Monday, June 20, 2005

Off to the Heimat

Yes, the homeland beckons. Melissa and the girls and I will be leaving tomorrow for a two week stay in Washington state, culminating in a big family reunion in Spokane over the 4th of July weekend. It's my parents' 40th wedding anniversary this summer--technically not until August, but the holiday weekend was the only time the schedules of all nine children, eight spouses, one fiancee, and 29 living grandchildren overlapped, so that's when we're doing it. Should be fun; certainly the girls are looking forward to it, as it's a chance to spend time with cousins they see very rarely, if ever. I may blog about one or two things, if the time and inclination to do so coincide, but otherwise, I'll be back in July. Enjoy the rest of June!

I've Been Memed...

...and to think that just this morning, as I was walking to the post office to pick up my mail, I was thinking that, for better or worse, the lengthy (long-winded? yes, that too...) way in which I blog makes this an unlikely site for a lot of comments, or for the passing of memes. And then what do I find this morning? The latest book meme making the rounds, with my name on it! Well, when Laura calls, one must answer, so here goes...

"Five books I liked enough as a teen/young adult to read again as an adult"? I weighed in briefly on the meme when it was brought up at Crooked Timber; like Laura says, we geeky bloggers overlap in lots of ways. My list would have to include all the usual suspects: J.R.R. Tolkien, Douglas Adams, etc. I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings for the first time when I was, perhaps, 11 years old, and have reread them both who knows how many times since. I discovered the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as a Boy Scout when someone left behind an old battered paperback copy after a campout; I took it home, stayed up past midnight reading it, laughing myself hoarse. Many of the books I'd have to mention have already been picked up on by others: Richard Adams's Watership Down, Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, Berkeley Breathed's Bloom County (any collection would do). So let me see if I can bring some fresh possibilities to the meme:

1) Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Short Stories (comes in two volumes)--I'm not sure exactly when I went into my Sherlock Holmes phase; age 14, perhaps? Anyway, for some reason or another I decided I needed to go to source of all this Sherlock Holmes stuff, and am I glad I did: Doyle may have despised his most popular literary character, but that didn't prevent him from creating an absolutely entrancing milieu, and from managing to come up with (perhaps every other story or so) genuinely brilliant, thrilling plots. I've been re-reading these in conjunction with the Jeremy Brett BBC series, which we finally have on DVD, and most of them continue to entertain.

2) Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Watchmen--the touchstones of all serious comic enthusiasts during the 1980s. The former I picked up as individual comics during their second printing in 1986; the second I grabbed at comics fair the following year. I was coming towards the end of my time as a fan of the comic book; by the time I left for college in 1987, I'd cancelled all my subscriptions and was weaning myself away from the comic shop. But these two, in the years that followed, would still be hauled out of their storage box on occasion and re-read, just to experience their graphic power, both humorous and horrifying, all over again.

3) James Thomas Flexner's Washington: The Indispensable Man--along with Laura and Dan Drezner, I think the limitation of this meme to fiction is wrong-headed: non-fiction can captivate and expand the mind as well. So let me add this old book, which I in fact never did re-read, but only because, by the time I left home, I managed to replace it with all four volumes of Flexner's original biography of Washington, of which the above book is an abridgment. Washington remains my favorite American hero; I admire more than I can say (without for a moment wishing to share it) the raw, yet aristocratic, yet also pious, will that made him, from his youth to his declining years, fully aware of just what kind of role his country and fellow citizens needed him and wanted him to play, and what kind of work and control would be necessary to make it possible for him to pull that role off. One doesn't have to be passionate about American history, or be sympathetic to heroic or "great man" readings of such, to recognize that Flexner captured here a portrait of one of history's few, self-consciously necessary human beings. Great stuff.

4) Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers--I was never particularly into "hard" sci-fi, so I'm not sure exactly how it was that I ended up reading this when I was, who knows, 12 years old. I loved it. Years later, I picked it up and re-read it; still loved it. And the interesting thing is, in the meantime, my interpretation of the book, and the reasons why I enjoyed it, went through about a 180-degree turn. I enjoyed it as a child because I was caught up in the gadgetry, the martial ethos, the sober and serious grunt work of defending a planet; now, I enjoy it as a hilariously poker-faced glimpse of a desperate, quasi-fascist, weirdly asexual military worldview. One of the measures of truly good work of fiction is whether you find yourself understanding a protagonist's point of view despite it's obvious shortcomings. For me, at least, Heinlein passes that test (which he surely didn't intend!) in flying colors.

5) Sterling North's Rascal and Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting--in a way, these are both pastoral fantasies, stories about nature and time, though their approaches to such are radically different. I read them both when I was very young, probably not even 10 years old, and I still adore them. I grew up on a farm, milked cows, and often went walking through fields and forests in eastern Washington state while growing up. The idea of finding a baby raccoon, or a hidden magical spring, and then struggling (a struggle that could be either humorous or dangerous or both) with that discovery might mean, and ultimately having to give it up, somehow nestled deep in my heart. And I still love raccoons, even when they do get into the garbage.

If they haven't done it already, I hereby pass the meme on to John Holbo and Belle Waring, Hugo Schwyzer, Noah Millman, Chris Lawrence, Peter Levine (I'd try Matt Yglesias too, but he's still technically a "young adult" himself, I think). And, of course, my wife, Melissa Madsen Fox, if she has the time...

Saturday, June 18, 2005

At Last, A Knight

Melissa and I just got back from watching Batman Begins. Oh man--what a fine and rousing adventure movie! Unless the idea of costumed bad guys and good guys fighting each other and running cars over one another just turns you off completely, go see it immediately--it's sharply plotted, intelligently acted, and thrillingly put together. The backstory never plods, the big set pieces are lightened by humor and unexpected narrative twists, and the characterization and themes consistently build throughout. I didn't even think Katie Holmes was that much of a drag. It's not the best super-hero movie I've ever seen period--that would be Unbreakable, though of course that film doesn't play by the usual comic book rules (or rather, it plays exactly by those rules, but the first time you saw it you didn't realize it was doing so until the very final moment). I'm not sure it's the best "traditional" super-hero movie I've ever seen either; it makes me want to re-watch Spider-Man 2, which set the bar very high. But without doubt, it's the best super-hero "origin" film I've yet seen.

