Monday, May 26, 2003

More on Service


My post on national service, which really didn't discuss any of the various ideas out there (such as Senator John Kerry's) so much as just ask why it is such a hard idea for some people to accept, prompted an exchange with Roger Sweeny, who pressed me on a few points central to the whole debate. With his permission, I'm posting some of our exchange here. First, Roger wrote:


"Of course, there is 'social duty.' We pay taxes. We obey most laws. In times of great emergency, when the alternative would be awful, we submit to compulsory service. And that's okay, if not the best of all possible worlds. But gratuitious requirements are not okay....One gets the feeling (okay, I get the feeling), the real motivation is to send a message, 'Compared to the government, you are selfish and immature. Therefore, we will force you to spend a year or two doing things you otherwise wouldn't. If you don't like this, it just proves how selfish and immature you are. Once you get out, you will see how right we were and how wrong you were, and you will do the same thing to people now younger than you.'"


In my response to Roger, I restated one of the points I made in response to Jacob Levy's original post; namely, how and why does this become a matter of the "government" telling the student/citizen/individual/etc. to do something, or to live up to some standard, or to prove him or herself in some way in the first place? Isn't it plausible to conceive service requirements as a matter of "the nation" or "the community" or "the society" asking/expecting something of the individual? When the issue is framed in the way Roger's statement implies, at least as I read it, all I can see is an immediate, I think unreasonable, dismissal of the possibility that various groups (national, federal, municipal, etc.) within civil society might themselves have some sort of authority or normative force. Isn't it possible that the government can be a valid voice or agent for various collectives, even national collectives, which have legitimate expectations and demands? Of course, one can very seriously argue: no, it isn't possible for the government to have such a voice, because it is illegitimate for any collectivity larger than the individual--a club, a fraternity, a city, a culture, a nation--to have any moral worth. In which case, any discussion of national service really would automatically come down to a political struggle between state/government and the free individual. That's an important libertarian argument, and certainly not one I can easily ignore. But to leap, as I think too many libertarians do when confronted with talk about "obligations" or "duties," to the dark language of "state ownership" is, I think, unfairly ignoring the equally important communitarian argument. But Roger had a response to that as well:


"It is the power of the government that makes the people do the service. We are talking about things that people won't do voluntarily. It is government that decides what they shall do, where, for how long, under what conditions, with what compensation, etc. If you are talking about a looser arrangement, then government is deciding what groups can require what people to do what, under what conditions, etc....Of course, it is legitimate for a 'collectivity larger than the individual--a club, a fraternity, a city, a culture, a nation--to have any moral worth.' But when governments decide which collectivities have which powers over which people, government is involved. Many people tithe to a church because they consider it an obligation. If tithing is a legal requirment, government then has to decide which are legitimate churches, who belongs to what church, how to deal with people who disagree with their assignment or wish to belong to no church, and what the rate and mechanism of contribution should be. (I feel towards national service much the way I feel toward an established church. Proponents say--or said in the case of the church establishment--that it makes for a better society, people treat each other better, are better citizens and better people. I don't think those empirical statements were true. And requiring people to join one or one of a number of churches is profoundly illiberal.)....I think that to a large extent, people should be allowed to live their lives as they see fit, not as others think they should. People's own plans for their own lives should be interfered with only for major reasons. Something like stopping Hitler. None of the justifications for 'national service' that I have seen come close. They are vague and unconvincing. It's not a matter of absolutes. It's a matter of prudence. A required year or two of 'national service'? In the words of George Herbert Walker Bush, 'Wouldn't be prudent.'"



