Friday, February 24, 2006

Still Chewing...

I find myself checking into NRO's Crunchy Con blog every half-hour or so; there's so much good thought there, put forward by a lot of smart people. But then there's Jonah Goldberg....

You have to give him credit for knowing where he stands: he doesn't care for crunchy conservatism or anything like unto to it. Why? For both stylistic and substantive reasons, I think, as I wrote over at Laura's place here. Goldberg's hang-up with what Rod Dreher is trying to do through his book, in my view, comes down to his apparently firm belief that "conservatism" means primarily growing up and taking responsibility for yourself, whatever that "self" may be. In other words, it's very individualistic and libertarian, though not necessarily in a principled sense; what is actually "conserved" in his conservatism isn't very clear. It's also very "establishment": you put on your tie and walk out the door and make your own way in the world and pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. I suspect that Goldberg sees in "crunchiness"--sticking close to family, tending your garden, getting together at the neighborhood organic food co-op, supporting your local church--everything he hates about (his uninformed stereotype of) liberalism: it's weak, it makes you dependent on others, it's cloying, it lowers your horizon, it's for wusses. The possibility that conserving family and community and authenticity--holding onto a "common good," in other words--might actually sometimes require just such consensual and egalitarian arrangements, actually obliging the development of the self in some collective direction, is something he cannot tolerate. Real men won't stand for being told what to do, even in the public interest.

Some of the other contributors held Goldberg's feet to the fire regarding the whole issue of speaking in terms of the common good, or whether it really is even possible to talk about politics in the philosophically libertarian language of a field of neutral choices. Goldberg responded:

It is one thing to say that government polices are never neutral in their outcomes and quite another to say that because this is so we should give up the ideal of government neutrality. Much of what conservatism has fought against in the last fifty years has been the notion that elected and unelected government officials (and even democratic majorities) should be allowed to decide what's good for everybody. Obviously the federal government needs to mind the general welfare and one can get into trouble when one gets absolutist on either side of this either/or framing. But as a general proposition I want my federal government as libertarian as possible and my local community as communitarian as feasible. What scares me (or one of the things that scares me) is that so much of this Crunchy stuff buys into the view that the "personal is political." I don't want the federal government to be able to pick winners and losers based on that worldview.

Let's think about this for a moment. There's an interesting point to be made here, though Goldberg does come close to fully articulating it. Ignore the huge red herring in this passage--that is, Goldberg's complete dismissal of the possibility that an articulation of a "common good"--on any level--might actually involve some democratic participation and representation, thus resulting in something more than just an arbitrary "picking." (Though that's a pretty revealing glimpse into his basic estimation of human ordering in the first place.) Let's just address his libertarian-communitarian distinction.

Is communitarianism--in this case, meaning a concern for consensus, identity, authority, and the pursuit of a common good--good or bad? If it's good, then why wouldn't you want libertarianism on the federal level; shouldn't you try to bring forth whatever kind of communitarian feeling is possible on any level of government? The quick response is that the federal government isn't the same as a neighborhood association--but who is arguing that it is? That's a straw man; of course a national body can't be communitarian or republican or concerned with a common good in exactly the same way a small locality can--that's an understanding and an argument which goes all the way back to the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, and earlier. But given that reality, why does it follow that such language should be wholly abandoned once one leaves the local level, save only for matters of "general welfare"? (Was fighting a war to end slave power in the South a matter of the "general welfare"?)

On the other hand, maybe because Goldberg actually thinks communitarianism is bad? That it infringes upon his bedrock individualism? If so, why would he want localities to be communitarian at all? Sure, national governments can oppress people terribly, but it's not like local communities can't be pretty oppressive as well. (Female circumcision is defended in local, tribal African communities, not by the states within which such communities reside.) Maybe Goldberg thinks communitarianism and inculcating notions of a common good is a necessary evil, one that we need it to form the sort of civic virtues and social capital which make an otherwise libertarian society sustainable? In that case, we would want communitarian communities, but only so as to provide citizens the opportunity to escape from such when they grow up, so they can enjoy "real" freedom. But that, of course, raises the question of how to keep said local communities going from generation to generation, if the real pay-off of American society is to be able to escape into a wider, more libertarian polity. And moreover, if that's the way Goldberg thinks, then shouldn't he have reluctantly written that local communities should only be as communitarian "as necessary," rather than saying they should be as communitarian "as feasible"?