And that just shows a lot intelligence on the part of David Goyer, Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, and everyone else involved in constructing this film and its main character. More than any other of the great classical comic book characters, Batman was always the one for whom the matter of origins weighed most heavily. Superman is a Great White God from outer space; he lands in the Heartland, is raised decent and good, and serves justice and the American Way because he can and should. Spider-Man's origin is far richer, psychologically speaking, and makes for a great and moral story, but central to it is an element of happenstance and whimsy (a radioactive spider? a pointless, random crime? Peter Parker, local pencil-necked geek, climbing walls?). But for Batman, the driven and transformed Bruce Wayne, you can't understand the obsessive willfulness, the brute intentionality of the character, unless you work through the origin step by every painful step. He's not born to responsibility and heroism (Superman), he doesn't have it thrust upon him in a manner both burdensome and liberating (Spider-Man), he makes it. How could he do that to himself? (Which is both a "why" question and, quite literally, a technical "how" one.)

This movie gives us a consistent take on Batman as a symbol pulled from a crucible of hate, fear, and aristocratic noblesse oblige. That last is a very important if subtle addition to the film's characterization of Bruce Wayne; there is always a slight undercurrent of "how dare he!" to both Bruce Wayne's assessment of his foes as well as his assessment of his own failures and fears. The film smartly presents Bruce's father as manifesting just the slightest touch of condescension towards the little people (even the criminals!) around him, making more reasonable Bruce's revulsion at himself for not being everything that he needs to be, for being like ordinary people. (This also lends a lot of understated pathos to his conflict with the League of Shadows; they aren't just a bunch of pretentious bad guys, but rather folks on Bruce's level, whom he can see himself alongside and whom, therefore, feel some genuine anger at the fact that Bruce refuses to be on their side.) Not that it's a fabulous study of class politics or anything, but there were enough little touches--Gary Oldham's Jim Gordon, so ordinary that we see him taking out the garbage; Tom Wilkinson's Carmine Falcone, a thug who knows he's a thug and lets it show--to make it clear that this isn't some accident: some real thought went into trying to tell a story about a multibillionaire becoming a caped crusader in a divided, corrupt, poverty-stricken city. A lot of people have played around with the label "dark knight" so long attached to Batman, but I've rarely seen that sense of fate and tragic necessity presented so well.

Anyway, enough of that stuff. The way they explain and present the Scarecrow is fantastically good, the fight scenes are brutal and exciting, the Batmobile is a brilliant creation, and the fate of Wayne Manor was, for me, a total surprise that made perfect narrative sense. I loved the film's treatment of characters from the comic book, both old and new--Lucius Fox, Joe Chill, Detective Flass. The costume is great; the gadgets are fabulous. If you've read Frank Miller's Batman: Year One, you'll get to see on screen the totally cool climax to the S.W.A.T. team seige from chapter 3. And, of course, you have Michael Caine's Alfred knitting the whole thing tightly together. This was the one film I was more anxious for this summer than any other, and it doesn't disappoint.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Giving Communities, in Theory and Practice

Okay, absolutely just one last Milbank-related post.

Months ago, I said I was going to review Gar Alperovitz's wonderful and incisive book, America Beyond Capitalism. I still haven't, obviously, though maybe I still will one of these days. Alperovitz's work is important because he insists that a thorough response to poverty, inequality, and the ways such both sustains and is caused by neoliberal globalization, cannot simply be restricted to the economic: the way in which we practice politics, constitute communities, and value work has to be re-assessed if any kind of egalitarianism is going to survive, much less flourish. And so he turns away from the usual nostrums of liberal egalitarianism and redistribution, and talks about the production and nature of wealth. He examines of a "pluralist commonwealth," wherein smaller, locally empowering cooperative businesses can make a niche for themselves and their workers in the midst of global competition. He calls his program "Twenty-First-Century Populism," and that's an accurate title, but of course it's also much more than that.

To encounter an argument focused upon the democratization of wealth, the challenge of technological abundance, and the need to break up de facto private monopolies of what ought to be publicly owned and managed resources and industries, is to assume that you're reading some kind of socialist argument; the fact that the title of the book containing this argument assumes a movement "beyond capitalism" would seem further evidence of this fact. And Alperovitz very tentatively allows for this label, though next to nothing about Marx or any other socialist thinker appears anywhere in the text. Quoting Ebenezer Howard, Alperovitz suggests that the kind of "socialism" he has mind simply means "a condition of life in which the well-being of the community is safeguarded, and in which the collective spirit is manifested by a wide extension of the area of municipal effort." This language has almost nothing in common with John Milbank's--except, of course, that they are talking about, in practice, exactly the same thing: the establishment of socio-economic arrangements which allow polities to become fully empowering of the individuals they shelter, by taking the natural gift-giving, wealth-building efforts of individuals and making them central to a participatory social and economic work that presumes a common good, a moral point, to their own communities and ways of life.

I was reminded of Alperovitz's work when I received an e-mail from a new website, Community Wealth.Org. Peter Levine, a thoughtful scholar and blogger (and someone that ought to be read regularly by anybody interested in deliberative democracy and egalitarian economic reforms) is one of those responsible for putting the site together, and thereby making available a lot of valuable information about how in America and abroad participatory principles of community work and wealth-creation are making a difference in people's lives. Alperovitz is also one of the contributors to the site. Levine's particular interest is in finding alternatives to "the standard business corporation," which of course are (to bring Milbank in again) one of the primary obstacles to individuals being able to orient their economic activities along lines other than those dictated by interests larger, removed from and more powerful than their own communities. He summarizes:

One of the biggest weaknesses of democracy today is the mobility of capital. As Alperovitz notes . . . . a corporation can influence political decisions in multiple ways, including the "implicit or explicit threat of withdrawing its plants, equipment, and jobs from specific locations." Besides, "in the absence of an alternative, the economy as a whole depends on the viability and success of its most important economic actor--a reality that commonly forces citizen and politician alike to respond to corporate demands." If there is no alternative to the standard corporation, then democracies really must do what firms want. Trying to restrict capital flows simply violates the laws of the market and will impose steep costs. In the market we have, it is not corrupt when democracies favor corporations; it's just realistic. However, Alperovitz and his colleagues are showing that there is an alternative to the corporation. It's possible to increase the wealth of people in poor communities by creating economically efficient organizations that are tied to places.

