Bad Labels, or What's an "Authoritarian" to Do?
This morning Will Baude issued a mighty libertarian yawp, in which he pronounced a plague on both the "left" and the "right," and mournfully asked "what's a Libertarian to do?" "When I'm with liberal friends," he writes, "I'm conservative (most of the time). With conservative friends, I'm liberal. With moderates, I'm an extremist." His conclusion is that, while he is certainly capable to picking and choosing how to align himself politically on any given particular issue, when confronted with the whole conservative/liberal continuum, he rather just "abstain."
I can remember having a conversation some years ago with Christopher Duncan, of the University of Dayton, that ended in a complaint he and I shared which we expressed in almost exactly the same terms as Will's, except that the positions we discussed were, I suspect, near perfect opposites of his. Rather than economic "conservatism" bothering our "liberal" friends, it was our social conservatism. Rather than our social "liberalism" bothering our "conservative" friends, it was our economic liberalism. We were, in other words, Christian socialists, conservative communitarians, Reagan Democrats, progressive traditionalists, call us what you will. And we too wondered if it wouldn't just be easier to "abstain" from the political game.
Perhaps inspired by Will's rant, I wasted a bunch of time this morning trying to see if I could come across blogs written by self-described communitarians or culturally conservative social democrats. Besides Amitai Etzioni's always valuable website, I couldn't find anything, though perhaps I was looking in the wrong places. Basically, I find perspectives that agree with my own piecemeal. (Traditionalist religious attacks on modernity? Try Paul Cella. Social justice oriented attacks on the unregulated market? Try Amy Sullivan.) And I suppose that shouldn't be surprising: whenever I take one of those innumerable internet political quizzes, I always end up in the "Authoritarian" quandrant, and am told that I idealize Vladimir Lenin. When the very idea of constructing and conserving a just and moral society through collective action has dropped almost entirely out of public discourse, and anyone who attempts to resurrect such gets labeled a totalitarian, what else should I expect?
I suppose "conservatism" is most to blame for this; as John Holbo wrote just today (hey, maybe a lot of people are thinking about all this...), there is perhaps no crazier presumption out there than the "conservative" one which holds that the statement "economic laissez faire is good" and the statement "cultural laissez faire is bad" are compatible. I wish more people would think about this perfectly obvious point. Or rather, since many people (partisans of all stripes, mostly) do, in fact, think and talk about it a lot (usually with the aim of exposing politically useful faultlines and inconsistencies in whatever group or ideology they oppose), I should say that I wish more people were willing to think about how we should rework our political labels, groupings, ideological clusters and so forth, and then act upon those thoughts. Of course, I suppose a comment like that shortchanges libertarians like Will, who have been trying to pull together this sort of rethinking for years. But on the opposite, communitarian side of things, little headway has been made, or even attempted. 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. I'm afraid you probably won't have much luck.
Thursday, September 25, 2003
Bad Labels, or What's an "Authoritarian" to Do?
Tuesday, September 23, 2003
Jacob hasn't responded to my posts on community and exploitation yet, but no doubt he'll get around to them eventually. (He promised, after all.) But he has responded at length, and very insightfully I think, to various other critics of his TNR piece. Jacob is a sharp thinker, and his defenses are worth considering. I especially like his retort to those who believe that the various communal policies he describes (or at least some of them) couldn't be exploitive, because they are in the individual interest of each of (or at least most of) the disparate members of the community. Jacob calls that what it is: nonsense. Once you employ individual benefit-measurements as the reductive criteria to be used to justify any collective act, you long longer get to elide any particular individual concern with that act, because acknowledging the individual who feels exploited has become part of the whole justificatory scheme in the first place. As Jacob put it: "If our concern is with persons taken one at a time, then we can't slip from benefits to the community as a whole to the conclusion that the provision of the policy isn't exploitative of those who bear its costs. The policies may be justifiable; indeed, I think that one can't have a politics wholly free of utilitarian calculations that override the separateness of persons...sometimes unfairly concentrating net costs on some people. But we shouldn't pretend that those persons have actually benefitted, individually, and that the approach that's been taken toward their interest has been paternalistic rather than exploitative." Hopefully, there will be more from Jacob soon.
Meanwhile, if you still want to know more about the continuing saga of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, be sure to check these two wonderful posts from Gregg Easterbrook.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 9/23/2003 11:05:00 AM
Thursday, September 18, 2003
Jacob's challenging TNR essay has given rise to a lot more commentary in the blogosphere than just my own response yesterday. Most, however, seem disinclined to actually tangle with the important issue(s) he raises. I suppose partly this is simply because liberal bloggers really don't think it's worth the effort to examine their own arguments (which I agree with, I should note) against those who apparently oppose an equitable and progressive tax structure, and contemplate how those they disagree with might actually be invoking a line of thought which they otherwise have some sympathy with. For instance, Kevin Drum reminds us that the only real liberal argument against the "tax the poor" meme has nothing to do with who is trying to build social solidarity where, and has everything do with the fact that "the poor already pay a lot of taxes" and that "the Wall Street Journal is completely full of shit." I'm not sure how Jacob will respond to that, but I'm sure it'll be worth reading.
Regarding my particular take on his argument, I await Jacob's response. In the meantime, a question from Nate Oman makes me think I need to try to clarify something I said further. Nate writes that, he is "at a loss...as to how one is to make sense of [my] statement that 'the shared community itself would be the means and the ends.' Surely what is needed is an argument about why the particular unpleasantness a person suffers is particularlly justified. Put another way, we need an argument that explains why a person properly should be used as a means to this particular end. However, I don't see that denying the existence of this ends-means trade off by reifying the community gets us much of anywhere." His comment is, I suppose, a properly liberal one (philosophically speaking) to make: as Nate sees it, all I did was state that, sometimes, the ends-means "trade off" doesn't (or at least needn't) exist, and thus we shouldn't assume that every policy aimed to secure social ends must be burdened with the "bad conscience" of "exploitation." If you require, as Nate does, a particular argument as to why, in any given context, any particular person is "justified" in being "used," then you have already, as I said about Jacob, assumed that the justification-requiring individual, the individual who is or may be about to be used by some other agent or individual, is always already a presence in every context, and that anything which doesn't acknowledge this fact is "reifying the community." I think I could just as well ask how we ended up "reifying the individual," but that just produces an ontological stand-off (which may end up at anyway, but still...). So let me, instead, try to be particular.