Roger's analogy to an established church is a though-provoking one. The experience of the Western world with established churches, with all their impositions and relationships to the people they were identified with, is that they have invariably involved questions of state--and so to the extent that the analogy holds, it would seem unlikely that any sort of cultural or communal justification for service could avoid being equally driven by political expediencies and realities, which would undermine, or at least qualify, whatever authority one might be willing to otherwise grant the culture or community. In other words, just as there wasn't--and isn't--so much an "English church" as there was--and is--a "Church of England," so also there can't be any way to use national service to "link patriotism with an ethic of public responsibility," as E.J. Dionne put it, which wouldn't mainly just be a way of linking patriotism with whatever partisan tasks the ruling government at one point or another wants done. (Incidentally, the Dionne column, on the money as usual, rightly notes that fundamentally this is not a Democrat-Republican debate, but a libertarian-communitarian one.) Of course, the analogy may not hold--the obligations of national service need not function in the same way as the obligations of church memberships or tithes, and thus may not be as susceptiable to political critiques premised on human liberty. Maybe state church's cross a line that state service would not; maybe service could plausibly remain grounded in the "American people" rather than the "American state." Still, he makes a challenging point. And in any case, his warning that attempts to diagnose and treat America's "civic" or "cultural" or "communal" needs must be governed by a sense of prudence--by a strong awareness of what the risks, costs, and goals are--is certain correct. As he also wrote:


"[In America], people contribute to their community every day. Not just by contributing to government through taxes but in myriad little ways that add up to something gigantic. In 'The Moral Sense', James Q. Wilson points out that even though police are rarely to be seen, most people most of the time have absolutely no fear of being robbed or physically attacked. There are thousands of things everyone does every day that make it possible to live together in relative harmony. If people did things based on a calculation of 'what is in my this-minute self-interest?', social life would be impossible. But they don't!....A capitalist society requires a very real, very profound kind of public-spiritedness....It requires citizens to say, 'I have my life and my property. You have your life and your property. I can do what I want with mine and you can do what you want with yours. I have no right to take your life or property or tell you what to do with it and you have no right to do the same to me. If I agree to do something for you, I will keep my promise, just as I know you will keep any promises you make to me.' Actually, it doesn't require citizens to say that; it requires citizens to act as if they believe that. It is a matter of behavior, not talk. As Wilson says, people do not learn morality because they are taught it; they learn morality because they live it....I think these things are remarkably important. They are also missing in much of the world. Just as fish supposedly don't notice the water they swim in, I think we don't notice these behaviors, these expectations that we have every day. We don't have to worry about so many things so we don't worry about them. But they are precious, and they are 'service' in a very real way. They are a major reason we have a vibrant, prosperous society and Russia or Afghanistan or Iraq or Argentina does not. I don't see a lack of service that needs to be remedied in the USA. Much more do I see a lack of this kind of 'service' in many of the poor parts of the world....Voluntary choice is a damn important thing. And all too often the alternative to voluntary choice is not public-spiritedness but interacting by force."


Roger is absolutely correct to bring this up--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. Granted, the example of a few of the nations which Roger mentions--such as Russia and the rampant crime and corruption which has followed the collapse of communism, or Iraq and the looting which exploded upon the end of the Hussein regime--would give one reason to pause: surely at least part of the reason those cultures seem to lack the reservoir of voluntarist, law-abiding, associational, social capital and trust which makes a free society and economy is exactly that, in the past, "service" has always been mandated and defined by and through the agency of the state: civil society atrophied in response. Would national service programs move us in that direction; would they undermine the associational strength of the groups the American people form? Perhaps. But 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 groups, whether national or otherwise (the draft is the best example, but not the only one). In other words, mandatory "public-spiritedness" might actually increase the amount of subsequent volunteering in society. Of course, Putnam's work has been strongly criticized, and some of those criticisms have stuck. As of right now (perhaps mainly just because of my communitarian philosophical orientation), I'm not convinced that teaching "voluntarism" necessarily undermines it. But I appreciate the efforts of people like Roger Sweeny to explain to me why I'm wrong.