The only way to make this coherent is to argue that the very meaning of "community" and "the common good" fundamentally alters when it is expanded beyond a particular level, such that the harms associated with it start dramatically outweighing the benefits. That's a valid argument to make. But it needs to be made, rather than simply asserted as Goldberg does here as if it's some sort of obvious, prudent truism. Caleb Stegall, a much more thoughtful writer, goes some distance towards articulating this. He cites a thoughtful e-mail which argues that "in promoting the genuine goods of tradition, community, public beauty, local variety and family integrity on which most conservatives agree, it's important to disentangle three modes of promoting the perceived Good: 1) personal suasion, religious teaching, conversion, appeals to beauty and justice; 2) social pressure, the threat of ostracism, moralistic disapproval; 3) governmental diktat," and which comes to the conclusion that, as most Americans "have little patience with the intrusive force of the Gemeinshaft," we end being "comfortable....with mode 1) and, oddly enough, mode 3), [but] deeply resistant to mode 2)"; following this, Stegall suggests that, since he believes community and the common good really does dramatically change as we move into nonlocal contexts, crunchy conservatives who want to avoid looking like statists and incipient fascists need to work on number 2):

The kind of "libertarian/communitarianism" I would advocate for is premised almost entirely on his mode #2 with a dash of #1 thrown in. What it requires is a renewed appreciation for society; for what Wendell Berry calls "membership"--a network of social interconnectedness and shared obligation. It's what the old English jurist Fletcher Moulton called "obedience to the unenforceable." It is tradition in this sense, in the societal sense, that is required for order. Social context and membership within it is not something which can be simply valued or appropriated. Tradition must be inheritable, or always-already inherited, to be wholly itself. It is a gift of givenness, given to the point of being so formative of the order of man's soul that it is ineradicable even from those who turn against it. So, yes, the individual remains free to choose, but in the choosing he is always choosing against an important part of himself.

Where all this is pointing towards is the anarchism/communitarianism/localist continuum, which Stegall praises and which Lee over at Verbum Ipsum highlights. So does that mean we're all in agreement in disagreeing with Goldberg, at least insofar as the proper locus of the articulation of a common good goes, so long as I shelve any hope for a national common good?

Not entirely, and it may be that our differences on this point is really what explains where "left traditionalists" like myself part ways with other crunchies. What all of this turns on, I think, is the basis upon which one can attribute legitimate consensual and/or normative force to something "social"--that is, something that isn't restricted to cramped desires of the sovereign individual, and yet isn't on the other hand just a blank check written to a faceless, corporate state. From what Stegall writes, with his sympathy for "anarchic" or "libertarian" communitarianism--the sort exercised by the Amish and other radically dissenting groups, for example--it appears that his judgment is that, once one moves beyond the immediately local, all affectivity (bonds of attachment, the sort of thing that make "social" persuasion and collective authority and discipline possible) is lost, and anything that attempts to maintain such is really just acting like a state....and since states by definition always centralize power at the expense of persons, that means we need to keep our larger polities and political aspirations as "stateless"--and thus as "anarchic" or "libertarian" in a particular sense--as possible. But I'm somewhat more sympathetic to modernity's particular take on "liberal society." I think one can be liberal--in a political if not philosophical sense--and still link up with something substantive and connective and affective. Charles Taylor's "alternative modernity" is my vision here; the ability to see that while a modern concept like "nationality" obviously can't do everything a local community can, it can nonetheless do some things, instantiate some common goods that one can feel affectionate towards and thus feel bonded to. Nations, in other words, in my mind need not be merely imagined props that states use to justify their power, but actual socialities through which certain communitarian goods can be articulated.

But in any case, whether or not the language of community can provide only local alternatives or broader, collective ones to modern consumerist liberalism, we're in agreement that common goods exist, that traditions exist, that there is such a thing as "soulcraft" and that to at least some extent the personal is political....and so that living in such a way as to promote the ability of persons to collectively order themselves (I would hope in egalitarian ways) along with others is a much better way of life than thinking of oneself as an independent self who never needs to be told what to do. In other words, I think we're in agreement that Goldberg is completely missing the boat.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Something to Chew On

I haven't read Rod Dreher's new book on "crunchy conservatives," but I'm familiar with the article which originally inspired it, and the great discussions which Dreher's thesis has prompted on the new blog which National Review has launched for it, as well as on some of my favorite blogs, including Verbum Ipsum and Caelum et Terra. Both of those posts express sympathy, or at least interest, in the crunchy con idea--nicely summed up by Dreher's long subtitle to his book: "How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party)"--but both express some doubt as to the usefulness of the term itself. (Daniel Larison and Amy Welborn are somewhat dubious too.) For my part, I see something of real substance and importance in Dreher's word choice, though it certainly isn't anything close to what he actually had in mind.

For Dreher, it all begins with granola. Over the past decade or two, his personal political and religious journey has led him to embrace, wherever he could find it, the local, the authentic, the organic, the rural and ethnic. In other words, he became a traditionalist--but he did it by way of a realization that big corporations and suburban sprawl and all the tropes of growth-maximizing capitalism did a terrible job at conserving culinary or artistic or religion or family traditions. And so, as he did seek out these things--by, among other things, buying vegetables at a local organic co-op--he found himself associating more and more with the sort of people that he'd always previously identified as "hippies," the sort of countercultural radicals that the Republican party has politically benefited so much from demonizing (by no means always inaccurately) for the better part of 40 years. Gradually, he realized that he had a lot of sympathy for that counterculture, and that, amongst his home-schooling and subsistence-farming friends, such sympathy was actually pretty deep. So when he takes on contemporary conservatism--with a manifesto that includes such statements as "modern conservatism has become too focused on money, power, and the accumulation of stuff"; "big business deserves as much skepticism as big government"; "beauty is more important than efficiency"; and my favorite, "Small, Local, Old, and Particular are almost always better than Big, Global, New, and Abstract"--he does it by way of invoking this kind of "hip" traditionalism, the resistance to American consumerism which was at least as much a product of the communes and the "drop out" mentality of the 60s and 70s as any kind of informed, serious devotion to older religious and social traditions. Hence, "crunchy" cons--conservatives that eat granola, who aren't that into the smooth, streamlined, stainless steel suburban world that actually consists of most of the Republican party's current base.

