that such a position is anything but "authoritarian." Unfortunately, I'm not sure how much difference his and my arguments will make. The Plainsman and I might not actually agree with each other that much on particular political matters (class-based politics? religious establishment? environmentalism? the war in Iraq?), but one thing is certain: if quizzes like these, with all their faults, fairly accurately reflect or reveal the overwhelming liberal individualist ethos which shapes the modern world--and I'm afraid that they do--then communitarians like he and I are going to have a pretty lonely time of it, for perhaps a pretty long time.