"Tied to places"--I like that, a lot. Obviously, given my interests and training, my focus is and probably always will be much more on the various philosophical and theological arguments and ideas which situate theories such as these. But it's good to be reminded, after writing a couple of lengthy posts on ontological matters, that one can point to actual, viable political reforms and actions which can be understood as flowing from such, rather than having to (as political theorists often must) weakly assume that such possibilities must be out there, somewhere.

More Milbank

Jim Faulconer's "experiment in blog discussion" regarding John Milbank's essay may not be everyone's cup of tea--it has prompted many heavy, lengthy responses, not the least of which have been my own contributions. Anyone interested criticisms of Milbank's ruminations on Christianity, sin, socialism, and politics will find plenty over there. But, just to amend my previous post, I wanted to add a couple of comments relevant to the discussion about Milbank and "theological politics" in general, both over there and elsewhere.

1) One theme that has regularly emerged from that discussion is what Milbank, and any other advocate of a system of gift-giving, one grounded in a "constantly renegotiated and agreed upon standards concerning the human common good," as a replacement for the liberal marketplace, has to say about "pluralism." According to some readings, Milbank cannot help but be demanding a shrinking of human liberty and diversity; it is the marketplace and the neutral public sphere alone--in short, the social order advocated by John Stuart Mill--which have the ability to manage the full modern diversity of exchanges and desires without a stunting of human growth. Anything more teleological than that--and Milbank's careful "vox populi, vox Dei" justification of democracy certainly qualifies!--involves a sacrifice of plurality. This is a complicated issue, not one easily resolved outside of an ontological consideration of the presumptions involved. To hearken back to my hermeneutics post, what seems to be central to this matter is how we account for the individual, and the argument over whether modern plurality has fundamentally collapsed, or merely complicated, the ability of the individual self to discern a truthful, believable moment in their history and community. Isaiah Berlin famously argued that such belief--the ability to assume unifying descriptions and political policies such as a "human common good"--requires the prior assumption that society is like an organism, growing in such a way that can be discerned and worked with (by those "gardeners" in the know, presumably). Milbank, with his talk about aristocratic and monarchial elements necessarily balancing out the democratic, certainly seems subject to this accusation. Yet for my part, it seems foolish to believe that the Christian faith is merely "speculative," something with only private and individual application since it cannot (or should not be allowed to) amount to a fully public, progressive claim. Thank God such people as Martin Luther King didn't believe that! (Regarding whom, see this provocative review of a wonderful recent book by Charles Marsh, as well as this discussion over at Cliopatria, to get some insight about how civil rights movement was, but also wasn't, example of radically Milbankian "theological politics.")

Of course it may be that the liberal order itself, even the neutral marketplace of goods and ideas, is itself a religious achievement, and so criticizing it for failing to put the pluralism it allows for in the context of an always-sought-for, always-improved-upon, always-revised "architectonic" truth, would be to only undermine the necessary truth that is already there. I think this is a rather "sectarian" interpretation of religious providence, one that assumes a complete disjunction between the revelatory background of human (and particularly Christian) speech and experience, and human history itself. (For Mormons and other restorationist Christians, it's obvious how debates over the "apostasy" come into play here.) That being said, Milbank's utter contempt for modernity is too great, and I shouldn't allow my enthusiasm for much of what he says to blind me to that. The open field of individual action provided by liberalism is by no means wholly occupied by socio-economic and political forces inimical to Christian truth. People like Milbank (and myself, when I get my radical dander up) need to by reminded that while the ontology of other careful Christian critics of liberal modernity like Charles Taylor and Oliver O'Donovan is particularly chastened, their politics are. Of course, there is a fine line to walk here, between treating a polity's necessarily prudent struggle to articulate (and reform itself socially, culturally and economically so it can better attend to) higher truths as a meaningful enterprise in itself, or treating such as ultimately just a strategy to keep citizens virtuous or in line (depending on whether you prefer Tocqueville or Foucault). Challenges like Milbank's help keep, I think, Christians on the right side of that line.

2) Clark Goble, a superb thinker and blogger, makes some criticisms of Milbank's project that land very close to home as well, just as much as the matter of pluralism: that of epistemology. He writes:

Milbank misses the very reason why the Enlightenment happened. It is fine and good to say that there is a "transcendent" truth that ought to guide us. But in practice none of us know it....If we replace exchange of goods by gifts, have we really accomplished anything? How are we to maintain the other-looking focus of a gift in opposition to the self-looking focus of purchase and exchange? Isn't the gift doomed to be supplanted by the counterfeit of the exchange? We can hold a hope that it won't, but once again, how epistemologically do we judge the presentation of the other? Is it a gift or a purchase price?...In effect all of Milbank's desires depend upon a consensus that is absent from the history of mankind. It is this recognition that ushered in the Enlightenment and provided its success. Now if the Enlightenment errs by providing too much power to the individual instead of the community bound by transcendence, it does so only because there is no other choice. As the saying go, no one says it is a great system, only that it is the best system. The problem with transcendence of the sort Milbank desires, is that there is no way to reach agreement upon what it means in a fashion that doesn't presuppose agreement. No way to discern the charitable gift from the commercial exchange, no way to distinguish the attempt to lift up the worker from the attempt to profit from them. Without the solving of this epistemological problem, it seems the solution Milbank offers never can be what he wishes it to be.

