Friday, April 08, 2005

John Paul II, Authority, and the Left

Well, Pope John Paul II was buried this morning, so I suppose if I'm going to say anything about this pontiff I need to say it now. Not that much (perhaps too much) hasn't already been said, especially by people like myself who engage in political and moral theorizing. As Lee at Verbum Ipsum commented, everyone "want[s] to claim as renowned a personage as John Paul II as one of their own--as favoring their own particular political program." He provides some good links, and a causal search of the internet will turn up dozens, if not hundreds more. The liberal pope, the conservative pope, the pacifist pope, the anti-communist pope. E.J. Dionne put it well in The New Republic: JPII's personal sense of philosophical "consistency [did] not necessarily match that of the world that is judging him."

I think the one thing I've read about JPII this week that has helped me the most in putting his spiritual vision of the human person--a vision that mandated a defense of the weak and defenseless within a context of religious authority, family unity, sexual fidelity, political freedom, social justice and anti-materialism--into perspective has been my friend Damon Linker's short piece in TNR; for Damon, the Pope's central legacy was one of "absolutism." It is a valuable and good, perhaps even necessary thing, to hear an absolute call to particular moral standard; as Damon wrote, "after a century of mass murder, John Paul's unconditional defense of human dignity cannot fail to impress." But absolutisms "also distort our vision, obscuring the exceedingly complicated, even paradoxical, character of morality itself," leading to the possibility that those inspired by absolutes will (like some of those who called attention to themselves during the Schiavo case) reject the necessary steps of self-government in favor of more direct action. For some such as these, the "lawful course of action--the slow, difficult, and possibly futile task of persuading Florida voters and their representatives to change the laws of their state so that a similar situation would not arise in the future"--will be considered "simply unacceptable." And so, this Pope, to the extent that he saw no need to temper his absolutist religious convictions when involving himself or the body of doctrine he promulgated in political matters, represented another instance of the threat of moral fervor to democracy which liberals have rightly concerned themselves with for centuries. (And this is no idle concern; there were those who called for "extra-legal action...up to and including forcible resistance" in the case of Terri Schiavo.)

I liked Damon's piece, not because I fully agreed with it (I'm far more a populist, including a religious populist, than Damon), but because I think it clarified the issues so very well. Similarly to how another (much more harsh) questioning of a Catholic religious figure helped me appreciate that figure more fully: Christopher Hitchens's infamous diatribe against Mother Teresa. As I wrote a long time back, it's quite possible that all of Hitchens's allegations--that Mother Teresa took money from blackmailers and dictators and criminals, that she ignored the consequences of her own teachings in a monomaniacal quest to serve and save the poor in their own state (rather than working to improve their state), that she tolerated and even encouraged a cult of personality that saved her from criticism (and audits), etc., etc.--are completely true...and yet they still wouldn't add up to what he claimed they did. Why? Because Hitchens has mortal concerns, and "all mortal concerns are, by definition, incomplete. Holiness, by contrast, is wholeness. If one wholly adored God [as Mother Teresa plainly did], then the moral complications of discerning between what some deserve and others do not, of working out compromises when faced with hard moral choices, of deciding between just and unjust wars, indeed of all the necessary vicissitudes of ordinary life, would not trouble you one bit--and...that describes Mother Teresa's lack of care for the 'real world,' or 'the big picture,' or 'the long term' very, very well." Similarly, one may see (as I wrote in a more explicitly religious context) John Paul's absolutism as an expression of his prophetic stature, his determination to address the world and all its elements entirely and only through a prism of righteous doctrine and higher, holy laws.

Of course, the Pope, whether a prophet or not, nonetheless has a position of political influence in our world very different from Mother Teresa's, and thus perhaps can be faulted for not taking responsibility for his absolutisms, in a way that a Mother Teresa, explicitly concerned as she was with living out a consecrated life, ought not be. That's not a debate that can be easily settled, and I certainly don't think I can do so here and now; wiser minds than mine have struggled to work out the best accounts of how, and if, moral absolutism and religious populism ought to be accounted for in connection with the liberal prudence necessary for democratic self-government. But I do think something needs to be said about how the disavowal of absolutes, particularly the kind advocated by JPII, has done great damage to the left in the U.S., and beyond.