Thursday, May 22, 2003

The Service You Owe


So, once again, we have a national service plan on the table (this time, proposed by Democrat John Kerry), and once again, libertarians dislike it. For instance, Jacob T. Levy, describing national service as "the bad idea that never dies," writes it off as an obviously outrageous imposition, "a basic signalling device as to whether someone thinks individuals belong to the state or vice-versa." And once again, as I've written before, the assumption is that the whole ball game boils down, as far as libertarian thinkers are concerned, to the individual vs. the state. In many, 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? In other words, why not establish, as Kerry suggests, a national/community service requirement for students who graduate from a nation's or a community's own high schools? The government provides many services to individuals, and individuals pay taxes to support the government; but does that fully exhaust all that is necessary for a well-run society, a healthy community, a liveable neighborhood? Why can't groups have a part in this process? It always seems to be the same complaint, again and again, whether you are talking about the draft or AmeriCorps or anything related: the government can't or shouldn't ask anything of me that doesn't arise from my own voluntary choice, premised upon my own individual calculation of benefit. To which I say: by dragging the government into it, you make into something it's not; you make it into a question of political liberty, when actually it should be a question of social obligation.


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 recepient of authentical 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 could claim "community" status (a state-wide draft? a municipal one?). Second, Jacob implies that nothing socially beneficial can come from the state's asking, that while such an arrangement might plausibly reflect civic republican virtues (which he eschews anyway), in can never aspire to "Tocquevillean civil society volunteerism" (which is, a guess, to be preferred). But on this point I beg to differ: there is much evidence (nicely summarized in this article by Theda Skocpol) that state involvement (and state mandates) is essential to just such civil-society-building-voluntarism. Very simply, she concludes, "the early American civic vitality that so entranced Alexis de Tocqueville was closely tied up with the representative institutions and centrally directed activity of a very distinctive national state." I don't see why it would be, or we should expect it to be, any different today.

Political Philosophy and the Cool Name Theory


I'm sure I've heard this theory somewhere before, but Micah Schwartzman (welcome back Micah!--how were finals?) has brought it up here (permalinks bloggered; it's the first post on May 20th). Basically, he writes, "to make it into the canon of great political philsophers, your name has to be amenable to a suffix like "ism," "ist," "ian," "ite," "an," etc. Consider: Plato(nic), Hobbes(ian), Locke(an), Hume(an), Kant(ian), Hegel(ian), Burke(an), Marx(ist/ism), Mill(ian), and Rawls(ian)." I think that's basically right, though I'm not sure I've ever heard of any theoretical camp taking on an "ite" suffix. (Does "Luddite" count? I don't think so.) He correctly observes that--especially in what is, as the Invisible Adjunct constantly reminds us, an academic world increasingly driven by market values and commodification--making it into the canon is going to depend upon more than just one's ideas: you've got to be able to sell yourself. And that means philosophers and theorists who have less than easily manageable names (MacIntyre, or Kymlicka, for example) are probably at a disadvantage in the competition for Intro to Political Theory immortality (MacIntyrian? Kymlickanian? I guess they work, but they just doesn't, you know, flow). He posits a couple of corollaries: the "common-name" problem (under which he says Charles Taylor--Taylorism?--won't make it), and the "already-taken" problem (i.e., Smith has already been taken). I'm not sure that the common-name issue is that big a deal; I mean, if you've got an interesting or influencial enough set of ideas, undergraduate students and scholars alike will make allowances for the dull label (I mean, John Stuart Mill?). An additional corollary which he doesn't mention, but related to one of the objections to the CNT which he mentions, is the difficulty English-speakers have with turning names which end with vowels (except silent ones, of course) into nouns. Consider Jean-Jacque Rousseau. I have seen in journals and books over the years, "Roussean," "Rousseauan," "Rousseauian," "Rousseauesque," and "Rousseauist," and probably some others. Not as ugly as what is usually done with Aristotle (most commonly, in my experience, "Aristotelian," reflecting a perverse demand that the name be re-written so the preferred suffix will work), but you get the idea.


Micah also asks how things are handled in Continental philosophy, and whether the CNT is "Anglocentric." Well, obviously since were talking about English suffixes here, it is unavoidably Anglocentric in that sense. But generally speaking, I don't know: I think the same dynamics of appropriation apply. "Nietzschean" and "Gadamerian" both clearly pass the test (though I think "Heideggerian" or "Levinasian" might as well; perhaps it's just a matter of taste). But then there's those pesking vowels again. Derrida? "Derridean"? "Derridanian"? It's a problem.