This is a powerful defense of the practical "secularization" effect of the Enlightenment. Even assuming that one does not go all the way with Descartes and Mill and turn truth into something with only individual provenance, even if one does allow for some historical and public continuity between Christian revelation and political life, there remains the problem of how it is to be taught. How does anyone ever learn what it is, when everyone has their own agendas and perspectives, with differing resources and levels of access and everyday experiences? How could it ever be communicated, much less legislated, in a political context of competition and compromise? Breaking humanity up into the sort of small communities capable of realizing Rousseau's general will seems one possibility, except that--besides all the other quite legitimate accusations which can be brought against Rousseau--the social contract he envisioned had nothing whatsoever to do with history; on the contrary, he thought the normative force of history lost to modern human beings, particularly Christian history.

To be sure, Milbank doesn't provide much by way of a positive program here at all. Still, one might look closely at the attachment Milbank has to the church, and specifically the rituals of the church, as possessing a tutelary function. Ritual education is not the same as propositional education, though there are some obvious overlaps. Through various rites, we become "educated" to a context of believing and behaving, not necessarily a specific content as to the elements of that belief and behavior. This is a point made Alasdair MacIntyre, as well as one assumed by Confucianism: the binding force and normative guidance provided by a tradition of practices and rituals has less to do with any set of agree-upon claims about the nature and worth of those practices then with affective shaping and mutual recognition participation in them provides. The propositional truth of being a good teacher is something that we teachers, as a polity, could never agree upon, even if we agree such a proposition truth existed; but we could all recognize the power of, and consequently expect adherence to, a united context of "teacherly" behavior--lecturing, conversing, counseling, reading, writing, and so forth; habits expressed in innumerable ritualistic ways. For Milbank, the rites of the church, in making a context of giving and receiving central (through the taking of communion, the singing of hymns, the participation in church work, and so forth) to our lives, teaches and unifies us around principles of the gift which can guide our political determinations. And so the epistemological problem of modernity, while not wholly elided (there will still need to be, in our diversified and technologically changed world, a Ricoeurian "second naivete"), is nonetheless transformed by thinking about (self-)reflection as incapsulated through the immanent power of rites. Still, that leaves unanswered the question of exactly how rites are to woven into a constitutional order, and it is here that one can find a good use for Rousseau, and many of the Romantic thinkers who followed in his wake: without giving proper due to the cultural and religious origin and memory of one's community, then any given set of civic rituals will likely seem merely grafted on, more arbitrary than popular. Which is one reason, unfortunately, so much communitarianism seems oppressive: too many theorists propose collective responsibilities and rituals simply for sociological reasons, without connecting them to the necessary idiosyncrasies of life. There's no reason to believe this will be a simple project; it seems much easier for education to be confined to teaching individuals their rights and letting it go at that. And certainly, given the speed of modern society, in which the socio-economic space for people to develop real vocations that they can learn from and build upon, the time necessary for such ritualistic, reflective education that would support a theological politics is less and less available all the time. But that, of course, is exactly why Milbank, in launching this broadside against modernity, insists on beginning with a radical socialist claim about the need to build upon the "gifted" aspect of the human economy in the first place.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

John Milbank's Theological Politics

Next up: John Milbank.

A few weeks ago, Jim Faulconer (an old professor of mine, one of my co-bloggers at Times and Seasons, and a good friend) pointed out to several of us an essay by the theologian John Milbank, titled "Liberality versus Liberalism" (found here). Milbank is one of the major figures in a movement its advocates have described as "radical orthodoxy," and for one reason or another Jim finds much of what they have to say appealing; I do too. Jim's idea was to try to get several bloggers to read and comment at length on the essay, and see where the discussion took us. My comments are appended to Jim's original Times and Seasons post; I'd strongly recommend reading his post if you want a good introduction to radical orthodoxy, as well as preview of the essay itself (which is dense, fairly exploratory, and not always well-argued). As for my comments, they're pretty lengthy, and partly discuss matters pertinent only to Mormons like myself approaching the project of political theology, so I'm only going to excerpt them here.


Christianity proposes that God has revealed His will and love to humankind in a particularly interruptive way--namely, through the birth, teachings, atonement and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. This revelatory act puts all of history, and everything that happens in history, in "the shadow of the cross," to use an old Christian phrase. But that shadow is all we have; we know that everything is different once we accept that Christ is not just our God but also our King, but what are the specifics of those differences? In practice, one finds a large amount of relatively empty "space" between the revelatory event at the center of history and ordinary political life. And so the tradition of "political theology" emerges as a way to philosophically connect the nature and needs of political life with that absolute standard which shapes and bounds it, but does not explicate all its details.

Theologians like John Milbank want to upset this tradition; they are trying to re-assert the primacy of the Christian revelation, and the community of believers it calls into being, to our assessment of every moment, including every political moment. This is not simply the personal "what would Jesus do?"-type questions every Christian child gets taught at one point or another in Sunday school; this is an attempt to instantiate a Christian reality in the places we are, rather than bracketing it as something which shapes and guides our otherwise secular places and perspectives in a background fashion. One might call it a shift from "political theology" to "theological politics," wherein the church--the body of believers--is itself understood to be the primary polis of everyday life. There isn't anything explicitly original about this task; there have been "holiness" movements that have sought to create their own Christian polities since the very beginning, the Anabaptist movement being the most diverse and well-known. But the theologians of this "emergent" school of theological politics, as it has come to be called--people like Stanley Hauerwas, Oliver O'Donovan, John Howard Yoder, and others--eschew rejectionist approaches; instead, they seek to confront the task of coming up with an overarching alternative to the secular liberal political and economic principles so entwined with the dominant tradition of Christian theological speculation in the Western world.