Think back to the Schiavo affair again for a moment. As I wrote a couple of weeks back, I was disturbed at the warped and lopsided "culture of life" rhetoric employed by many, perhaps, most of those who surrounded the Schindler family. But this wasn't the whole story. Towards the end, you saw an interesting collection of leftists and progressives showing up on the Schindlers' side of the barricades: Ralph Nader. Nate Hentoff. Even Rev. Jesse Jackson stopped by to pray. These guys are hardly reputable among liberals today, of course; Mark A.R. Kleiman lumped them together with a host of extreme conservatives and denounced them all as "dimwitted self-promoting busybodies." Now, I have my own tortuous history with Nader, and heaven knows that Jesse Jackson is little more than an ambulance-chaser these days. Still, the vehemence poured upon Nader's head for having taken this action is revealing--revealing not just of how much mainstream liberals today still loathe Nader for his actions in 2000, but also revealing of just how little connect there is between the presumptions he thinks to be necessary for social justice, and what most other liberals today assume. What most self-described progressives call "wingnuttery" is, in truth, a concern for authority--including, most crucially, the authority of certain principles as embedded in cultural presumptions. You don't, in the minds of these and other leftists, achieve progress solely through the legal establishment of a plurality of neutral spaces wherein one may (hopefully) achieve egalitarian improvement, though the prudential argument for the preservation of at least a little neutral space is strong. Nonetheless, it is insufficient; such a focus never addresses who actually holds power over and in the midst of those spaces. (In the case of Terri Schiavo: was it judges, or doctors, or a husband with unclear motives, or who?) What you need is an engagement with the whole culture, a popular demand for its conformity with justice as dictated by (you guessed it) absolutes, not merely the availability of free choice (as the law judged Terri Schiavo, via her husband Michael, to have chosen). This is part of the reason why Nader has never seen much importance in mobilizing people against traditional views on behalf of abortion rights or "gonadal politics." Is that "authoritarian"? Well, yes--insofar as one may speak of "working-class authoritarianism" as Christopher Lasch and others have. Or one could just call it "communitarian," in the sense of insisting that self-government rests primarily upon our attendance to communal values--which for many millions, means a "culture of life"--and not simply the private space we afford citizens in the choosing of such. Some suggest that certain Democrats are coming around to this position, meaning perhaps that the larger context (if not the specific content) of the arguments and actions that have alienated folks like Nader from the Democratic party as a whole is finally being recognized. If so, I'm delighted--and saddened that it has taken so long, because that exactly point was at the heart of Pope John Paul's critique all along.

Nader and JPII in the same sentence? I'm not sure how you can think otherwise, when one reads in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concern) about how the arms trade, global trade practices, and international debt are linked as "structures of sin," representing "modern forms of 'imperialism'" that are, in fact, "forms of idolatry: of money, ideology, class, technology." In that encyclical, he calls for not only for a more just distribution of resources, but a reconsideration of our whole approach to development, given that private property itself must be understood to function under a "social mortgage," one tied to its just and righteous use. Centesimus Annus is too frequently taken to be a post-Cold War vindication of certain right-wing readings of liberalism, and even those conservatives who take issue with this obvious misinterpretation tend to see the Pope's vision primarily in terms of "freedom." But if that is so, how to account for his explicit insistence upon the necessity of "educational and cultural work," including "the education of consumers in the responsible use of their power of choice," so that the principle of honest work may be connected with those "collective goods" necessary for righteous development? No, for this man, democracy and freedom were basically a means, important primarily because of what they make possible: the realization of a spiritual, meaning-full, non-materialistic culture, and that means a culture that never treats human beings as merely "material"--no matter if they are young or old, rich or poor, or for that matter, a condemned murderer, an enemy soldier, in a persistent vegetative state or even a fetus. For a great many conservatives in America today, a (unfortunately usually quite partial) attachment to these spiritual absolutes is common, but the ability to make it part of a socio-economic and cultural argument is lacking. Whereas for many committed to the old popular, social visions of justice on the left, such spirituality may be occasionally absent--but more importantly, the absolute cultural context is not.

A bunch of old friends and I have been talking about JPII this week; one of them, Matt Stannard--who, like me, thinks the way the "bourgeois parties" in the U.S. today talk about issues of life and death is an example of "moral myopia"--took me to task in an e-mail, challenging the way I apparently give a pass to authoritarian structures like that embodied by the Pope in order to respond to injustice. "The Pope's anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist messages emerged in a context of institutional power that made them next to useless," he wrote; "the Nazis hated capitalism and modernity too, remember. That didn't make them progressive. You cannot be truly egalitarian while simultaneously believing in (and in this case being the living embodiment of) spiritual hierarchy and patriarchy." And he is right that the argument I'm making here, for a left that is more "authoritarian" in a popular sense, engages in some easy equivocations. Just because egalitarianism includes both A and B, and X is both A and B, does not mean that X is egalitarian. Very probably, I'm reaching too far, and ignoring too much, in trying to sustain my argument about JPII (perhaps the paucity of spokespeople for the "left traditionalist" position has resulted in a kind of desperation on my part). Nonetheless, I do think that acknowledging the way in which a spiritually hierarchical and patriarchal power--even one whose own teachings cannot avoid the accusation of culpability, as is the case for this pontiff and the AIDS crisis in Africa, which his preaching against birth control, and hence condom use, did not cause but certainly exacerbated--can nonetheless incorporate or make possible a certain kind of progressivism in the midst of modern life is something which many on the left (which so often seems to be caught up in celebrating a kind of acultural, unembedded autonomy) need to do. If we agree that we need a comprehensive cultural vision, doesn't that mean we need to invest authority elsewhere besides in the liberty of the self-motivated individual, or at least partially so? And if so, can we really imagine an authentic, historically realized, cultural entity or movement capable of exercising such authority which simultaneously is without any kind of exclusions or hierarchy? I'm doubtful. This is not to excuse all the cultural forms that religions and traditions take--after all, the whole point is to be able to mount a larger, more comprehensive critique of the practices which reflect such principles. But it is to acknowledge that the best basis of progress is one which embeds certain absolutes--principles to progress towards--in a protected, even privileged cultural or institutional space. Martin Luther King would not have been nearly so successful in shaming America for its treatment of black people if the American polity was not so communally devoted to the promotion of certain moral virtues. And that is what JPII, and the culture of life he advocated, was at least in part about--the authoritative, even "absolutist," revealing or constructing of a principled culture that the peoples of the world could devote themselves to, and by so doing progress. As I see it, that's a big part of what being on the left has always, and must always, mean; if liberals have forgotten that, and JPII's example can serve as a reminder, then this is an argument worth making.