Friday, May 16, 2003

Texas Republicans, WAY over the line


Joshua Micah Marshall has continued to put together some fairly damning stuff about the Texas legislature story--except the redistricting issue has fallen into the background, as a stranger and scarier story about the Texas Republican leadership utilizing the Department of Homeland Security to track down the legislators who fled. So much for the rule of law (hey--the reasoning seems to have been--we're all Republicans here, so let's help each other out...). See here, and continue scrolling down. Glenn Reynolds has weighed in as well.

Graduation by Lawsuit, Education by Default


Kieran Healy and the Invisible Adjunct are already all over this story, but it needs to be spread as far and as quickly as possible. The story so far, as the Invisible Adjunct summarizes it (based on an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education):


"Apparently, ten students who failed to complete the requirements for the master's degree in criminal justice [at Coppin State College in Baltimore] will nevertheless be awarded degrees at the upcoming graduation ceremony. This after the ten students filed a lawsuit against the college, claiming that the college 'had violated its contract with its students,' seeking 'punitive damages of $2,500' and demanding 'that the college change its requirements to allow them to graduate without having passed the exam or the seminar paper.' In other words, when faced with the prospect of a lawsuit, the president of the college, Stanley F. Battle, caved in to student pressure. 'The president began to take their demands seriously when he was served with court papers,' and, as lead plaintiff Alice Freeman notes with satisfaction, 'That woke him up.'....Meanwhile, student Jocelyn Evans, who did successfully complete the requirements for the degree, is considering a lawsuit of her own. 'Do you think companies are going to hire someone with a master's degree from this school?,' she asks, 'I want my money back. But how do you calculate the value of this wasted effort?' Evans is quite justifiably angry at the injustice of it all, and is of course quite right to point out that the degree she properly earned is now devalued. But note the consumerist logic of her own argument, along with the willingness to pursue her grievance through the courts. It's all about consumer satisfaction.


Appalling...if completely true. But there is more to this story, as the Baltimore Sun relates:


"A criminal justice professor at Coppin said yesterday that the school's new president, Stanley F. Battle, told the department's faculty Monday that the students who filed suit would get their degrees at Sunday's commencement at the 1st Mariner Arena. 'He said, "We have a capital expansion campaign, and we can't afford bad publicity,"' said Richard Monk, a professor at Coppin since 1992. But late yesterday, Battle denied there were any plans to give degrees to students who had not earned them, and he said the allegations in the higher education journal were untrue. 'All of the students who are graduating met the requirements, and the students who did not successfully pass are not graduating,' he said. A graduate school dean said she did not believe that anyone who failed the comprehensive exams would get a degree Sunday. Battle conceded, however, that the episode - the students' complaints and the failure of 11 of the program's 20 graduate students to pass their exams - has exposed serious problems in the criminal justice program. 'There have been challenges in that department for some time. This did not happen overnight,' he said. 'We're making some hard decisions in that department administratively. We're also doing a thorough academic review.'.....According to [criminal justice professor Richard] Monk, the criminal justice program has had problems for years. Early in 2001, he said, he was asked to review the graduate research papers of 10 of that year's students. 'I almost fainted,' he said. 'Some of them were certified gibberish. It was nonsense.' Monk said one paper plagiarized 90 percent of a research paper published in a professional journal in 1994. He also saw the essay responses to questions on the comprehensive exams this spring by Coppin's current crop of graduate criminal justice students. The students are given the questions in advance so they can research their answers. 'Most of them didn't have a single source,' Monk said. 'A few of them would have citations of their teachers. Then there would be citations in a few cases to an undergraduate textbook. There was not a single journal article that I recall.'....When the students' research papers came in, the department chairman, Concetta Culliver, asked Monk to help critique them. 'All agreed with me that they were not appropriate,' Monk said. Some were simply pointless, he said. Others were clearly plagiarized, verbatim, from a textbook. Monk said Evans, choosing to write a thesis in fulfillment of the master's requirements, was laughed at by the others."