In my response, I talked about the draft and/or national service. What is the end of such a program? In extreme cases, the survival of the community (nation, polity, whatever). In less extreme cases, its civic health, its level of public engagement, its sense of social solidarity and mutual support. In every case, these are collective goals: the community is the end in mind. How can these goals be achieved? Singular individual actions, even heroic ones involving great sacrifice, won't do it (though they are, of course, to be celebrated). Neither will money do it (though that, of course, will probably also be necessary). The only thing that can do it is people, putting their bodies, their time, their talents, their interests on the line (sometimes literally). In other words, equal and collective action is the only plausible means towards this end. Hence, when it comes to participating in a sufficiently collective project like a universal draft, the means by which the draft operates is also the ends to which the draft is addressed. Now, there are many other "collective" policies--say, a community's tax policies. As I wrote before, assuming that the community in mind isn't a Hutterite or Amish or 19th-century Mormon-style agrarian/communal society, you're probably going to be talking about a market-based economy which has produced varying levels of wealth. What is the end of tax policies? To provide for the educational, health, environmental and defense needs of the community. Can equal, collective action serve those ends? No, because we aren't talking about a context in which everyone is equally available to teach everyone else's kids, oversee everyone else's workplaces, etc. So governments take on the job, meaning they hire people to do it, meaning they need money. And since not everyone has the same amount of money, not everyone is going to be able or should be expected to contribute equally (depending, of course, on the degree to which you may or may not embrace various theories of economic justice, etc.). Hence, this particular context demands an entirely different kind of "collective project," one in which no amount of reification can ever entirely paper over the particular consequences of the means and ends.
I recognize and agree with some of the ways in which philosophical liberals point out the special dangers which come from "reifying community," dangers which individualism is supposed to take care of (and admittedly, often does). But I'm uncomfortable with arguments which suggest, even if only implicitly (which is the case with Jacob's piece), that this "reification" is always problematic, and can never truly be a solution to the "costs" of political life on its own terms. I guess my response to Nate would be: the problem with asking for particular arguments to justify "using" individuals for particular ends is that, in some particular situations, there aren't any, or at least needn't or shouldn't be any, "users" or "used." For example: as I'm not a communist, I don't believe we should deny or ignore individual reality when it comes to questions of taxation or economic policy--it would be stupid to pretend some aren't being "picked out" for different uses than others in pursuit of social economic ends. But not all policies depend upon individual tax bills. Some depend upon different kinds of efforts, more "embodied" collective efforts shall we say, and in those cases, strictly speaking, "individual reality" is neither the most accurate, not the most responsible, way to talk about what is being aimed for, and what is being done.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 9/18/2003 11:04:00 AM
Wednesday, September 17, 2003
Does Community Always Exploit?
Jacob T. Levy, whom I've disagreed with before regarding community service, has come up with another, very subtle, very smart anti-communitarian argument in his latest TNR column, which takes up the "tax the poor" accusation which has enjoyed a long life in Democratic circles, and shows how the otherwise disturbingly regressive notion that the poor need to contribute "equally" to the financing of the nation actually falls in line with a host of other claims about making burdens "equal" across society and not allowing any group to opt out of such, all in the name of preserving communal solidarity. I suppose calling it an "anti-communitarian argument" isn't quite fair; after all, Jacob's column simply aims to reveal a consistent (as he puts it) "communitarian and social democratic" line of thinking, rather than to rebut said thinking. In fact, he even allows that claims made along these lines are "the universal price of political life" and "sometimes....unavoidable." But the way he frames the argument he (very insightfully) clarifies plainly reflects his basic (perhaps Kantian?) libertarian disposition--and hence, casts all sorts of efforts to draw collective boundaries into the same general category: namely, as efforts that always "involve an element of exploitation." I can't really disagree with the way he works out the overall line of thought; it's that final categorizing which I disagree with.
The basic conceit behind the Wall Street Journal's original complaint with the unequal distribution of tax burdens in our country--in other words, with the degree to which our income tax is fairly progressive rather than otherwise--was that, as more and more people disappear from the tax rolls, through exemptions and whatnot, the fewer people there are whose blood will "boil with tax rage," and hence fewer people willing to press for tax reform and smaller government. It's a smart, though crazy, claim: we want to lower our taxes, and in a democracy that means we need to call into existence the popular pressure to lower taxes, and so to keep that pressure to lower taxes strong, we shouldn't lower taxes (at least, not any more than we already have, and certainly not on the sort of rabble that are likely to make popular demands in the first place). The point Jacob draws out of it, however, is its similarity to an argument he heard made on the left during Steve Forbes's 1996 primary campaign: that a flat tax with a very high personal exemption (which Forbes proposed) would bump so many middle and low-income people from the income-tax rolls that the of sense of obligation to support government services would significantly disappear from those classes of people. Social solidarity and the poor's sense of shared belonging would thus diminish. Leaving aside the possibility that such a tax arrangement (or indeed, any progressive tax structure) might actually be presented in terms of extending and building solidarity (i.e., by constructing connections and a sense of dependency and obligation between social classes) rather than as an escape from it, Jacob comes up with other examples of the left demanding social unity at the expense of individual preferences or situations (like poverty): discussing a revival of the draft (everyone needs to be equally threatened with the possibility of war if we are to truly develop a consensus about its costs), opposing to school vouchers (everyone needs to experience our--often lousy--public schools, so that those who are not financially or socially able to pursue a life beyond them can rub shoulders with those who can), and, of course, stamping down any attempt to make Social Security means-tested, or otherwise even remotely less than a universal insurance program.
These are all excellent examples (I particularly liked Jacob's trenchant comments on the left's frequent opposition to home schooling, charter schools, and other sorts of school choice arrangements, as I find myself frequently divided on these topics). But do they really add up to the same thing? Or more relevantly for his overall point, do they all necessarily involve the sort of "exploitation" which the "tax the poor" argument does? Jacob thinks so: "The 18-year-old conscript killed in a war he opposed in order to discourage politicians from starting wars, the child kept in a failing school in order to persuade her parents to support a better public school system, and the professional coerced into a low- or negative-return Social Security system in order to keep the entire system politically viable...the working-class parent whose taxes are kept high in order to expand support for tax cuts. As individuals, each would be better off if allowed to opt out. But, in each case, that individual's welfare is subordinated to the collective goal. 'We're all in the same boat,' runs the political message of shared citizenship. But the policy imperative is to keep us all there, chained to our oars if necessary."