A related point: does this mean that Pope John Paul II, and the left I'd like to see, to whatever extent I'm right that aspects of their cultural message of dignity and equality overlap, are illiberal? Partly, yes, though both Ross Douthat and Richard Neuhaus are probably more correct to describe JPII's philosophy as demanding an ongoing critique of, and hence engagement with, Western modernity and liberalism. Still, I think Matt Yglesias's assessment of what being an "absolutist" means in a liberal environment is basically correct--I wouldn't go so far as to say that freedom is a complete non-starter for such thinkers, but it certainly isn't constitutive of much of an argument all on its own. (And he's similarly correct that "culture of life" absolutists need to see that primarily valuing the freedom to privately choose between a plurality of goods is not, in itself, a declaration of relativism--a conclusion which this pontiff quite explicitly did not affirm, in contrast to some of his more aggressively antimodern forebearers.) John Holbo adds a wrinkle to this analysis of absolutism: clearly, many an advocate of absolute principles don't necessarily deny the reality of others' divergent, even plural, principles, and hence the importance of the freedom which makes such possible. But, in the end, I suspect all that observation tells us is that there are, on the one hand, many a philosophical or habitual liberal for whom the witness of people like the Pope has induced an inchoate longing for absolute principle, and on the other hand, many an "absolutist" (of one stripe or another) for whom the liberal recognition of plurality is embraced as prudent; "adjectival" liberals, you might say. Such prudential yet absolutist engagement is, I think, an example of a leftism which has, to our loss, all but disappeared from American politics, occasionally resurrected today by folks on the margins of liberal politics but just as quickly dropping beneath the surface again. It needn't be that way, or at least so I wish. A Mother Teresa, or a leftist who aspires to non-political purity, can afford complete illiberality. But that wasn't, I think, the quality of this Pope's absolutist call, and that is a lesson for the left to learn. I wish I was confident it could.


Anonymous said...

Russell, this is a great little essay. And heaven knows that I would like to see the emergence of a Left that takes "culture of life" issues seriously.

That said, there does seem to be an ambiguity of sorts here - one that seems to me to be present in many forms of communitarianism (I take it that it would be fair to characterize your position as a broadly "communitarian" one?). That is, what often remains implicit is the issue of where the locus of authority is to be found.  

In other words, I feel like we need to come to grips with the question of whether, and to what extent, the nation-state as presently constituted can nourish and advance a genuine "common good." (Have you read MacIntyre's "Dependent Rational Animals"? He is convinced that the common good can only take root in small, localized communities). This is of course related to the issue of pluralism - in a country like the USA we're dealing with "communities" in the plural, which would seem to constrain the kind of moral consensus we could acheive on a national level.

For my part, I would characterize my political philosophy (if we could even dignify it with that term) as a kind of "chastened Augustinian liberalism." In other words, I take it that a state limited in its aspirations is a correlate of the fact that, for Christians at least, their deepest identity can never be constituted by a political community, and that the chief function of politics is to restrain vice before fostering virtue. Combine this with a Calvinist-Lutheran view of human depravity and the ever-present temptations of pride and the libido dominandi and I get pretty skittish about, e.g. Hillary Clinton or Tom DeLay as guardians of communal virtue.

I hope I'm not mischaracterizing anything you've written here. Really thought-provoking stuff. Keep it up. 

Posted by Lee

Anonymous said...

"What most self-described progressives call 'wingnuttery' is, in truth, a concern for authority"

For this moderate D, the difference between conservatism and wingnuttery is the difference between concern for authority and abasement before authority. The wingnuts are the ones who yearn to prostrate themselves before an authority figure, who demand that the rest of us do too, and who imagine that they partake of authority in some way as a result of those two exchanges. But as Teresa Nielsen Hayden has put it, "Just because you are on their side does not mean they are on yours."

There is a spectrum involved, of course. But the wingnuts are not the ones who have a concern for authority, they slaver for it, for the smallest taste of shared power, for the cheer for the man on the white horse, for the divine right of the king, for the entrenched autocrat, for the scion of inherited wealth. This is not a concern, it is something else entirely.

While we're casting about for absolutes in this thread, put me down for one: abandoning all of your judgement to a human leader is absolutely wrong. 

Posted by Doug