In the essay in question, Milbank suggests that the solution is to be found in "liberality" rather than "liberalism." What he means by liberality is perhaps better captured in a phrase he uses in other, similar essays of his: "socialism by grace." His aim in this phrase is to pry egalitarian and socialist concepts away from, as he puts it, "materialism and the State," and instead argue that it is not implausible to imagine a socio-economic arrangement, a polity, wherein interactions between persons were governed by principles of grace and "the gift," rather than interest and advantage. The neutral, liberal space of the modern West is, according to many theorists (and certainly Milbank), the inevitable result of a theory of the human person which posited the ability to think, act, earn and exchange with other persons as being wholly internal to the human mind: we are born to be rational, self-revising, calculators. That no reputable liberal philosopher ever believed this to be entirely the case is, in a sense, irrelevant; by putting the critical individual first, we cannot avoid making it imperative that politics attend to the division between what is "private" and what is "public," and restrict collective action to the latter. As it is in the public interest that individuals be able to peaceably pursue their private aims, but it is decidedly not in the public interest to determine what those private ought or ought not be (outside of materially harmful aims, of course), the best polity will be one that imposes only a minimal structure upon socio-economic activity: people can trade or save, worship or sleep in, teach their children poetry or pushpin, as they will. The better liberal thinkers have always recognized that all this activity, if it is not to break down into vapid majoritarianism or, worse, anarchic nihilism, will have to have some sort foundation in truths larger than individual desire. The question is whether that foundation is strong enough to endure the irreligious practices which liberal theory holds it to, rightly, make possible. Milbank is one of those who does not, and his rejection of the liberalism is grounded in his belief that the liberal achievement fundamentally misunderstands the nature of sin:

[T]he central premises of liberalism . . . are based in Manichean fashion upon the ontological primacy of evil and violence: at the beginning is a threatened individual, piece of property or racial terrain. This is not the same as an Augustianian acknowledgment of original sin . . . [which is] a hopeful doctrine, since it affirms that all-pervasive evil for which we cannot really account . . . is yet all the same a contingent intrusion upon reality, which can one day be fully overcome through the lure of the truly desirable which is transcendent goodness . . . Liberalism instead begins with a disguised naturalization of original sin as original egotism: our own egotism which we seek to nurture, and still more the egotism of the other against which we need protection.

Let me attempt an unpacking of that condemnation. Liberalism begins with a theory of the self which assumes the existence of an ego that is, in the end, fully its own; I'm me, and never, ultimately, after all is said and done, anyone else's. Similarly, God is God, and what is God's is His and no one else's. If this is taken to be the field wherein which all possible behavior is construed, then "sin" is a violation of space; it is a matter of damage to that which belongs to someone else, or infringement upon the authority that someone else possesses. It's an egotism, in other words; it makes the mine and matters of right essential to all forms of consciousness. (And, perhaps not coincidentally, makes God over into very much the despot which Hobbes imagined Him to be: a God whose right to be treated as God flows from His power to make us acknowledge Him as such.) Liberalism takes this twisting of a fundamental theological concept, and applies to political existence: any prudent politics will respond to sin (or "human nature") by thinking in terms of how to establish both limits and incentives in regards to the actions of individuals. Since the individual is essentially understood through ownership, the problems of politics are matters who determining who owns what and that is owed to the owners of this thing or that thing, etc. The traditional liniments of sovereignty, citizenship, justice and so forth all follow in line from this determination. Milbank, however, insists that this displaces our attention, which should be on the constitution of the individual. Ownership, sovereignty, and so forth all flow from an original egotistical assumption which is itself sinful--a perversion of the essentially selfless world which Christ calls us to. The real world is not a world that can be parceled out, Milbank is saying; the real world is a gift. Thus does Milbank point us towards a socialism of grace--an egalitarian economic arrangement of mutual work and gift-giving that recognizes the irreducibly "social" nature of all things and endeavors, but does not plug that sociality, as Marx did, into a dialectic contingent upon a history of capitalism. Milbank is, of course, a Marxist in perhaps the most important sense: as he writes, "humans identity themselves through the production and exchange of things." Our love for one another, and our love for God, is instantiated through material work; the reality of "welfare," "generosity," and "charity" is found in goods and labor, not in intent. (That's not an invitations to "works righteousness," but rather an insistence that a loving will, one that has submitted to God, will apply its own expression to material objects; it will not be a free-floating, professed ideological sentiment.) So a Christian polity must be one which attempts to create an environment where "contract is subordinated to gift," where our everyday lives--as students, friends, spouses, teachers, builders, farmers, children, parents, etc.--is wholly and totally given over to a collective, social awareness of what we freely receive and what we freely impart, not how we, as individual selves, relate to power or satisfy personal interests.

What on earth would be the temporal requirements of such a socialist polity? Well, socio-economically speaking what is necessary is a far wider and more equitable distribution of land, the empowerment of local craft-making and industries over larger and impersonal commercial interests, an immediate retreat from the homogenizing effects of global trade, and a whole raft of proposals that Milbank in this essay barely hints at, but which are probably familiar to anyone who has read much agrarian, populist, or early (as opposed to Marxist-Leninist) socialist literature. This is an important point to emphasize, for Milbank is neither a progressive Christian hoping to guilt other Christians into ameliorating the alienating consequences of modern life, nor a liberation theologist who has been caught up in a dream of revolution. On the contrary, he sounds about as conservative (and hence as radical) as the Kentucky farmer and essayist (and perennial trouble-maker) Wendell Berry when he writes that:

[An] economy of fair-traded food-items may not sound dramatic or decisive, and indeed they remain pathetically marginal and often compromised, but nevertheless the extension of such gift-exchange bit by bit is the sure way forward rather than revolution, government action alone, or else capitalistic solutions. . . . We need once again to form systematic links between producer and consumer co-operatives and we need to see an emergence of cooperative banking (perhaps supervised by Church, Islamic and Jewish bodies) to regulate and adjudicate the interactions between many different modes of cooperative endeavor. Only this will correct the mistake of all our current politics: namely, to suppose that the "free market" is a given which should be either extended or inhibited and balanced. For if the upshots of the free market are intrinsically unjust, then "correcting" this through another welfare economy is only a mode of resignation; moreover Sisyphean, and periodically doomed to go under with every economic downturn.

The more explicitly political aspects of this essay deal with how such a socio-economic arrangement is to be preserved in the modern world; as experience teaches us, cooperative arrangements tend to lack in staying power when arrayed against the temptations of the universally liberated human self. Milbank plainly doesn't think liberal, representative democracy is adequate, preferring something more participatory. I agree with him--and yet it is here that I think Milbank's essay shows the most weakness. The logical connection between Milbank's theological agenda and the socio-economic reforms he thinks implied by such is strong; to deny his critique of capitalism requires, I think, nothing less than to engage and critique the fundamentals of his religious ontology. But when he turns to the constitutional requirements of a polity which could provide a literal as well as an ideological defense against the secular world, Milbank's ideas become, I think, rather hackneyed.