But Jacob is wrong in thinking that all of these individuals are similarly being "used." He is treating huge differences in kind--differences that can be well-elaborated philosophically and sociologically--as mere variations on a single, collectivist impulse. His use of "exploitation" as a way to communicate the commonality between all these collective enterprises masks the legitimate communitarian difference between enlisting individuals in program where both means and ends can be expressed in terms of wholes, and enlisting individuals in schemes which, by their nature, cannot be (and should not be) wholly equalized. Take the draft for instance, since generally speaking I favor it and Jacob doesn't. What is happening when someone is drafted, and sent to fight in a war? Is it really a matter of an individual (who might well "get killed in a war he opposed") being subject to a task appointed by some other agency? But that would assume that there are individual actors or forces who are outside the collective, reaching into and subjecting some portion of it to tasks that "they" have decided are necessary to everyone's survival. In other words, it assumes that there is kind of an antagonism from the get-go; that those who make war and those who decide on war are already distinct somehow, and that if one makes the other conform to their wishes then one is a "user" and the other is being "used." But the whole point of a universal draft would be to eliminate such distinctions. If everyone (roughly speaking) has to perform national service, then there is a shared experience that eliminates (or, at least, one would hope, minimizes) the antagonism which Jacob's model assumes to always be present. By being part of a fully shared world, the burdens of that world are no longer understood as that which one could "opt out of" and still, in fact, be in the shared world. To reply to fully shared burdens by saying "I'm being picked on!" means you have already reduced all your fellow citizens to mere potential pickers. Am I saying that if the draft existed on the level I am describing it that no individual would ever feel herself abused by it? That those who suffer losses in some collective project wouldn't ever assess those losses in terms of individual costs (time, money, opportunity, life)? Of course not--solidarity is never (and shouldn't ever be imagined to be) the same as uniformity. But it would mean that fighting in a war, even dying in a war, couldn't be described in terms of "exploitation." Achieving the goal of "partiotism" or "social consensus" (not to mention "national survival") could not then be fairly described as an individual being used as a means, being subjected to a collective end. Rather, the shared community itself would be the means and the ends.
Obviously, this a communitarian ideal, and I'm under no illusion that it can be called into exist just any place, overnight. And yes, I realize that I'm not distinguishing between communities here. But that fact that something seems implausible or wouldn't always be morally defensible does not mean that its operation must therefore be filed under the "exploitation" banner along with all sorts of other anti-individualist policies. My point is simply to argue against Jacob's way of framing the issue, which is very insightful, but which also overreaches. Thus, to address his specific examples: so long as one's community is anything besides a, perhaps, Amish-style argarian one, there will be economic differences and inequities which will divide the community, and thus require certain levels of "picking" in order to achieve certain collective goals (equal opportunity, economic justice, etc.). A strategy to equalize burdens which, from the standpoint of such goals, should not be strictly equalized, simply for the sake of engendering rage against the system as a whole, can certainly be called "exploitive." Regarding the public school system, I'm open to possibility that defending it in terms of "developing civic identity" or such, at least as it currently stands, might also be fairly labeled "exploitive." (I think that there are a few, relatively simple--though admittedly costly, in terms of both dollars and the careers of bureaucrats committed to what I see as skewed forms of both localism and centralization in public school arrangements--that could go a great distance towards creating a more equitable and thus more legitimately "socially-justified" school system, but that's another post, and leads us into all sorts of questions about what a community can make shared, and what it cannot.) I strongly doubt Social Security deserves that label however, and I know national service doesn't.
It's a great little essay, wonderfully succinct, built around an important insight, and made even better by his concluding comment that the "final thing to notice about this kind of reasoning is that some form of it is common to virtually all political philosophies." That is certainly true. But I just don't like how he assumes that, therefore, all political philosophies (but of course, especially communitarian ones) should "always be [enacted] with a bit of bad conscience." That we should always be aware of how politics can go wrong in communities is certainly true. I doubt, however, that it follows that every form of boundary-drawing and identity-building necessary implicates us in a sense that we are violating someone's essential interests. There is the possibility that (some) wholes are actually greater than (some) parts, after all.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 9/17/2003 12:49:00 PM
Tuesday, September 16, 2003
Krugman on the Coming "Train Wreck"
I'm not an economist, and I don't pretend to be one, as much as I may talk about globalization, trade, and related issues with my friends. I filter just about all the economic news I read through my own preferred philosophical lenses (communitarianism, etc.), and extract and discard nuggets of information accordingly. Hence, reading a straightforward take-down of this or that economic policy, or set of policies, is difficult for me; I look for some sort of handhold, and often come up wanting. But that's no reason (I tell myself) to ignore the message; if there's an economic train wreck coming, I ought to get informed about it, whether or not I have anything to say in response. In that spirit, everyone should read this interview with Paul Krugman conducted by Kevin Drum. I've no strong opinions on either Krugman or his analysis of the Bush administration's policies (though I'm sympathetic to Krugman's description of a recent vote in Alabama as a "catastrophe"). But when someone says, plausibly, that we're looking at a situation in which America will be so under-financed (because of irresponsible tax cuts and the impossibility of cutting entitlement programs) that we turn into an Argentina (i.e., the value of U.S. Treasury bills collapse and international funds dry up, resulting in hyper-inflation), with the sort of income disparity which characterized the McKinley era to boot, well....agree with it or not, that's the sort of thing you shouldn't ignore. So read it, and think.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 9/16/2003 11:31:00 AM
Thursday, September 11, 2003
Christianity and "Establishment" in the South
In a wonderful, long, passionate, rambling post which dives headfirst into the South's terrible and perplexing history, Amanda Butler clarifies where she was coming from in the post I cited earlier on the relevance of "establishment" thinking when we discuss what kind of communities we want to have, and what we think communities can offer to all our attempts to live good lives. She writes that she is a "staunch supporter of the First Amendment, to be precise. However, I don't think the First precludes religion as a motivator, or talking about how one's religion is grounds for an idea. The personal is the political when the personal delves into questions relevant to the community; so too the religious is also the political. Whether the Republic or the Bible, I'm always interested in what drives people and I think it makes them more understandable." At the risk of once again putting words into Amanda's mouth, what she is saying is that our ontology should not be excluded from our thinking about our polities (a truism I am constantly amazed to find intelligent people either denying or ignoring). But which ontology should we think about--are they all equal? She doesn't say; but then, she doesn't need to: wrestling with the problem of moral pluralism isn't the object of her post. But she does add: "Before I come off as entirely dependent on the situation....I will say this: I trust Christianity, rationally-applied (ie, gather the attractive spirit, not the plausible exhortation to personal propertyless communal living, unless one has the strength of conviction of the Shakers). I like it as an influence, causing my lawgivers to question the morality of their actions and compelling my citizens to be concerned about their community, properly channeled through the constitutional means by which we express what we think." I couldn't agree more.
Amanda's post is also worth going through for the sake of appreciating her Robert Penn Warren-inspired reflections on the "state of the South today"--that is, the South as a particular place, with a particular religious history and therefore a (potentially) particular moral voice. Of course the same can be said, perhaps, of other regions of the United States (no one familiar with American history can avoid the importance and consequences of the unique religious/civic "establishment" vision which New England Congregationalists and other descendents of Puritans embodied throughout the nineteenth century, whether in regards to abolition, prohibition, suffrage movements, or any number of other movements). But at the present moment, with the rise of Southern Christian conservatives to political power through the Republican party over the last couple of decades, it is regarding the South where reflections on the power--for good or ill--of "establishment," as well as considerations of its constitutionality, are most important. And wonderfully, Amanda provides some of both:
"It was religious motivation that led to the Texas sodomy law. It was religious motivation that wasn't strong enough in Alabama to pass Gov. Riley's tax reform. Dangerous stuff. Ineffective motive. But to truly live religiously is to live an examined life (and here I guess, for to my sometimes-regret, I am not myself religious, but simply respectful of those who are). Sin. Guilt. Powerful motivators, they are. Why, because they might somewhat resemble a stick, should they be distrusted? The Eighth Amendment allows for plenty of motivators that aren't carrots. The flip side to sin and guilt is, after all, a feeling of having done good, of having fulfilled a mandate. And the religious life, the one that prompts a person to look at himself and the life he leads, will at least lead a person to ask the proper questions. His answers may be quite different from mine -- Texas's sodomy law, for the over-cited quick example -- but it at least can be seen as a bold attempt to make a community better, even if I think it has adverse effects."