Some of those who are otherwise wholly in favor of Dreher's vision--even if they doubt the likelihood of being able to reform the Republican party from within--take issue with his crunchy language because they think the very idea of being "countercultural" can't ever be more than a hip affectation; what is needed is the recovery of real culture, not the pose of standing aside from it. Caleb Stegall, of The New Pantagruel, makes this point brilliantly: authenticity and virtue, he writes, are better conserved through the "quiet romanticism still to be had [by] living a life closely rooted to the ground" rather than through the overt (and thus actually rather individualistic) rejectionism practiced by the hippies. I think he's right, at least insofar as Dreher's original inspiration goes. But I'll still defend "crunchiness," because what I see in that term is an opening to make a philosophical point, one which can tell us something about what it means to make culture substantive, authoritative, chewy you might say, in our otherwise mostly quicksilver, superficial, transactional world.

I've written a lot before about the need for some sense of authority, for a spiritual seriousness, to undergird progressive politics. This is something which Wilfred McClay recently commented on, in connection with early Progressivism and the New Deal coalition and how dependent both of those liberal moments were on church-goers, on evangelicals and Catholics, on the moral and intellectual resources and arguments that naturally went along with a certain localized and "parochial" feeling of egalitarian and religious belonging (and, thus, also obligation). This is how I put it in a very long post a year and a half ago:

It is affection, specifically that which arises from and depends upon a shared life, a defined (and therefore somewhat limited) life, that makes possible real social concern, a concern which is not restricted to a needs-tested distribution of a few select goods (which at best can only result in the just treatment of those who accept the terms of choice which the market--and those who are lucky/hard-working/well-connected enough to dominate it--consciously or unconsciously impose), but which actually seeks make the production of goods a component of one's participation in the community. Not for nothing did late 19th-century populism easily merge with socialism, and not for nothing are social democrats today often the most responsive to the diverse demands of local communities, whether in neighborhood design, public schooling, welfare provision, or a dozen other areas. To talk about populist justice means to talk about "the people" not in the abstract, whether behind a veil of ignorance (John Rawls) or as individual choosers confident in their holdings (Robert Nozick), but to begin where they live, in their (often religious) communities.

The granola "crunchiness" of most of those who either actually lived in or at least admired various countercultural and communal socio-economic living arrangements had very little to do with any of this; they were not, for the most part, thinking hard about how to realize something meaningful through populist or local action. But nonetheless, such activities can give us access to ways of life which can be productively understood in light of Hegel's notion of Sittlichkeit, or "ethical life." What makes for a meaningful life, Hegel argued contra the liberal universalism of Kant (a universalism that is clearly echoed in both the individualistic liberalism of both Rawls and Nozick), was the realization of the movements of history and "Spirit" in actual lived localities, practices, and institutions. Hegel was an idealist, and found the empiricism that lays behind most modern construals of human liberty to be politically shallow and ontologically flawed. However, following the path laid down by romantics like J.G. Herder, Hegel insisted that our apprehension of and progression through ideas couldn't happen in any other way except through an attendance to the forms and rituals and organizations and groups that make up everyday life. One doesn't have to embrace every iota of Hegel's ambitious (some would say totalizing) logical systematizing of philosophy--I certainly don't!--to appreciate that it is this insight which makes the original Marxist argument so powerful. Marx was able to present something more than ideas whose normative force might arise entirely from our independent agreement with them; he gave us an argument for egalitarian arrangements that obliged us to see our economies, our families, our communities as implicating us in the very terms of the struggle. That doesn't mean, I think, that outcomes are fated--the socialism of Marx's Communist Manifesto was, I think, was far less materially deterministic than his later writings would indicate--but it does mean that the struggle over of what kind of ethic, what kind of "spirit," will guide our lives, demands more than some ex post liberal calculations about how to distribute and balance all our wants. Such calculations--as Rawls makes clear with his clean, uncomplicated description of the difference principle--can be reduced to easily whipped up and swallowed formula; Hegel and Marx, by contrast, make such moral concerns substantive: make them, again, tough and well-rooted and chewy.