For those of you who have never lived in or around Baltimore, let's put some cards on the table. Coppin State College is a historically black college in West Baltimore. It is not a wealthy school. The majority of its students are poor, many of whom come from the immediate urban area, which is also poor. Many also work (Evans, the student mentioned above who was reportedly laughed at because she decided to take the route of writing a thesis, is--according to the Sun--a 34-year-old full-time parole officer in Anne Arundel County, married with children). So what do we have? A school of (no doubt) overworked, (almost assuredly) underpaid faculty, trying to deal with students whose range of educational experience and expectations (if my own experience with students at a couple of heavily minority state universities is any guide) is probably so broad as to make any scholar used to working in more rarified educational environments gasp. Does that excuse President Battle, if he does go ahead and allow some students who failed in every way to receive their degree anyway? Not in the least. Standards must be maintained. But it does excuse, if only a little bit, the sort of confusion and disagreement which apparently reigns at the moment on Coppin State's campus. Students who clearly cannot handle the work are complaining that they were not prepared for or properly assessed in their work, and to what extent is the college president (or even the department faculty) prepared to defend the standards they have imposed in preparing students for and assessing said work? If you look at the Sun article closely, it seems clear: not whole-heartedly.


Yes, this is a sad tale of the consumer mentality continuing to taint higher education, and yes, it must be taken as a warning. But there is more going on here than just the poison of "consumer satisfaction." There is the deeper poison of a society attempting to educate without clearly being able (or willing) to articulate (much less fund!) who should be educated, in what, and how, and to what standards. It is the deeper poison of a social reality growing distant from the model (and it was--and is!--a good and worthy model) of reality that higher education was once imagined to serve.

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Redistricting Deviations


It'll be interesting to see what Joshua Micah Marshall comes up with here. The story of Texas legislators making a run for the border in order to prevent the formation of a quorum which would have then allowed for a vote on a Republican-sponsored congressional redistricting plan is a fun one; as Tapped says, it makes for great political theater. But I'll be watching what Josh writes in his space, because he may be correct: the Democratic legislators in Texas may have taken somewhat extreme action simply because a real (if uncodified in law) norm was being violated, one that has been in place across the nation for over a century: namely, that absent other considerations (lawsuits, etc.), redistrciting only happens after a census, once every ten years. Of course, one could take this in several different ways: on the one hand, another example of how the Republican juggernaut is tearing up the country's political standards in pursuit of complete domination; on the other, another example of the Republicans' brilliant determination to break down standards which they believe have implicitly served the interest the semi-permanent, mostly unelected liberal establishment. I'll be talking more about this, probably.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

The Matrix, Dumped


Adam Gopnik trashes the upcoming The Matrix Reloaded in an essay which also quite insightfully explores many of the ways the first Matrix film has been taken up over the last few years, culturally and philosophically. In particular, he spends a while talking about all the different ways the "brain-in-a-vat" scenario has played out in philosophy and popular entertainment (and wonderfully, he mentions a favorite sci-fi film of mine, the underrated Dark City, whose moment of realization (when the William Hurt character tumbles through the wall to reveal....) is every bit as cinematically thrilling as when Keanu Reeves woke up in his pod). However, oddly enough, despite dropping all sorts of names regarding the reality-perception problem, he someone manages to forget the father of them all: Descartes, with his evil deceiving demon argument (which has plenty of parallels to The Matrix all on its own).

Wilson and Kant


David Adesnik, over at Oxblog, has been inspired by Michael Totten's post "Builders and Defenders" to write at length on the Democratic party's failure, in recent years, to articulate "a compelling liberal approach to foreign affairs." David's posts (there are two of them now, one on Sunday, the other from yesterday) are long and erudite, and deal mostly with the degree to which various presidents, both Democrat and Republican, have either lived up to or ignored his preferred liberal foreign policy vision, the democratic idealism of Woodrow Wilson. As one very sympathetic to Wilsonian aims, I basically agree with what David has to say. He's moved into an exchange with Armed Liberal that deals mainly with America's foreign policy history, and there I don't claim any expertise. However, in defending and explicating Wilson, David casually touches on a couple of more philosophical matters which I can't resist exploring a bit. Specifically, Wilson's--and Wilsonianism's--connection to contemporary democratic peace theory, and the underlying, arguably Kantian, rationales which make possible Wilson's particular form of internationalism, with all its virtues and flaws.