As always, read the whole thing. Anyone who quotes from Warren's All the King's Men, especially its tour de force opening paragraph, is all right in my book.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 9/11/2003 10:10:00 AM
Wednesday, September 10, 2003
Regarding the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Nicholas Kristoff, perhaps unsurprisingly, has come out in favor of a compromise (drill, but only as part of a comprehensive energy plan). Thankfully, he generously allows that "it's also only fair to give special weight to the views of the only people who live in the coastal plain: the Inupiat Eskimos, who overwhelmingly favor drilling." But he still concludes with "the argument that I find most compelling...that this primordial wilderness, a part of our national inheritance that is roughly the same as it was a thousand years ago, would be irretrievably lost if we drilled." I can understand the aesthetic longing to leave alone something which has been left alone for thousands of years--but unfortunately, wouldn't leaving it alone require that people like Kristof never go there, so as to rhapsodize about thrilling experience of being somewhere where no one is? Someone, this sort of enviromental ethic fails to persuade me.
Also, regarding Alabama Governor Bob Riley's attempt to raise taxes, a campaign he grounded at least partly on the Christian obligation to lessen the burdens on the poor: it went down in a serious defeat. But before we forget about this attempt to recover Christianity's communitarian imperatives, Gregg Easterbrook asks the right question about media treatment of Riley's campaign. Worth pondering.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 9/10/2003 12:36:00 PM
The comic strip, at its best, is a minor wonder of modern American life; though not wholly an American creation, and not necessarily confined to the United States of America, fine comic strips--funny, sharp, whimsical, bitter, and sometimes even wise--are arguably as thoroughly American a contribution to world culture as jazz. Of course, like most such contributions, comic strips go through ups and downs, and the newspaper comic page has been down now for quite a while. Which is a just a long-winded way of welcoming back Berkeley Breathed, the creator of Bloom County (and Outland, though that one wasn't nearly as successful) to the comic world. Opus the penguin is definitely back--and hopefully, so will the rest of the gang, in particular--as the Washington Post put it--"his hairball-spitting sidekick, Bill the Cat." The Sunday-only strip won't begin until November 23, but already I can't wait. For millions of us who were teen-agers in the early to mid-1980s, Breathed's stupendously wacky skewering of sacred cows left and right were an essential part of our political education (perhaps second only to David Letterman's late night run on NBC)--as well as a way to get into the art and satire of the comics page in general. Breathed commented recently that "it was painful to sit through the war without a public voice." And a loss for us too. I'm glad to hear that loss won't continue much longer.
Incidentally, check out this interview with Breathed from a couple of years back. Despite deprecating himself as "just scampering nude through the aisles [of the comics page] before anybody could kick me out," he shows himself as one who really understands the achievement of the American comic page, and a sharp insight into what makes it tick--and sometimes, tick very well. On Doonesbury: "Garry Trudeau was our greatest satirist in the second half of the century." On the brilliant, lamented Calvin and Hobbes: "[It] was the real thing....Crazy ol' Bill Watterson created the purest comic strip, after Peanuts, probably. Or before Peanuts became a shadow. Bless him for quitting at the top. It's not easy." And what of the canonical Peanuts itself? "Sparky Schulz never owned the Peanuts characters. Technically, they could have fired him and hired college kids to do the strip. Maybe they did, for those last 20 years. Good ol' Sparky. He was our Elvis, in his prime." As they say, read the whole thing.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 9/10/2003 09:11:00 AM
Tuesday, September 09, 2003
Thoughts on "Establishment"
Most Americans have no interest in or affection for anything smacking of "religious establishment." Religious belief is either a negative, in which it's best kept private (like all superstitions), or it's best kept very clearly separate from the state, so as to avoid political complications. Even those who very explicitly endorse a stronger role for religious values and perspectives in the public square rarely speak fondly joint religious-civic establishments, though they quickly point out extreme interpretations of the establishment clause which push too far in the other direction. Still, you sometimes find, when people's guards are down, a willingness to reflect on the virtues which come from living in communities that are, shall we say, somewhat more religiously and morally "settled" than otherwise. Amada Butler of Crescat Sententia did that (perhaps unknowingly) recently, when she wrote about a graduate of her high school, one Bobby Jindal, who is running for governor of Louisiana, and who is quite open about "defending the role of faith and values" in his state. Whereas Jacob Levy, who knew Jindal at Brown University, writes that "any credible candidate for governor of Louisiana is going to have views that I don't find particularly palatable," Amada allows that: "At the end of the day...I don't think Mr. Jindal will really wreck anything with his faith-and-values program, and I sometimes like the atmosphere of a state that's more actively religious than areligious if it's not acting like a whited sepulcher (I'm not sure I can articulate these reasons, but they do stretch deeper than my grumblings that you can't find decent Friday seafood specials during Lent in Chicago)."
That hardly an embrace of religious establishment, but it is a very open-minded acknowledgment that the very idea of religious-civic partnerships aren't all or always bad. As she said, there is something to an "actively religious" atmosphere; and I agree, that something isn't easy to articulate. But here's something from Stanley Hauerwas that I think comes close:
"Theological questions were not high on our agenda as we toured Ireland in 1988. We drove innocently into Sneem, a village on the ring of Kerry....We decided to stop and shop at one of the stores selling Irish sweaters. We were enjoying the large and beautiful selection the shop offered when, suddenly, the young man who seemed to be the proprietor announced that he had to close shop in order to go to Mass. It was eleven o'clock on a Thursday....He explained that it was the feast of the Ascension and also the traditional day marked for first communion. Suddenly little boys and girls appeared from everywhere fitted with white suits and white dresses. Then they all marched together into the church for Mass. After Mass, we were told, they all came out of the church, circled the fountain at the center of the square, while everyone in town cheered and clapped. This was confirmed in every little town we passed through that day in west Ireland. Little girls and boys dressed in white were everywhere celebrating their first communion....I could not suppress the thought: 'If this is Constantinianism, I rather like it.'" (From In Good Company: The Church as Polis, pg. 19-20)
An actively religious atmosphere is one in which daily life takes for granted that there is more to life than daily life: there is stuff which came before (history, culture, language, faith), and there is stuff which will come after (take your pick, depending on your theology). That atmosphere depends upon personal, private belief of course; to promote "faith and values" where none exist clearly falls into what Amada rightly called the "whited sepulcher" category. But on the other hand, "faith and values" alone cannot create the kind of atmosphere whereby some things can be substantively cherised and protected. Amanda notes that she can't find good deals on seafood on Fridays during Lent in Chicago, and that's part of the point of course: for a community to hold, through whatever means, on to a particular atmosphere means there will be limits on the type and availability of the air one breathes, metaphorically speaking. To extend the metaphor, many people find any and all such limits stifling. But not all people do: as Amanda also wrote, her desire for that atmosphere is greater than her frustration with its limits. She might dislike my discovering of elements of "establishment" in her comments. I'm sure she wouldn't--and I definitely don't--want to come off as a defender of theocracy here. Still, it's important to prevent the usefulness of talking and thinking about "establishing" faith and values to be wholly lost. There is something to be said for Constantinianism, or as Bobby Jindal puts it, in much more ordinary language, "religion [should not be] an exclusively private matter, and people of faith should not be required to separate their faith from their daily lives, their professions, or from public discourse." Wise words, even if you wouldn't vote for the man.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 9/09/2003 12:11:00 PM
A lot of people are doing it; I am too. Some of it is, perhaps, predictably American short-term carping; but whether justified or not, my feelings about the Bush administration's actions in Iraq, once relatively positive (in an early-2003, nonimperialist, liberal interventionist sort of way), are going through a serious re-evaluation. And the cause is not, I think, primarily or even significantly events on the ground in Iraq (i.e., the collapse of the WMD concern, the struggles with internal conflict, etc.); rather, the main motivation behind my rethinking is the Bush administration's way of responding to those events.