Non-liberal leftists--or rather, leftists for whom being liberal involves a personal attitude, not moral accounting--can't avoid reflecting on the fact that Marx knew well the ethical force of that which emergent industrial capitalism was destroying; in the Communist Manifesto, he was able to describe the uprooting of communities and the impoverishment of families in a language that sounds like no one else so much as Burke. I don't mean to get too abstractly philosophical (too late, you say!); admittedly, the parallels I'm drawing here are anything but perfect. But still, there is a sense in which certain progressives--like myself--have always been aware of the need to ground our socialist goals in a spiritual, moral, substantive, actually lived world, whereas so many others--liberals like Rawls--think the whole point is to defend the self's ability to pick themselves up and live wherever and however they like. And, of course, to the extent that most American conservatives today are liberals too, believing more in economic liberty (and the "creative destruction" and mobility and meritocracy which comes along with such) than in commonality, they offer relatively little resistance to what I think are liberalism's worst consequences: a devaluing of what Dreher rightly called the Small, Local, Old, and Particular. And so, in my own admittedly idiosyncratic way, I like any kind of argument for crunchiness, whatever its origin and intention: in my view, such helps remind us that what is at stake here isn't just granola, but also the whole question of what, in the long run, modernity will leave undigested, allowing us, the people, to locally and collectively chew it over.

Insofar as my own preferences go, I obviously realize that serious Christian socialists are practically non-existent in today's world, and perhaps there's a reason for this; perhaps there is a deep tension between the two worldviews that obliges one to inevitably be sacrificed to the other. But I still have hope. Indeed, I think we have to hope for such: without the contribution which such progressive and egalitarian concerns can make to traditionalism, the whole crunchy conservative movement will fall, I suspect, before the obvious response: namely, how do you afford in today's world to live a more or less enclosed and localized life? It's not for no reason that many ordinary conservatives end up defending Wal-Mart and Sam's Club and dismissing Whole Foods: the latter is more expensive, and often drenched in a liberal and urban elitism which will have the likely result of leading any conservatism (even a crunchy one!) that cannot or will not talk about class to simply dismiss the concern for authenticity entirely. (Ross Douthat understands this, though not quite enough, I think.) Such may well be the fate of Dreher's argument. But in the meantime, I'm envious: thanks to Dreher's book, what we have here are conservatives having a serious conversation about getting crunchy, throwing some fruits and nuts and culture into the mix. I can only wait--perhaps in vain--for the day when progressives get around to noticing that it wouldn't be a bad idea for them to do the same.

(For a Mormon angle on all this, see here. And for a follow-up to this post, see here.)

Friday, February 10, 2006

Liberals, Theocons and Cartoons

(I meant to have this up earlier, but Blogger has been down for a while.)

Some friends of mine and I have been talking about Danish cartoon controversy all week. The facts aren't much in dispute--the cartoons appeared last September; there were local protests from Muslims and grievances expressed in various Danish venues; as such complaints were rebuffed (whether legitimately or not) those angered by the cartoons organized, radicalized, spread the word. By February, Islamic governments were formally issuing protests, mobs were burning embassies and being shot at by police in fear for their lives and property, and European newspapers were defiantly--and self-congratulatingly--reprinting the cartoons (and adding some that were even more offensive) in shows of solidarity. And here we are, wondering what will come next.

One meme that has made its way around the blogosphere I think summed up the common-sense position pretty well: "Freedom of Speech: Good. Bigotry/Deliberate Disrespect: Bad. Wanton Rioting/Violence: Bad. The first doesn't excuse the second, and the second doesn't excuse the third." Pragmatically, that makes good sense. However, it isn't necessarily clear how you theoretically get to such a point; it gets you called out for being a lousy "moderate". You could, of course, be a determined rights-focused liberal, holding the cartoonists' rights to offend as central to human freedom. But if you do that, you lose the second step; you lose the ability to talk about civility, to make the point which Peter Levine does--namely that the decision to run the cartoons was a bad if legally defensible one, and that the decision of other newspapers throughout Europe to reprint them is even worse. That's not to say one should ignore the ugliness of much of what the protesters are demanding; only that to reduce this to a contest between rampaging, violent theocrats and beleaguered servants of free discourse risks partaking of what Ken Macleod called the "liberalism of fools" (discussed here at Crooked Timber): namely, the tendency shared by many libertarian-type liberals to see in the refusal of any community to be "profaned"--that is, to be reduced to one more disposable product in the elite-run marketplace of ideas--an absolute challenge to any kind of democratic freedom whatsoever. Such a perspective is blind to all the ways in which such particularized communities might feel the supposedly open public square around them to in fact be structured and restrictive (nicely recounted by Scott Martens here); it cannot see (here comes one of my favorite words in these never-ending liberal-communitarian discussions), the context. But how to acknowledge that context, to act civilly and with sympathy to particularized concerns in the midst of the culturally and religiously and socio-economically divided environments one finds around the world--and especially in many Western European nations--today? Strict Enlightenment liberals would suggest you can't--if communal or religious concerns cannot be privatized then they aren't concerns anymore, they're demands, and such comprehensive demands have no place in civil society. I don't think that's the proper way to account for things. But what's the alternative?

Well, one might consider Peter Beinart's, as he lays it out here (subscribers-only link, unfortunately):

Of course, the Danish newspaper had the right to publish [the cartoons]. But, in doing so, it revealed a particularly European prejudice, one that the United States must take care not to repeat. The prejudice is not simply against Islam. Rather, it stems from Europe's--or at least Western Europe's--inability to take religion seriously at all....In France, educational integration means public schools can expel Muslim girls for wearing headscarves. In Denmark, economic integration means employers can fire Muslim women for doing the same. Neither is conceivable in the United States, where the right to be openly religious is considered precious....[A] key U.S. advantage in the war on terrorism is America's capacity to be both religious and ecumenical. And few public figures encapsulate that better than George W. Bush, a man who has helped turn the Republican Party into a multi-denominational coalition of the devout. The intriguing question going forward is whether Bush's brand of conservative ecumenism--at least as it regards Muslims--will endure....