Wilson surely believed, as David rightly notes, that "no democratic government would commit acts of agression against any other." Consequently, he wasn't devoted to a merely procedural internationalism; rather, he affirmed the need for a real democratic substance to form the core of any transnational order. Any arrangement on the global stage less than democratic self-determination could only be, in Wilson's view, a return to the secretive imperialism, the back-room deals between great powers outside of the earshot of indigenous populations, which he detested perhaps more than anything else. To that degree, I believe David is correct is suspecting that Wilson would have little respect for the United Nations as it operates today, with so much power and influence in the hands of plainly undemocratic, semi-authoritarian states, and would very likely have taken a route similar to President Bush's (or, as I would prefer to say, Tony Blair's) in regards to Iraq. However, one must also be sensitive to what it means to insist upon the existence of such a principled core. It means defining the core, and any such definition is bound to be limited in one way or another. Wilson's democratic core was an admirable one, in many ways; but looking at the historical record, it was plainly also a product of his essentially racist understanding of which people's were capable of "self-determination," and which were not. Wilson was a strict, 19th-century Calvinist gentleman, and he presumed that the same civilized rationality which motivated his government reforms and social policies would also be reciprocated on the world stage--specifically, by other educated, enlightened, Christian gentlemen, who would similarly lead their respective nations. In short, his pursuit of liberal principles through foreign policy was inextricable from his own understanding of "liberty," and thus the democracy he wanted to see spread around the world was a democracy that was grounded in assumptions--fairly elitist, definitely aristocratic assumptions--about how people thought about freedom. While such a worldview is certainly not naive in the sense of automatically assuming that any international institution much, simply by virtue of its by-laws, represent something "higher" than mere national principle--Wilson would not be Jimmy Carter, in other words--it does suffer from an inflexibility, from the conviction that the form and application around the globe of these substantive principles on behalf of which one fights will always, and necessarily, ultimately take on a very similar taint. And that inflexibility is hardly unique to Wilson, but on the contrary, characterizes a great deal of international thinking, including styles of thinking which Wilson himself (who, despite his aristocratic hang-ups, was also grounded in his own national community and its own lived principles as well) probably would have disdained.

Arguably, there is no way around this: everybody's freedom is going to be some kind of idealized "freedom"; that's what it means to have an "ideal." And by no means do I advocate the reverse--namely, abandoning the pursuit of ideals and the construction of institutions capable of supporting them, and embracing a "realistic" acceptance of intractable pluralism instead. All I mean to say is that if one's vision of democracy is grounded in the same sort of conviction that so many democratic peace theorists apparently assume--the cosmopolitan conviction that there is a rational law and a rational sense of self-interest available to all men should they only open themselves up to, as Kant put it in his "Secret Article to Perpetual Peace", the "maxims of philosophers"--then you are never going to fully escape the problem with Wilson's idealism: the constrained, predetermined and rather elite definition--and management!--of the central ideal. The solution, of course, is not to search for an alternative ideal; liberalism and democracy are near unimpeachable moral goods. Instead, one must qualify one's Wilsonianism: one must be, as I have written, humble in triumph; one must have a little of that substantive humility which David seems glad that Bush has left behind. The goal is not timidity, but openness: openness to the substantive (and not merely procedural) contributions of all nations, with the knowledge that simply because one is committed to spreading liberal opportunities and policies doesn't mean one already knows how any particular nation will liberalize and democratize their community. Community drops out of the Kantian formula, replaced with rational cosmopolitanism, which comes too close to a kind of rational imperialism. Exactly how one chooses to keep community in the mix as one pursues not just the veneer but the substance of liberal reform around the world is a rich debate, which I've written much on before. In truth, so has David and his follow Oxbloggers; they've been on the right side (which doesn't mean the conservative side) of liberal internationalist bandwagon as long and as productively as anyone. From a philosophical point of view, however, I just wouldn't want any of them to forget the problems and complications with their preferred historical model of their ideal.