More than a year ago, Joshua Micah Marshall described the Bush administration decisionmaking process as something along the lines of "inarticulacy meets screwball meets Machiavellian genius." (Wish I could find the link.) Whatever he exactly said (and of course, he's made this same point again and again), I think it has proved prophetic. There genuinely appears to be a really deep incompetence, muteness, blindness, ignorance, call-it-what-you-will, in this administration, as well as profound stubbornness: an absolute refusal to admit any of the above. (The latter quality probably shouldn't be surprising; any group of people who aspire to the White House are almost inevitably going to possessed of a certain level of arrogance/condescension: witness the Clinton administration paralyzing disbelief in their own constant, low-level dishonesty. "You put those files there." "No we didn't.") But brilliantly, or horrifyingly (or both), Bush & Co. seem to also have the talent for taking advantage of all the flailing around which surrounds their actions, and pushing through even further action. In other words, while everyone--including people close to the president--is desperately trying to understand what in the world is going on in Iraq, Bush and his key people decide to do something (maybe consist with what they were doing before, maybe not, it doesn't really matter) in Iraq. I don't know how else to describe this except, as the above quote presents it, as exploitation: an exploitation of American patriotism and resolve following 9/11, an exploitation of a military establishment which supported the president and now finds itself in a situation of profound murkiness and danger, and (least in importance, but not negligible) an exploitation of the convictions of liberal hawks like myself, who saw the war in Iraq as a potentially principled act which could, among other things, make certain that the (I still think imperative) role of liberal nations in countering wicked tyrannies, combating terrorism and constructing international norms would remain a presence in our increasingly globalized world.
Exploitation is undemocratic. To be exploited is to be manipulated by someone cannot truly respond to or interact with, for ends unknown or unclear to oneself. Now, broadly understood, "exploitation" needn't necessarily be an evil (in the same way, strictly speaking, not all "propaganda" is bad): if I was being used, manipulated, "exploited," by God--as who is to say that I'm not, in every way and every day?--or, failing that, by a set of Platonic philosopher-kings, it's possible (depending on how you think about the relationship between freedom and truth) that I wouldn't have much to complain about (the same way I, arguably, couldn't complain about propaganda if the ideas being drilled into my head are "good" for me). But leaving aside that moral debate, it is, I believe, uncontestable that to be exploited by one's elected leaders is a democratic wrong, a crime against the modern notion of democratic citizenship. I'm not an absolute democrat, by any means. But the more I read and think about events in Iraq, the more important the Bush administration's apparent messing with our (and others') heads looms in my feelings. I still believe that the decision to invade Iraq was justifiable; I still believe that a great many of the arguments made by Bush (and the liberals who went along with him) regarding Iraq hold water, the WMD issue notwithstanding. But, as I mentioned before, I am increasingly coming to think that the decision wasn't, as Matt S. put it, sufficient: that is, the argument for war, which was solid on its own terms, did not in fact fully address all the variables of the situation (some of which were known, and were pointed out by anti-war critics; some of which were not). What is pressing the most on me at this time, however, is the sense that the Bush administration, caught (at least partially) unawares by these same variables, is crudely building the policy's insufficiency back into the original argument, adapting the imperatives which led to the original decision so they appear only strengthened by present results. ("Invading Iraq has increased terrorism in Iraq? Well, of course it has! That's why it's called the 'war on terror.' Get it?")
I'm still processing all this, as are many others. Here's some quotes from four people who supported the Iraq war. For the first two of them, the primary reaction to Bush's latest speech is a kind of grudging wonder at what he's pulled off. For the other two, the exploitive actions of the Bush administration result in an unexpected fury. All are worth reading. Right now I'm leaning more and more towards the latter two, but then, I always have a terrible time making up my mind about these things.
From Jonathan Rauch:
"I don't believe the Bush administration went to war in Iraq on a 'neoconservative' mission to reorder the whole Arab world, although it certainly hoped for favorable side effects. I think the administration went to war because it believed that leaving Saddam and his sons in power for another 10 or 20 or 30 years -- with the U.S.-led containment effort already in tatters -- would be untenable and irresponsible. I think the administration believed that with 9/11 memories fading and a presidential election coming up, the chance to get rid of Saddam might never come again. So the administration took the chance. In Iraq, what was a war of choice has now become a postwar of necessity. The jihadis filtering into Iraq perceive this even if some Americans do not. If the United States succeeds in proving that there is a liberal, moderate alternative to both the Baath Party and militant Islamism, the Islamists' false choice is exposed. The establishment of a reasonably competent, honest, and stable government in Iraq would be a staggering blow to the appeal of political Islam worldwide. From the Islamists' point of view, this is a life-or-death struggle. America must fail in Iraq...From the jihadis' point of view, a victory over America in Iraq -- meaning the Americans go home without having managed to set up a viable, moderate government -- would be a twofer. American prestige and power would be wounded, and the false choice between Islamism and corrupt secular tyranny would be confirmed. 'You see?' the Islamists would say. 'It really is just us or the devil. The Americans won't stay and can't win.'...Remember what we learned two years ago this Thursday. The other side is not going to go away and leave us alone. If the world's 200 million or more Arab Muslims are not given hope, they will lash out in fear."