Consider his contempt for both populism and nationalism as, apparently, nothing other than instances of either mobocratic relativism, elite manipulation, or both. Yet far from being enemies of the sort of reciprocal communitarianism he has in mind, both phenomena are fundamentally about developing and expressing affective attachments between persons; neither necessarily have anything to with majoritarianism or contractarianism, but rather are expressions of, and arguments for, participatory civic identities and economic arrangements that empower those most responsible for producing the conditions which sustain the possibility of participation in the first place. To give credit to one's own nation or vocation is to connect one's own identity to a larger, communal project, thereby both drawing from it as well as contributing to it--in other words, it is a context for reciprocation. Milbank, recognizing that there has to be some criteria for situating the polity he desires, talks in the essay about how Christianity looks to "natural pre-given 'regions,'" as well as "metiers, local cultures, religious bodies, etc." Well, what does he imagine nations are built out of, and what does he imagine populist political movements are trying to defend, except exactly all of these? An important argument can be made to the effect that national bodies formed--around shared mores, histories, cultural practices, religious commitments, and most importantly language groups--primarily so as to maintain some sort of continuity with the "pre-given" socio-economic communities in which the lives of the people who lived there were embedded; nationality, according to this theory, emerged as part of a "call to difference" experienced by individuals who recognized that their ability to fully and reciprocally relate to their fellow man was being diluted by an expansion of the public sphere (driven by innovations in technology, travel, administration, trade, and so forth), and who over a period of generations drew out from that expansion a new "social imaginary," one which preserved the essence of the sort of (potentially) loving and reciprocal relationships which existed beforehand. Obviously, only a truly deluded nationalist would believe that modern relationships have perfectly superceded all prior forms of association; what is needed (and which conservative critics of liberal triumphalism have always insisted) is various levels of attachment, ranging from the local on upwards, each contributing to a rich social existence (and thus, from a Milbankian perspective, the means for a truly theological politics). There seems to be no good reason for Milbank to insist that only a certain category of bodies (either intimately local or transcendentally cosmopolitan) can serve to situate gift-giving, and dismissing without argument a whole range of similar bodies that have emerged over the past few centuries as somehow essentially tainted by the liberal virus. (Note that I am not saying that there may not be good communitarian--not to mention liberal!--arguments against granting legitimacy to any number of different orders of popular and national collective expressions; I am simply saying that there seems no reason to ignore the possible legitimacy of any such from Milbank's point of view. Certainly it can't be that modern nationalist and populist movements are automatically capitalist; if anything, today's liberal globalist elites--the visionaries of a flat, homogenized, single-jurisdiction, automatic, atemporal world--for whom Milbank has such obvious contempt are exactly the people who see socialist, nationalist, and populist movements as near-identical threats to their dream of a borderless market polity, which really ought to get him thinking about who his allies actually are.)

Milbank ought to investigate the work of those political scientists and economists who talk about the globe's "new medievalist" future, wherein sovereign power will be so dispersed along disparate economic, political, cultural and religious bodies that the world will begin to resemble the feudal arrangements of the high Middle Ages. This, of course, is not guarantee that such an arrangement will involve great socio-economic participation, cooperation, and reciprocity; it may instead result in the proliferations of ever-more fractured and thus ever-more tyrannically impersonal bureaucracies. But, properly constituted, one could see the eclipse of state power--which, of course, could happen both within states as well as between them, depending on how reforms towards greater socio-economic equality and participatory democracy proceed--as introducing a vacuum into which religious and cultural bodies could step, therefore allowing for the development of polities which recognize religious and transcendent claims as part of their multifaceted constitutional structure(s). This, of course, will not be possible in a world in which a Manichean political conception of the individual against all, with the state as both absolute power and absolute threat, and all other elements of civil association marginalized as mere "private" helps to individuals, reigns supreme; in focusing our attention on this, the crucial obstacle to an economy of gifts becoming the socially transformative and politically necessary complement to a Christian polity, Milbank's essay, whatever its flaws, serves an important purpose. But what is even more important is to recognize that there are tools available to work towards the theological politics which Milbank assumes (rightly, I think) a belief in the Kingship of Christ to make incumbent upon Christians like myself.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

On Judicial Intervention; or, What Canada Could Learn from Arkansas

First up: Chaoulli v. Quebec.

A Canadian court case of health care would seem unlikely to attract much attention in the U.S., and of course it hasn't. But that's unfortunate, because this very controversial decision by the Supreme Court of Canada--striking down a Quebec law which prohibited the purchasing of private insurance for publicly funded medical procedures--has important public policy and legal/political theory implications, ones that are both suggestive of and can be productively informed by similar debates in the U.S. Insofar as public policy goes, the clearest implication is that the traditional route which different Canadian provinces have provided health care to their citizens--namely, by subscribing to a strict single-payer system, where all medical costs are convered through a universal and mandatory government insurance plan, and wherein private alternatives are circumscribed so to prevent the usual collective action problems--has just received a serious constitutional reproach. Exactly how serious a reproach is not entirely clear, and may not be for a while; only three justices out of six went so far as to claim that the delays in receiving medical attention experienced by the plaintiffs in the Chaoulli case amounted to a violation of the "security of the person" mandated by section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Still, for the nation's highest court to overturn efforts to block the development of an extensive a two-tiered health care arrangement in Canada on the basis on the individual's right to receive a certain level of care, however defined, almost certainly means the pressure to accept such a private-public mix of health care provision will increase. To some, this is catastrophic; to others, it's simply common sense. This is the opinion of Scott Lemieux as well--he agrees that the Quebec law in question was a bad one. But he still thinks the Chaoulli decision sets a terrible precedent, because of what it suggests for future judicial involvement in the health care debate in Canada. And this brings us to the legal and theoretical implications, which I agree are both significant and worrisome.