[D]espite Bush's universalism, clash-of-civilizations thinking is deeply ingrained on the American right. In the first decades of the cold war, conservatives frequently described the fight against communism as a struggle not merely for freedom, but for Western civilization. That's why so many conservatives opposed the rapid decolonization of the Third World. They saw it not as a triumph for democracy--which they considered unlikely to take root in non-Western soil--but as evidence of civilizational retreat....It was only several years into the 1980s--as pro-American democracies took shape in East Asia and Latin America--that Reagan and large numbers of conservatives embraced the culturally (and religiously) universalist rhetoric that Bush has made his own. Now, in the wake of the cartoon saga, the election of Hamas and the ongoing trauma in Iraq, that universalism is being challenged, and the older, more pessimistic conservatism is resurfacing. And that's a very bad thing. No matter what you think of the religious right's domestic agenda, the United States is much better off with a religious right than with a Christian right or a Judeo-Christian right. When conservative American Christians lose their ability to identify with conservative Muslims--to imagine their faith as in some basic way the same and deserving of the same basic respect--the United States will find itself less able to speak to the Muslim world, and less able to listen to it. It will find itself, in other words, in the place Europe is now. And that's a place no American should want to be.

A good friend of mine, one intimately familiar with First Things and the theocon crowd, was highly disturbed by Beinart's take; he saw it as a move away from a robust and neutral liberalism, and towards something disturbingly comprehensive and particular, an attempt to use aspects of Americanreligiosityy to incorporate certain proper liberal virtues into a "sentimental civic-religious-providential amalgam of America, Christianity, and Democracy." Danish cartoonists and free speech can be defended, and should be defended, without the involvement of any of that. My take, predictably, was somewhat different.

The way I see it, Beinart is trying here is marrying the religious right's hostility to secularism to TNR's vaguely Wilsonian/Gladstonian brand of moralistic liberal universalism. Religion, as he presents it, is a way of managing difference; by embracing people of all faiths as equal partners in the struggle to make the public square meaningful and respectful, one can bring various kinds of religious particularism together with a "culturally (and religiously) universalist rhetoric." Everyone can be democratic, and everyone should democratize, because in an ecumenical--as opposed to secular--democracy, no one of faith has any reason to fear. It's an intriguing argument. I think that if you're talking about a "deep" ecumenicalism--say in a Hegelian or Herderian sense--in which one honestly believes that all (or at least most) religions are invariably working or pointing towards some sort of common end, then presumably the various fruits which disparate religions develop along the way will be able to be supported without undermining the zeal which sustains the religious enterprise itself. If, on the other hand, ecumenicalism results not from actual religious universalism, but because one just happens to think that all religions ought to conform to various obvious liberal pieties, then I think in the long run Beinart will find that the ecumenicalism he's praising and hoping to attach his democratization project to won't have much staying power. Religion is about binding, about particularity; if in America particularity has been uniquely compatible with universalism, I doubt that has much to do with bone-deep liberal pluralism and a lot more to do with the democratizing and empowering legacy of Protestant Christianity in America itself. (Think of William Jennings Bryan, again.) This suggests that the two "Rights" Beinart describes--the "religious" one, and the Christian one--have a rather ambiguous relationship, at least in the U.S.: a complete embrace the latter would simply be incompatible with the sort of decentralized, pluralistic society which the basic structures and guarantees of our politics makes possible, and yet the former will have little force and energy without at least some people continuing to embrace the latter nonetheless. If you want to be able to protect civil liberties and civil society at the same time, then you need to see that society as more than just the sum of the freedom it provides; you need to accept some sort of model of the world which privileges certain goods and certain ends, and teaches you to be responsible and to act in a civil manner as you pursue them.

Now, how well any of this speculation about America's particular Christian legacy of ecumenical democracy and empowerment actually translates into the democratic universalism of liberal hawks like Beinart is, to say the least, a contested question. (Bryan himself broke with President Wilson over this very issue.) But in regards to the particular matter of the cartoon issue, I think Beinart is onto something. Clearly, one of the reasons that Bush and many other Americans--including many on the left--have not gone out of their way to defend the rights of the cartoonists is because they are disturbed by the targeting of people of faith simply to prove a point....which suggests that we do, in fact, still have at least some ghostly attachment in this country to a comprehensive vision of the relationship between religion and civil society, as opposed to a rigorously neutral conception that respects the rights of individuals above all else. We're not alone in possessing such a remnant of communal concern--and in fact, considering what a very, very bad job we do at actually putting money behind our notions of the common good, one suspects that the frequent failures of secular European notions of civility aren't compensated for by social strengths that our more ecumenical collective notions lack. Still, as far as the matters Beinart raises go, I think he describes a potentially important American advantage: most Americans take religion seriously, and it yet take it seriously in a universalist, "liberal" way.