From Andrew Sullivan:
"What else did President Bush mean when he challenged the terror-masters to 'bring 'em on,' in Iraq? Those are not the words of a man seeking merely to pacify a country, but to continue waging war against terrorism....Opportunity knocks. Last week, Paul Wolfowitz...in with a piece in the Wall Street Journal, specifically cit[ed] the occupation of Iraq as a central part of the war against terror. 'Even before the bombing of the U.N. headquarters, if you'd asked Gen. Mattis and his Marines,' Wolfowitz wrote, 'there was no question in their minds that the battle they wage - the battle to secure the peace in Iraq - is now the central battle in the war on terrorism.'...[Hence] the reason the Bush administration went to the U.N. last week to seek more troops from foreign countries for peace-keeping and security purposes was...not merely an admission that they had goofed in estimating the number of troops required to pacify the country. It was a move designed to liberate the U.S. military machine from peace-keeping in order to concentrate on war-making - against the terror network they had come to destroy. Listen to U.S. Army Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq. He just opined on CNN that attacks against U.S. forces have increased in 'sophistication, especially in the improvised explosive devices that they are using, and we're working to learn from that and to be able to counter them.' He went on, critically: 'This is what I would call a terrorist magnet, where America, being present here in Iraq, creates a target of opportunity... But this is exactly where we want to fight them. ...This will prevent the American people from having to go through their attacks back in the United States.' You won't find a better description of the 'flytrap' strategy anywhere - or from a more authoritative source."
From Will Saletan:
"Bush wants us to support his postwar Iraq policy as reflexively as we supported the war on al-Qaida in Afghanistan. That's why he delivered this speech just before the anniversary of 9/11....How was our action in Iraq part of the campaign against terrorism? The old argument, which Bush repeated Sunday, was that Saddam 'sponsored terrorism.' But again, Bush offered no evidence that Saddam had done so in a way different from Iran, Syria, or even Saudi Arabia. Instead, Bush argued that regardless of whether terrorists in Iraq were at war with us two years ago, they are today....[Furthermore] Bush argued that ousting Arab tyrants is inherently necessary to the war on terror....Think for a minute about what these two arguments entail. The first justifies any war in which, as a result of our actions, terrorists attack our troops. Imagine an invasion of Cuba, whose dictator has long rankled Bush and would be easier to topple than Saddam was. No doubt al-Qaida and other terrorist groups would send agents to try to kill the occupying troops. Bush could then defend the occupation as part of the 'war on terror.' The second argument is equally fraught with implications. Yes, tyranny breeds terrorism. But if the 'war on terror' requires us to overthrow tyrants just because they're tyrants, we'll be at war for the rest of your life....To justify this burden, Bush tells us it's still about 9/11. He tells us terrorists are trying to 'inflict harm on Americans' to make us 'run from a challenge' in Iraq. He tells us we must be 'resolute in our own defense.' He tells us we must 'spend what is necessary to achieve this essential victory in the war on terror.' He conflates enemies. He spins circular logic. He appeals to our pride. He continues to misrepresent the terrorist connections on the basis of which he justified the Iraq invasion, and he expands the definition of the 'war on terror' so that Iraq can be crammed into it anyway, along with dozens of other countries. Two years after 9/11, he has so thoroughly twisted the meaning of what happened that day that, in effect, he has forgotten what it was."
From Timothy Burke:
"I can accept a skeptic who wearily, resignedly argues that because the President represents the United States and because he’s committed us as he has in Iraq, we have no choice but to look for the best possible long-term resolution of that commitment. I can accept someone who reminds me that there were many people whose motives for supporting the war before it began were well-intentioned, reasonable or potentially legitimate. I continue to feel, as many do, that unseating Saddam Hussein is something that anyone ought to recognize as a positive good. I can even accept that there are many within the Bush Administration who may have had good intentions or reasonable opinions in promoting an attack on Iraq. [But] I am not prepared to cut any slack to anyone who thinks that supporting the current policy as it has been shaped by the President and his advisors is sensible, effective or ethical....The fundamental strategic idea of the war in Iraq, when the dust of the initial campaign settled, turned out to be a kind of 21st Century Maginot Line, plopping a bunch of US troops down in an exposed situation and daring every possible organization and group to take a shot at them, while also leaving endless space for geopolitical end runs around the fortress....In many cases, considerable good is coming from their efforts. Iraq may yet emerge as a freer, better, more hopeful society, and the Iraqis will be able to thank the United States if that happens. But whatever is happening in Iraq that is good...its final state will mean almost nothing in determining whether terrorism becomes an even more potent global force: it will only determine whether one nation and one people live better or worse than they did before 2003. In contrast, the manner and style with which this war was prosecuted in the first place encouraged and empowered terrorists, and the necessary long occupation that now must ensue—for I acknowledge that we can’t just pack up and leave, that milk is spilt—has given terrorists an easy target and enormous ideological capital all around the world....This is either a war against terror, fought in the wrong place, in the wrong way, by the wrong leadership, or it is a wider war against tyranny and for democracy, fought without even the faintest clue of what to do next by a leadership that barely understands or believes in democracy themselves."
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 9/09/2003 11:25:00 AM
Friday, September 05, 2003
Monty Python in the Classroom
Classes started up in earnest for me this week (school began the week before Labor Day, but since I was off to the APSA convention in Philadelphia for a few days that week, I just set them to reading some material and planned to get down business after the holiday). I'm teaching Classical and Medieval Political Theory this semester, and once again I found the opportunity to do one of my favorite things: employ Monty Python sketches as part of my teaching. In this case, I used a scene from The Life of Brian to get my students thinking about how big a gap exists between their default modern individualist perspective (in terms of rights, dignity, identity, and so forth), and the decided absence of most any sort of individualist conception in the ancient world. You can probably guess the scene:
FOLLOWERS: Brian! Brian! Brian!...
BRIAN: Good morning.
FOLLOWERS: A blessing! A blessing! A blessing!...
BRIAN: No. No, please! Please! Please listen. I've got one or two things to say.
FOLLOWERS: Tell us. Tell us both of them.
BRIAN: Look. You've got it all wrong. You don't need to follow me. You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves. You're all individuals!
FOLLOWERS: Yes, we're all individuals!
BRIAN: You're all different!
FOLLOWERS: Yes, we are all different!
DENNIS: I'm not.
(Look here for a bunch of Monty Python sound clips, including some of the above.)
It's good for a laugh, and it works pretty well. I've used other Monty Python bits in other classes. For instance, perhaps predictably, when I teach Modern Political Theory, and I need to show how massive a change it was in European history, when the individualist ethos finally began to emerge and truly challenge traditional, holistic hierarchies, I turn to:
ARTHUR: I am your king!
WOMAN: Well, I didn't vote for you.
ARTHUR: You don't vote for kings.
WOMAN: Well, how did you become King, then?
ARTHUR: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king!
DENNIS: Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
ARTHUR: Be quiet!
DENNIS: Well, but you can't expect to wield supreme executive power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!
ARTHUR: Shut up!
DENNIS: I mean, if I went 'round saying I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away!
ARTHUR: Shut up, will you? Shut up!