Monday, May 12, 2003

Back in the Provinces


It's been a while since I've written. Final exams--giving them and grading them--took up a bit of my time, but so did a job interview at school that, in many ways, I'd really set my heart on. Well, that interview didn't pan out, and so I'll remain at Arkansas State University for the time being. Dealing with the results of that interview, and assessing my present situation (and what it offers, and what I need to do to make more satisfying and fulfilling, both for myself and my students), have led me to do a fair amount of soul-searching of late, the bulk of which I won't bother to blog about. But there was one small exchange in the blogosphere, from late last week, which I want to write on, if only because it, to a small degree, threw into sharp relief some of what I am presently thinking about.


I refer to John Derbyshire's column "Confessions of a Metropolitan Conservative," in which he relates having dinner with some ardent conservative lady from Virginia, who proceded to expose him as a "milk and water conservative"--the sort of person who talked about and praised the values of the red-state, conservative heartland (in this case, specifically the state of Texas, where--until and unless the Supreme Court rules otherwise--laws prohibiting sodomy remain on the books), but who when it comes right down to it wouldn't, in fact, personally vote for such "authentically" conservative policies and doesn't, frankly, want to live in such "authentically" conservative environments. Derbyshire agrees with this woman's assessment of him, and is terribly honest about where his personal feelings about homosexuality and host of other hot-button conservative issues leave him:


"I have not the slightest doubt that I am a conservative by thought, feeling and instinct, yet on a lot of the issues that define American conservatism, I barely move the needle from the zero mark on the dial. I have guns but only fire them down at the range once a month, for the satisfaction of it, and to develop confidence in handling them. I have never hunted with guns. I am only feebly religious — feebly Episcopalian, in fact, which is feebleness squared! Homosexuality? I don't like it, and have got myself in a lot of trouble for saying so rather bluntly, but I wouldn't criminalize it. Abortion? Pretty much the same. Creationism? Sorry, I think it's pseudoscience. I'm fine with evolution. So — What kind of conservative am I?"


Derbyshire decides that he is a "metropolitan conservative," the sort of conservative who has spent "most of my adult life in big cities or their shadows" and has a "mostly metropolitan cast of mind"--which means that, as much as his political opinions may set him apart, he is "at ease in a roomful of New York liberals in a way that, to be truthful about it, I am not in a gathering of red-state evangelicals." In short, he is a conservative Bobo (much like his Weekly Standard counterpart David Brooks, who coined the term), a creature of the modern (postmodern?) capitalist (postcapitalist?) upper- or near-upper-class and all its "metropolitan" trappings who just happens to accept a sufficient number of libertarian and/or social conservative nostrums to make it reasonable to vote Republican. He is not, as he makes perfectly clear, really particularly comfortable with those provincial environments and worldviews which engender the greatest fervor in the American conservative movement, but he admirers those who do live in those environments or profess those worldviews from afar: "the red-state conservative with his Bible, his hunting rifle and his sodomy laws," Derbyshire writes, "is authentic, in a way I am not."