The danger to maintaining this position is at least two-fold. There is the tendency to believe that liberal commitments alone are by definition both secular and weak: that Europe, lacking in religious faith as it does, will become "Eurabia" and fall under the sword of jihadists because, after all, only one religion can take out another. This is, in my view, the true theocon position (see Richard Neuhaus here), and argument that, whether or not they realize it, I think actually banishes any interest in civil society and assumes that we're in a civilizational wresting match, pure and simple. But then there is also the tendency to believe that there need be no tension between particularity and liberal society whatsoever: that all religions have to do is properly privatize their expressions and conform to liberal forms, and all will be well. This, I think, fetishizes the wrong aspect of liberalism: it leads one to believe that condemning the Danish cartoonists from any given particularist religious perspective is somehow imposing a vicious theocratic particularity upon the whole. But if you're keeping your eye on an ever-contested-yet-enduring commitment to an ecumenical (that is, both religious and liberal) public good, as opposed to simply everyone's rights to disregard such according to their own interests--in other words, if you insist that on some level the proper response to multicultural controversies like these must incorporate elements of liberalism and a certain kind of "conreligiosityeligiousity--then that conclusion doesn't follow.

My friend tells me that it doesn't work that way, that a strong insistence upon liberal goods is our best and only reliable truly defense against fascism in all its varieties. He may be right; I may be terminally naive. But if the opposite of naivete means not blinking when confronted with some of the anti-Muslim cartoons that have circulated in Europe lately....well, I'd rather focus my gaze on some other set collective hopes, for at least as long as I am able.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

William Jennings Bryan and Being a Liberal Christian

Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University, has written a new biography of William Jennings Bryan, the great Christian reformer, orator, and populist leader of a century ago. I haven't read the book, which has only just been released, but I have read some short pieces by Kazin in which he talks about what Bryan's career and ideas can teach us about Christianity and progressive politics in America, both historically and today. In particular, there is this essay from Dissent, and this one from The American Prospect, the latter of which led to an interesting debate between Kazin and Kevin Mattson. All are worth reading.

A number of Kazin's claims in these pieces are particularly noteworthy. First, he argues that the apparent disunion today between "traditional" or "orthodox" Christian faith and liberal reforms only goes back a generation or two; in fact, the way Bryan used obvious scriptural imagery and argument to attack corporate greed and militarism and defend labor unions and public campaign financing was not only not unique, but in fact was common to the thinking and rhetoric of practically every populist or progressive politician well into the first-half of the 20th century. (And among black politicians and civil rights leaders, much longer than that.) Second, Kazin is convinced that, as much as he--a self-described "secular leftist"--is made somewhat uncomfortable by it, those on the left in America today will never enjoy influence again unless they can learn to "speak in unabashedly moral terms....[and] base their moral claims on one or another religious tradition." He has little patience for the "dishonest pandering of the last two Democratic nominees for president, who mouthed banalities about 'respecting people of faith' and asking 'What would Jesus do?' before switching into their standard stump speeches"--no, he insists, the marriage of religiosity and progressive politics (a marriage that was practically rock solid in white, Protestant American life before the intellectual and social transformations of the 1950s and 60s) has to go deeper than that:

For too long, progressives have hoped and demanded that governments solve the problems that beset our society--and complained when conservatives starve or eliminate programs that benefit millions. But in American history, popular movements, imbued with a revivalistic ethos, have been the surest way to pressure the state to do the right thing, consistently if not always effectively....Today, we need a moral equivalent of conservative religiosity, one that can inspire both believers and non-believers on the left to do the kind of smart, determined, often self-sacrificing work that the right receives from its adherents, in and out of presidential election years. As in 1906, such an alternative will draw, in part, on the language of the Bible and the supernatural beliefs of most Americans....The marriage between politics and piety in America has always been full of conflicts and misunderstandings. But it remains as strong as in Bryan's day and will probably endure as long as the nation itself. To deplore that fact only avoids the task of engaging it.

It should surprise no reader of this blog that I'm completely on board with this program. In particular, it's great to see someone like Kazin wrestle with the fact that one cannot separate the Bryan who attacked laissez-faire economics and defended populist farming policies in 1896, from the Bryan who supported Tennessee's effort to prosecute John Scopes in 1925 for teaching "any theory that denies the story of the Divine creation of man as taught in the Bible"--in other words, for teaching evolution. If you were serious about the first, in Bryan's mind, then of course you had to be serious about the second: the cruelties of Social Darwinism and the reductiveness of evolutionary biology were both contradicted by scripture. As Kazin put it, speaking of Bryan and his supporters, "they could not conceive of a moral language that neglected the Bible or viewed it as no more than a captivating historical text." In other words, they were Bible-based Christians first, and liberals and populists and progressives second--or better, they were the latter because they were the former. The latter described how they interpreted and implemented their commitment to the Bible, and that label was important (because there were just as many Christians then as now who insisted the message of Christianity was otherwise--Pat Robertson today probably has a lot in common with the shamelessly wealth-praising preacher Russell "Acres of Diamonds" Conwell of Bryan's day)....but it was not their primary label. On the contrary, their social mores and political convictions were constrained and defined by the authority of the Biblical tradition. And if 20th-century American liberalism--as it continued down a path set by cynics and secularists like Clarence Darrow and H.L. Mencken--gradually became something which (again in Kazin's words), "harbor[ed] a nagging contempt for the God-fearing, the unhip, and the poorly educated"....well then, evangelical Christians of the heartland and liberal politics would have to part ways. Which, tragically, is exactly what has happened. (That's not the whole story, of course: it ignores the important role of race, and the failure--a tragic and terribly divisive one for liberal reform movements--of white evangelicals, including Bryan, to ever seriously address racism in America. But to ignore the "traditionalist" aspect of the story is just as limiting, something which Kazin's study of Bryan makes clear.)