DENNIS: Ah, now we see the violence inherent in the system.
I've experimented with other Monty Python bits besides these two, with a fair amount of success. It's perfectly reasonable, if you think about it. I mean, how much more appropriate to a class in political philosophy could a comedy troupe be, than the one which brought us The Philosopher's Drinking Song, or--my favorite--the International Philosophie Football Final?
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 9/05/2003 09:32:00 AM
Thursday, September 04, 2003
Herder, Language Philosophy, and Language Rights
I hope that Scott Marten won't find the new group blog he has joined, A Fistful of Euros, absorbing all his time, since I would miss all the fascinating material he has produced on his blog Pedantry--and none more so than the sort of thought which has been on display in his recent series of long rambling posts on language, culture and political theory. (I'm skipping the one where he applies his ideas about group identity and rights to affirmative action.) He got started writing on these issues in response the recent publication of an excellent set of essays on language and politics, Language Rights and Political Theory, a collection I am using in a class I'm teaching on identity and nationality this semester. His reviews of the essays in that book led him in the direction of fleshing out what--in his view--is, and isn't, sufficiently unique about language as to warrant a departure from our (as Westerners) default setting of thinking in terms of liberal, individualist rights. He doesn't go the same route as many sociolinguists who have developed an "intrinsic" attachment to linguistic diversity, arguing that multilingualism is beautiful in itself and/or part of the necessarily pluralistic order of the world, but neither does he make the "liberal communitarian" move (most famously associated with Will Kymlicka) that linguistic/cultural groups need "rights" and protection because they are a necessary instrument to individual choice (that is, individuals will not be able to construct their own personally fulfilling lives if they don't have cultural groupings they can draw from). On the contrary, Marten makes the interesting argument (which I hope I understand correctly), drawing on his own extensive experience with language education and translation, that the best way to think about language politically is in terms of "self-development." The idea here is that language does not only have "instrumental value as a tool of cognition, its structure and categories also reflect the other tools accessible to its speakers." In other words, in order for human beings to develop, not just in terms of identity but also capability, languages must be available to them. This means that a certain territoriality principle must hold: if a people in a fully-developed society speak a language which is being surrounded and/or undermined by the growth of another language group, then that language can and should receive (at times aggressive) political support within its defined area, since otherwise its ability to allow and encourage personal growth and development (through higher education, the absorption of new ideas and terms, etc.) will atrophy in the face of alternative language use. But it also means that, however much historical injustice might be associated with the passing of any given language, its preservation cannot be defended through some simple territorial integrity (i.e., "this is the way we've always spoken around here!"). If a language, in relation to the times, is simply no longer one in which full development is possible, then foisting it upon a people through political action is pointless and harmful. In other words, while he defends territorial language policies, he insists they must be narrowly tailored, and never tied to anything like essential identity. He comes to a kind of conclusion be writing: "We cannot prevent cultures from changing and adapting to the circumstances of life and we should not want to. Sometimes, cultural and linguistic preservation projects have to start with people reclaiming their past, but it is a doomed effort if they can't adapt what they find to the present. It is crucially important to develop cultural tools which people can identify as their own and which serve them now."
There is far more in Scott's truly impressive posts to fully work out on a blog. The best I can do is make the comment that his very productive relfections of this issue suffer, unfortunately, from the common tendency to dismiss too quickly the possibility that defending the "intrinsic" or essential value of a language for a defined people (thus providing a certain grounding for territorially based language policies, whether monolingual or multilingual) could be done by way of the operation of language in human community life itself. The easy way of making this claim, of course, is to say that different languages = wholly different people; that when you speak one way (say like an Eskimo speaking about snow), you're grounding yourself in psychological universe that is completely incommensurate with that of others. Scott calls this "vulgar Whofism," after the old Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which had it that the words one used wholly defined one's ability to think about a given topic. Scott rejects that kind of linguistic determinism, and thus is able to conceive of a language as serving (not "conditioning") the development choices and needs of a given person or group of people. But there is far, far more to the language-thought dynamic than is included in Whorf's (relatively easily refuted) hypothesis. For instance, consider the arguments made by Johann Gottfried Herder (the best available translation of his philosophical writings on language are included in this volume by Michael Forster). Herder approached language theologically, as the key element in a wholly natural process by which divine powers were aesthetically revealed and instantiated into human communities. But you don't have to accept his political theology--that God has given man, through the sensate world, moral resources that may be linguistically appropriated and made historical--to appreciate his argument about how our (cultural) thinking is tied essentially to our language. Michael Forster, in a separate essay on Herder, writes that:
"[Herder's] doctrine denies that meanings or concepts are to be equated with the sorts of items, in principle autonomous of language, with which most of the philosophical tradition has equated them--for example, the objects to which they refer, Platonic "forms," or the "ideas" favored by the British empiricists and others--and equates them instead with usages of words....[This doctrine] provides the basis for a much more satisfactory justification of explanation of [Herder's other claim] that thought is essentially dependent upon and bounded by a thinkers capacity for linguistic expression....The argument is simple but compelling: Intuitively enough, thought is of its very nature conceptually articulated, articulated in terms of meanings. But now, if concepts or meanins just are usages of words, and grasping concepts or meanings hence is just being competent in usages of words, thought's essential dependency on and boundedness by linguistic competence...[is] both established and explained. Herder gives this argument in several places...[such as when he writes]: 'What exactly is the connection between language and mode of thought? Whoever surveys the whole scope of a language surveys a field of thoughts and whoever learns to express himself with exactness precisely thereby gathers for himself a treasure of determinate concepts. The first words that we mumble are the most important foundation stones of the understanding.'" (From "Herder's Philosophy of Language, Interpretation, and Translation: Three Fundamental Principles," The Review of Metaphysics 56 (December 2002), 341, 347.)
Forster goes on to show the parallels between Herder's ideas here and those of the later Wittgenstein, especially in terms of attacking the claim the phenomenon of human meaning is dependent not upon words but upon the somehow entirely pre-linguistic-yet-still-conscious determination of referents. Charles Taylor has also, in some of his writings, made a Herderian/Wittgensteinian attack on modern (overwhelmingly instrumental) epistemology central to his political project: namely, defending the idea that there might be something, if not necessarily essential in the traditional metaphysical sense, than at least teleological (directed, intended, meant) in every expressed (and therefore invariably if not consistently territorial) community. Exactly what the implications of this philosophical possibility are for political arguments over language rights is hardly obvious, of course. But at least it provides yet another potential path of thinking about these matters, one that both respects and deepens the philosophical quandaries of language--quandaries that I believe Scott does a much better job acknowledging than just about anyone in the Language Rights book does, and yet which even he has only scratched the surface of.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 9/04/2003 12:03:00 PM
Wednesday, September 03, 2003
Nature without People (People Like Us, That Is)
On Tuesday, Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times about his intention to spend several days in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and thus do what the overwhelming majority of people who argue either for or against drilling for oil in the Refuge never do--actually visit the place. This will, Kristoff hopes, give us a "grizzly-eye" view of what life is like there, as well as help him make up his own mind about this issue. While I've no idea what Kristoff will end up favoring (opposing any drilling in the Refuge is no longer the liberal litmus test it once was), what he's written so far is revealing.