I neither consider myself a conservative (though there is a strong streak of social and moral conservatism in me), nor am I particularly troubled about how I would vote if given the opportunity to criminalize or de-criminalize sodomy (for the record: it shouldn't be against the law). So what is it about Derbyshire's comments which complicate my thinking? His willingness to own up to--and yet then blithely dismiss--a reality which undergirds so much of our society and our psychology, a reality which is often profoundly (and often purposefully) obscured and/or misused by those engaged in political conversation. What Derbyshire calls the "metropolitan-provincial divide" is reflected in matters pertaining to class, to region, to temperment. It is a divide rife with condescension, false judgments, and bitter resentments, fueled by everything from Hollywood's presentation of certain elite and scandalous social mores as "popular entertainment" to the Constitution's comparative over-representation (through the Electoral College and the Senate) of vast, underpopulated and by most economic measures "backward" parts of the nation. And it is a divide which I personally have never been able to fully or satisfyingly negotiate. Derbyshire may himself feel able to own up to and then set aside the strange mix of condescension and admiration he feels for the provincials out there in the heartland, but perhaps that's because he has a place on one side of the divide. But a great many people do not; I don't, for instance. I'm deeply religious Mormon (provincial!) who received his Ph.D. in political philosophy (metropolitan!) from a religious university (provincial!) in Washington D.C. (metropolitan!). I'm a professional academic (metropolitan!) who teaches at Arkansas State University (provincial? yes, mostly) in Jonesboro, AR, a conservative town in a conservative state which, just recently, followed the leadership of city clergy (mostly Southern Baptist and Church of Christ) to make sure it stayed alcohol-free (provincial, provincial, provincial!). It would be easy to fall into the cliche about "liberal college professors" making a home in some unenlightened backwoods at this point, and crank out all the predictable horror stories which academics like to share with one another at conferences about students who fly Confederate flags or pray in the classroom or haven't ever shopped anywhere besides Wal-Mart or actually like Lee Greenwood's music or some other metropolitan horror....but as sympathetic as I am to much of that, I don't think that represents the real tangle of issues here. It's not just living a divided life; it's recognizing and dealing with the social and psychological reality of the divide in forming one's life. Jacob Levy, to his credit, acknowledges some of this, reflecting that "everyone should sometimes wonder whether their preferred political order mightn't rest on cultural foundations that aren't to their liking." My ability to live the sort of life I do, and defend the sort of society I want, may very well depend upon distinctions I'm uncomfortable with. For example: as a professor who grades my students on the basis of their ability to read, understand and appreciate Kant, I am imposing a profoundly elite standard, one that will be--I cannot deny--of almost no use to the overwhelming majority of those who come through my classrooms. All academics are elitists, of course, but I am an elitist in Arkansas, which has to mean something different than being an elitist in Cambridge, MA. Does that mean I should change the way I do things? Or that I should expect (in vain, no doubt) Arkansas to? Maybe this would be easier if I were simply a philosophical liberal; then I could just measure communities and find them wanting (namely, when they didn't share my enlightened liberal ideals). But I'm a communitarian, and so I have to take--and I want to take--this provincial community as every bit as necessary to my own personal world as the community of ideas I come up with in my head and share (at too great length, no doubt) with my peers and on this blog (and indeed, as Derbyshire allows, the provincial community is probably even more necessary).


This question of boundaries and expectations, of what compromises are necessary to ensure the survival of "metropolitan standards" or "provincial authenticity" in our ever-more interconnected world, is the defining question, the defining negotiation, of the modern (postmodern?) West. And I guess, even if I don't have any better answers, I just don't like it when anyone closes down that negotiation, even for the most prudent of reasons, because the reality itself still remains, continuing to fester. After his sympathetic assessment of what Derbyshire wrote, Levy still decided he had to make it clear that, of course, "it's simply indecent to even be in a broad-tent coalition with" some provincials (in this case, referring to some white kids in Georgia who decided to hold a whites-only prom). Though I don't know all the facts in this case, I basically agree with him. And yet....well, ok, they're indecent--what then? Rural Georgia is still there. These kids will still vote, still take jobs, still tune into talk radio, and a lot of them will still go college (maybe my university; maybe they'll take my class). We can say how they're beyond the pale, how backward, how limited we metropolitans are in our ability to enlighten them, and oh how we wish that other job (the one nearer to an IKEA and a Starbucks, dammit!) had worked out, etc., etc.--but that doesn't settle the issue of what to do when we live next door to one another. Derbyshire is going to be all right; he lives in New York City, and if he doesn't like the sort of "milk-and-water-conservative" bitch-slapping which started him off on the metropolitan conservative tangent in the first place, he just has to watch more carefully which dinner parties he goes to. That same option doesn't exist for most of us on the divide--and I suspect that all our efforts to resolve it (whether through the perfect set of arguments or finding the perfect job), until and unless something allows us to change the terms of the debate entirely, won't ultimately help us much either.