This notion of authority, and the importance for anyone on the left who embraces or at least wants to makes use of the power of Christianity to acknowledge it, is something I've discussed before. This is one of the reasons I admire Hugo Schwyzer's writings so much; as he makes clear in a recent blog post, he is both saddened and frustrated by those Christians on the left who get so intimidated or angry at the "Christian Right" that they cannot be up front about (indeed sometimes deny or hide) their own commitment to the Christian faith. Hugo points the finger in the exactly right direction: at certain types of liberal Christians who--for numerous reasons well described by Kazin--have found themselves over the course of the past 50 years associating and agreeing more and more often with secularists (often well-heeled, well-educated ones), and who, because they don't want to offend their allies (and also often just because they want to distinguish themselves from those "Bible-thumpers" on the other side of the political aisle), have purposefully emptied their arguments of any serious appeal to religious tradition. He writes:

It's no wonder that the Christianity of the left seems so superficial! When was the last time any of us heard a sermon from Al Sharpton that was based on a rigorous explication of the New Testament? How often do we hear from Jesse Jackson how his relationship with Jesus leads him to take the stances he does? Whatever you think of Jerry [Falwell] and Pat [Robertson], they make an explicit connection between Scripture and politics; at best, leaders on the left do so obliquely and too often, they don't do it at all.

Hugo is engaging in a little hyperbole here, of course; as Kazin documents, in many African-American Protestant churches at least, the link between scriptural authority and progressive politics is alive and well. But that, of course, simply highlights the real struggle that people like Hugo and I are going to have with many of our fellow leftists when it comes to articulating a properly liberal Christian agenda....because truly insisting upon the defining power of one's Christianity means that the "liberal agenda" must be shaped in obedience to a prior, not-necessarily "liberal" religious faith. (Kazin points to the influential African-American Baptist minister Walter Fauntory, a man with impeccable progressive credentials, whose commitment to the authority of the Biblical text has led him to oppose efforts to legalize same-sex marriages, at the same time while he attacks those conservatives who use, in his view, arguments over gay marriage as a distraction from the sort of progressive social and economic imperatives dear to his Christian heart, as they were to Bryan's.) In my view, if one entirely equates liberalism with the expansive and distinctly modern philosophical vision of fully emancipated persons, then Christianity can't be liberal, since Christian doctrine--like any doctrine about the divine worth holding--asks the human self to submit to a higher order of things, to be bound to the rule of a community, to obey something other than individual interest. You can certainly be, as I see things, a "liberal Christian," in the same way that one can be a liberal communitarian or nationalist: that is, one can take up one's identity and use it and think about it in ways that respect modern notions of individual rights and needs. As far as that way of thinking goes, I'm happy to embrace the label "liberal Christian," and I assume Bryan would have done the same. But that is because we can see something about liberality and reform and populism and egalitarianism in the Christian tradition, to which we are obedient. To make those commitments mere supplements to what Kazin harshly but accurately called the "standard stump speeches" of contemporary liberalism, however earnestly felt, misunderstands the contextual source of faith's power in the first place.

None of this will be easy to make happen, of course--it wouldn't be easy even if all progressives were in agreement with myself and Schwyzer (and Kazin), and it certainly won't end disputes between various liberal Christians themselves. Bryan's reading of Christianity was hardly uncontested during even amongst those who sympathized with his positions, and it wouldn't be today either, as there are many ways in which one can speak of being "obedient" to Christianity above and beyond any given political ideology. Hugo's friendly, faithful arguments with other Christians over what obedience to a tradition means is one such example (clearly, he and Fauntory would disagree on at least some points!); our own dispute over what being "pro-life" truly requires is another. I easily can imagine that more than a few secular liberals cynically but perhaps truthfully observing that since the sort of "grace and humility" which Hugo rightly notes this kind of political and spiritual articulation requires is not much in evidence in America today, maybe trying to inject it into the left is just bad idea. I, however, tend to think that the example of Bryan teaches us that we Americans are and always will be hungry for such religious "injections." The Republican party has been the sole beneficiary of such for too long; I look forward to the Democrats slowly but surely overcoming their distaste for moral authority and tradition and debate, and perhaps making room for a "revivalistic ethos" once more.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Unlovely Localities