Consider the very first sentence, in which he describes the Refuge as North America's "last great wilderness virtually untouched by humans other than Eskimos and Indians." Maybe that's just a simple bit of journalistic flourish; after all, for the average reader of the NYT, who likely has never met an Eskimo or an Indian, it's just as well to say that the Refuge is, essentially, an entirely uninhabited place. But think about that a little bit more, and keep it in mind as you go through his essay. The land is described as "awesome," "harsh," "inhospitable"; the fact that it dwarfs what we usually take to mean modern civilization thrills Kristof. "There is something deeply moving about backpacking through land where humans are interlopers and bears are kings," he writes.
But the thing is, humans aren't "interlopers" there. As Kristof himself admits, human beings (except that they are, I guess, just "Eskimos and Indians," and so don't really count) actually live there--and they want the drilling to take place. He writes, "most of the Eskimos who actually live in the refuge favor drilling. They want better schools, better jobs and more comfortable lives, and most believe that oil drilling is the way to achieve that. Some resent the idea that American environmentalists 5,000 miles away want to lock them forever in a quaint wilderness, just for the psychic value of knowing that it is there."
"The psychic value that it is there"--true enough, but not the whole story. What we really have here is an affection for a land which is there but is inaccessible. That is, the valuation of a space which cannot, in fact, be made into a source of value for any actually existing people. Bill McKibben, in an old essay in Atlantic Monthly, called these kind of vistas "eco-porn": a rhapsodic, Ansel-Adams-type vision of unsullied nature, and by "unsullied" I mean "untouched by human beings who aspire to modern lives." The Indians and the Eskimos remain, of course, insofar as they stay "one with nature" and do not interrupt the vision. The crucial point is that the land must remain ever the same, and that can only be achieved by protecting it from "interlopers." (Except of course for certain people--like Kristof, perhaps: the wealthy and enlightened, who can swoop in and take beautiful photographs and feel the rapture and then swoop out again.) If the Indians and Eskimos actually want drilling...well then, by this line of reasoning they've been contaminated by other "interlopers" (the oil cartel!), and aren't really part of the vision anymore, even though they unfortunately still actually live there.
McKibben is hardly weak on environmental issues--he is one of the most intense environmentalist writers I've ever encountered. But as much as he might praise the writings of other fans of isolated, inhospitable and uninhabited nature like Terry Tempest Williamsand Edward Abbey, his thinking is more in line with people like Wendell Berry, who have long known and argued that human beings--working, making, producing, progressing human beings--are every bit as much a part of the "environment" as grizzly bears. He has argued that environmental preservation must work up from and within the local, the inhabited, the mixed places of the world. This is hardly an endorsement of drilling in ANWR; it is, rather, simply to point out that the more common liberal arguments against drilling (the inherent value of the land's awesomeness, remoteness, etc.) oblige us to accept an environmental philosophy which has the tendency to leave real people out of the equation--especially, as it often turns out, people who don't have access to (or time for) high-end nature-watching.
There are other, more local, more human, arguments against drilling. Kristof writes: "But just south of the refuge, the Gwich'in Indians want to keep the refuge as it is. 'Everybody here is against drilling,' said Marjorie John, the storekeeper in Arctic Village, a Gwich'in hamlet of 120 people. 'We want to protect the caribou calving ground. Those caribou are part of our culture. They are our culture.'" That's a real argument, an environmental argument which begins with the understanding that nature is always "sullied" by human cultures, just as our cultures are always confronted by and must adapt to nature. The better environmental thinkers would begin their defense of ANWR with the Gwich'in people, not with visions of beautiful (and safely remote) bears. Perhaps the environmental establishment has a hard time with that approach because it has sources of compromise (between different native factions and cultures) and change (as technologies and opportunities evolve) built into it, which runs against the idea of nature staying permanently locked away (except, of course, for those who know how to do and can afford to do tourism in the right, enlightened way). Maybe I'm just crouchy because, as I've confessed, we're probably not ever going to be able to be quite so enlightened in our tourist encounters with the natural world and the people who make their homes there. But then again, it just may be that the average Indian inhabitant of ANWR might have more in common with your average tourist than with Kristof.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 9/03/2003 07:06:00 AM
Tuesday, September 02, 2003
Dorothy Day has gone away...
For those of you who don't know, Dorothy Day was a modern-day saint; a devout Christian who came from a life of hedonism in the 1920s to an embrace of the ritual, orthodoxy, and--perhaps most importantly--the social justice and pacifist strains of the Roman Catholic faith. She inspired millions through her example and her magazine, The Catholic Worker. (Read a nice essay reflecting on her life and faith here.) And unfortunately, outside the rare, brave, very occasional Christian, her committed devotion to both social morality and economic justice is not often seen in America today, where the most common political/ideological division is between those who favor a libertarianism of morals, and those who applaud a libertarianism of markets: the possibility of common concern informing both sides of civil society is, at best, a marginal view.
But from the margins emerges Alabama's brave governor, Bob Riley. A former hard-line anti-tax Republican, who won praises from anti-government conservatives during his tenure in the House of Representatives, Riley has seen the Alabama economy for what it is and come to two conclusions: it is insolvent, and it is unjust. Striving to rectify those problems, he has proposed a wide-ranging reform which would shift the state's tax burden away from individuals (including the desperately poor: Alamaba's state income tax currently kicks in when earns a meager $4600 a year), and increase property taxes as necessary to rectify education injustices. No single reform plan is a cure-all obviously, but Riley has done an amazing job in crafting this proposal (among other things, he managed to get Alabama's teachers union to agree to some necessary reforms in tenure in exchange for the increased funds). And he has done all this in the name of the gospel: "Jesus says one of our missions is to take care of the least among us," he states simply, as an explanation for his actions. It deserves wide support, and in a better world would receive it.
Unfortunately, this is not such a world. Rather, instead what we see is conservative Christians, used to supporting Republicans, thrown into confusion and distrust by one of their own actually making the argument that Christianity requires aggressive action to address the plight of the poor; and on the other hand, the remnants of America's last true social justice movement--that is, Martin Luther King's civil rights coalition--ignoring this vital Christian effort on behalf of the poor because, one fears, it is being expressed by a conservative Republican rather than a member of the Democratic civil rights establishment. Between the uphill battle Riley must fight to keep his natural allies on his side, and the lack of support from those who would likely agree with his message were it not for his party affiliation, the odds of Riley's proposal passing the upcoming referendum don't look good. Too bad we don't have a Dorothy Day around, to remind the people of Alabama--and everyone else--that the Christian message isn't divided: on the contrary, the one side will never fully work without the other.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 9/02/2003 12:16:00 PM