I have an old and close friend, James Meloche, who works on health policy issues in Ontario, and while he has far more policy concerns about the Chaoulli decision than Scott does, he agrees that the biggest problems are on the constitutional end. This is how he put it in an e-mail to me:

I haven't decided completely on my view of expanding private care in our system--there are positives and huge risks at the same time. But I do have a negative bias to the nature of this ruling, however. While the court decision was dressed up in the language of any legal decision, make no mistake--it was a political and policy decision. At its center was [the question of whether] the entrance of a vibrant private service-delivery system would undermine the viability of public Medicare, and result in other issues of equity. Government lawyers argued in the positive, but the court (4-3) disagreed. Examining the evidence, the court ruled there to be no link between "prohibiting private insurance and maintaining quality public health care." [Some of them] went on to claim that the public system is failing to deliver reasonable medical services in a timely way, thus affecting the Charter guarantee of the "security of the person." Here is where they turn political/policy questions into questions about "rights"....This decision was not on whether public health care was unconstitutional, rather only the perceived "underperformance" of that system to deliver timely care. It attacks the public system from its underbelly to result in a slow death. But what of other policy frameworks that are underpeforming--will courts make decision regarding welfare, law enforcement, etc., on a performance basis?...In this decision, the Canadian political spectrum has been turned upside down. Conservatives who decried both bans on private health care and judicial activism, have found that the latter has delivered the former. Persons on the left who hold Medicare as sacrosanct with individual rights and were never afraid to use the courts to push the boundaries of social policy, have found themselves the victims of their own activist success. And on the party scene, we now have a prime minister considering the use of the "notwithstanding clause" and ignore the court's decision, but having to come to grips that he successfully pinned the leader of the opposition Conservative party as enemy of the Charter because of his willingness to use the notwithstanding to overrule the courts decision on gay marriage. For the Prime Minister, gay marriage was about "rights" and the Charter, stupid. Now for the Conservatives, private health care too is about "rights" and the Charter. What a tangled web we weave.

I tend to believe that such entanglements almost inevitably follow whenever issues of communal or public concern get framed by "rights talk" as matters of individual interest. That's not to say that individuals don't have legitimate interests; of course they do. It's just that the language of rights is by definition interventionary; it involves a presumption that there exists an individual who has a standing separate from whatever historical or collective laws and traditions make up their social context, thus allowing for that individual to turn around and judge that context. Consequently, rights talk is invariably judicial talk, a strategy of breaking up whatever communal arrangements exist in a given time and place in favor of an abstracted "right" or set of rights assumed, by definition, to adhere in most any individual simply by virtue of their ability to claim them. The right to contract is the perfect example of such--a guarantee based on the assumption that if two people consent to make an exchange regarding this or that particular bit of service or property, it is superior to most every other social aim which might be affected by such service or property. (This is why Scott compares the Chaoulli decision to Lochner v. New York.) This kind of communitarian complaint isn't anything new, of course, and I'm overdrawing it as well. Nonetheless, that's the core of what takes place whenever someone makes an argument on the basis of their right to certain level or kind or degree of treatment: an intervention which ursurps the power of existing institutions and procedures, subjecting whatever collective determinations they may have popularly or historically arrived at to a test which may have had nothing to do with original consensus whatsoever.

This isn't a blanket condemnation of judicial review and intervention; I'm not coming out against Brown v. Board of Education here. Modern politics cannot help but involve certain interventionary principles--as I wrote months ago in a different context, "we are the inheritors of a tradition of thinking which posits the possibility, and the appropriateness, of ideology-formation and ideological action, actions which run against tradition, habit, and yes, affective feeling....[w]e can, in short, imagine ourselves as capable of judging our particularities, and we do; we long have and ought to continue to intervene in various particularities in the name of imagined universals." Moreover, those universals ought to be written into documents--like the Declaration of Independence, or the Canadian Charter--so that the matter of aspiring to them can become a material part of our civic lives. The problem comes when the aspiration becomes disconnected from the participatory, political process wherein those aspirations are manifest. They don't really exist outside of the expressive work of consensus-building. That's why the work of Martin Luther King and other civil rights workers, both in and out of political office, to construct a new social and political understanding of racial justice in America was far more important than what the Warren Court decided (and even then, they were far from entirely successful in their efforts to address the bitter, alienating consequences of that judicial intervention). It's not simple stubbornness that leads people like Nathan Newman to lambast both the Chaoulli decision and judicial review in general; he's right that, far more often than not, the people who benefit from the sort of rights talk--like that of the "security of the person"--which brings courts into conflict with legislative determinations over "performance" are usually either wealthy enough, iconoclastic enough, or uncivic-minded enough so as to fail to recognize the collective (and frequently egalitarian) dimension and requirements of whatever it was the community in question was trying to "perform" in the first place. There are many exceptions to that judgment, and it may be a little unfair--but then again, it also a not inaccurate description of Jacques Chaoulli himself.

The situation in Canada puts me in mind of various entanglements which anyone who has lived in Arkansas over the past decade or so is likely very familiar with. Arkansas is a poor state, with a limited property tax base; it is also a state that, in a admirable fit of progressive aspiration, committed in its state constitution to "maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools." This has been interpreted as a primary civic responsibility--and consequently, a source for litigation. Back in 1992, Lake View School District, a tiny, all-black and impoverished district in Arkansas's southeast Delta, brought suit against the state, alleging that under then-current funding arrangements there was no way Lake View students could receive the sort of education the state presumably guaranteed to provide. This inspired a long series of decisions and reversals (which I wrote about some here), at the end of which the Arkansas Supreme Court held the state government's feet to the fire, demanding that changes be made in both how much the state spends on education and how it is distributed. Governor Huckabee made the controversial decision to consolidate Arkansas's smaller school districts--including, ironically but not surprisingly, Lake View itself--as part of a new funding formula, in order to better pool and deliver the state's available educational resources. While I was bothered by how Huckabee sold his plan, and was bothered even more by the condescending language which the state's political elite used against rural educators who strove to defend the borders of their districts, I thought Huckabee's decision was the right one, primarily because it was an honest attempt to accept the new, post-intervention requirements of Arkansas's own constitutional polity, and make the changes necessary to incorporate those requirements into a collective arrangement that would return the dispute to democratic debate and the public sphere. The crucial matter was to make the court's decision part of new (but not lacking in continuity) social arrangement, rather than allowing the state's schoolchildren to continue to tread water in an educational environment increasingly characterized more by resentment and withdrawal than common concern; he wasn't wholly successful, but his efforts were admirable nonetheless. Unfortunately, judicial genies like these can almost never be put back into the bottle; just a few days ago, the Arkansas Supreme Court once again re-opened the Lake View case, appointing "special masters" to report back to the court as to whether the legislature's efforts meet up with their fiats. How it will end, or if it will ever end, is an open question.

The lesson, if there is a simple one to draw, is that judicial intervention, as necessary as it may be in order to correct and establish the grounds of political action, in practice often rides very hard on serious efforts to collectively engage in such action. Again, that's not to say it's never worth it; I wish Governor Riley in Alabama had been successful last year in his efforts to overturn segregationist language in their state constitution, and establish a general right (and civic obligation) to public education there, even though those opponents who feared the lawsuits which would have inevitably followed clearly had a point. But the fact is, it can backfire, as it clearly has in Canada (at least as far as those in favor of the current health care regime are concerned). It may be that this decision was unavoidable; as Tom Hurka comments in a Crooked Timber thread on this debate, the "security of the person" claim has been used to sustain an individual right to a certain level of "performance" in medical care--in this case, the provision of abortion services--since at least the 1988 Morgentaler decision that struck down Canada's then-existing (sometimes restrictive) abortion laws. If one happens to applaud that decision as an extension of individual rights, then it would suggest that similar applause must be due to Chaoulli, since it also simply insists that the state cannot shape the provision of medical care in accordance with anything that does not meet the rights, needs, and contractual interests of individual Canadians. As a fan of Canada's egalitarian vision of health care as a public good, but also as an agnostic on the superiority of a single-payer vs. a two-tier system, I have no definite ideas as to how the Canadian Parliament or the different provinces should respond to Chaoulli--except to say that I hope their political leaders can help articulate a new (but not absolutely new) collective arrangement, one that will, if necessary, shape whatever two-tier compromises which may emerge from this and likely future lawsuits as part of a political process that all can feel equally commitmented to. If they fail to do that, then it will only become easier for the people of Canada to look at provincial and national failures to live up to presumed judicial decrees and assume that, well, health really must be just a personal look-out after all. In the U.S., the struggle to reform the public education system (in Arkansas, and everywhere else) so prevent that mentality from overtaking the public consensus entirely is a difficult one, and we're a long ways away (and getting further all the time) from being able to do anything even remotely similar insofar as health care is concerned. It'd be a great loss if, one way or another, our better example to the north were to be lost.

Back from the Prairie

Yes, once again it's been a while. I really should stop making promises regarding when I'm going to blog, and how much, and about what, since I so rarely keep any of them. Perhaps it's a sign of constant hopefulness on my part. Or maybe I just, on some level, like feeling guilty.

Among other distractions, the last couple of weeks included a trip to Macomb, Illinois, and my first visit to the campus of Western Illinois University. We drove there to look for a place to live, primarily, but also to check our the surroundings. All we did, really, was head pretty much straight north along the Mississippi River, so while some of the natural environment changed as left the Delta and entered the Upper Mississippi--more hills, fewer floodplains--the most visible differences were man-made: huge fields of corn rather than cotton, groves of trees instead of rice fields. Once you're north of the Ohio River Valley and St. Louis, you really do enter America's prairie land--though, being on the east side of the Mississippi, Macomb is more "on the edge of the prairie," to borrow Garrison Keillor's Minnesotan phrase. I wish I could say that Macomb reminded us of Lake Wobegone, but that wasn't the case; Melissa said afterwards that she was hoping to discover a quaint little compact Midwestern farming town, but there probably aren't any such left (that is, assuming such things ever existed in the first place). Instead, we found pretty much what our years in Arkansas have taught us to expect from small towns today: a fairly random collection of neighborhoods, more or less bounded by a few big box stores--Wal-Mart and its kin--along the nearest couple of state highways. In truth, Macomb actually has much more of a old-fashioned "downtown" than most such towns; we visited the farmer's market, which was small but well-stocked, and had to acknowledge that there was actually a surprising amount of space available for pedestrian traffic and commerce. Also, thanks to WIU, Macomb also has something of a bus system, which is a huge step up from Jonesboro (where a few dedicated folks have been trying in vain to make some sort of public transportation option available for years). So Macomb has a decent amount of civic appeal, don't get me wrong; I think we'll enjoy living there, especially given the nice neighborhood we rented a house in. But we'll hardly be escaping the usual fate of small, rural cities in America, those that aren't nearly large enough to pull in metropolitan amenities, but are large enough to warrant the appearance of the lowest common denominator type of retail giants. We've dealt with it before, and we'll deal with it again. (And hopefully we'll have more options for fresh produce and foodstuffs there than we've had around here.)

On the other hand, one thing we will definitely miss about Jonesboro is the absence of taverns and bars. Craighead is a dry county, and for all the complaining that prompts (such as regards its impact on restaurant availability, a complaint Melissa and I are hardly innocent of), I'm convinced there's an important good achieved through such a policy. Besides removing a major source of urban blight, it also means for a university town that a good chunk of the student population doesn't collectively relocate to a bunch of ugly, beer-drenched dives from about Thursday night through early Sunday morning--a result apparently not unknown to Macomb, though WIU clearly isn't that much of a party school. Ah well. Before we move, I'll have to write a tribute to the benefits of living in a Baptist town.

We'll be leaving town again next week, and we'll be gone through July 4th, after which I'll be back to teach my last class at ASU, the politics and the movies one I've been talking about. Actually, I think I may end up writing about some of our class discussions here (oops, there's another promise to be broken). In the meantime, there's a lot of news and ideas I've been meaning to blog about, so I hereby declare this catch-up week. Let's see how I do.