I want to put down some thoughts that have been bumping around in my head lately. As usual, there are a variety of things which prompted them: this short post by Peter Levine, which touches on the importance of feelings of attachment or even "love" for where one lives as a precondition of civic engagement; this thoughtful piece in Prospect (via Political Theory Daily Review) by Gerry Stoker, on the need to deal with some of the less admirable aspects of mass democracy; and the study "The Local Roots of American Inequality," by Stephen Macedo and Chris Karpowitz (an old friend on mine), published in the latest issue of PS: Political Science and Politics. Macedo and Karpowitz synthesize a fair amount of data in order to persuasively advance their thesis that, as "political boundaries help shape citizens' interests and identities pre-ideologically: they demarcate communities of shared interests," any serious attempt to address inequality in America needs to begin with the one of the unfortunate consequences of our often intensely decentralized politics: the way in which the "crazy quilt" boundaries that shape jurisdictions in various localities across the country are as likely to discourage participation as enable it, and as likely to seal off citizens into distinct political and socio-economic subspaces (ghettos vs. "boutique suburbs") as draw them into common acts of self-government. None of these arguments on their own are earth-shattering; in some ways, the question of boundaries and attachments, of where and how legitimate and (we hope, at least) egalitarian civic action can take place, is one of the oldest questions in political theory. But when you think about community and populism as much as I do, it's hard to ever shake off any of these old questions entirely.

The bare empirical facts are incontrovertible: people participate in politics a lot less than they used to, and considering that concerted political action is the only way the needs and concerns of those outside the dominant social classes can ever manage to impact upon public affairs and the decisions of governing elites (much less ever manage to re-order who that governing elite is!), this is bad news for both economic and civic equality. The standard populist response has always been to, one way or another, seek to empower localities: bring governing power, and the subsequent creation of elites capable acting on behalf of a given public's interest, down to the local level. This usually requires, of course, something much more than institutional reform: if we don't have a cultural and socio-economic structure which supports and makes possible the kind of independence and education necessary for real political participation, then no amount of institutional reform is going to help--though it also goes without saying that institutional reform can play a role in cultural transformation or maintenance as well. But let's just stick with local governing institutions and jurisdictions themselves for the moment anyway. Even granting the populist argument, which I am inclined to do, it isn't clear what simply localizing politics accomplishes. Levine comments that one of the causes of the decline in civic engagement is "the rise of professional management"; well, as anyone could tell you, it's not as though local governments are free of professional turf-guarding. But perhaps the professionalization and complication of what in theory are localized and decentralized open political spaces is an effect, not a cause, of the decline of participation; perhaps the decline actually begins with the way many of citizens of modern Western democracies have themselves changed. Stoker puts it this way:

Politics has been infected by one of the dominant myths of our time: that the goal of life is self-actualisation. Politics as an exercise in collective decision-making has been unable to withstand the assault of a naive individualism. The idea that it is only through individual choice that we can express ourselves has reinforced a negative view of politics compared with other forms of decision-making that we experience....Making decisions through markets relies on individuals choosing what suits them. The genius of the market is in part that rationing is internalised--you calculate knowing what you can afford--but in the case of politics, rationing is externally imposed. You get what the system gives you. And democracy means that you can be involved in a decision that goes against you and still be forced to follow it. As a form of collective decision-making, politics, even in a democracy, is highly centralised compared to markets....

Centralised decision-making is a core part of our societies and politics is the mechanism for deciding what those decisions should be. We accept the prospect of coercion in order to live our lives more efficiently and in a way that meets our needs and interests....A propensity to disappoint is an inherent feature of governance, even in democratic societies--where power changes hands peacefully and citizens are protected by the law. But the disappointment has been getting worse in recent years for several reasons. First, politics seems more centralised, slow-moving and unsatisfactory when the economy and society around it are becoming more individualised and market-based. A generation ago many more people worked in big, collectivist organisations, even if they were in the private sector, and so had more of a sense of the necessary compromises and negotiations of political life. Second, compared with one or two generations ago Britain [and certainly American too] is less hierarchical and deferential, and the idea of equal, democratic citizenship is taken far more seriously. That has raised expectations. People believe more than ever that they are entitled to have their voice heard, yet for many reasons--among them the decline of class identities and greater affluence--fewer are prepared to make the effort required to play a meaningful part in the increasingly technocratic arguments of formal politics. People expect a veto right over a game that they no longer play.

In short, the overwhelming success--depending on how you define the term--of modern market economies has had the result of many citizens adapting themselves to habits of gratification, self-actualization, immediacy, individuation, and internalized (that is, nonpublic) rationalization. Decisionmaking has been reduced in the lives of too many of us to a perpetually self-generated and always self-revisable internal calculus: what do I want, and what do I want now? I am not saying the disciplines and expectations associated with free markets are flawed; I am saying, however, that market-appropriate behaviors are not appropriate to self-government. A relatively successful market economy, combined with a superficial sense of equality bequeathed to us through a naive understanding of one's "rights," results in a general indifference towards others so long as one's own rights and property are acknowledged; hence, the more the dominant segments of society are socially and economically homogenized (enjoying at least superficially an easily replicable level of prosperity across society), the easier it is for those citizens in that class to retreat within themselves and assume everyone else will do likewise. Our sensitivity to truly public matters decline, and our political muscles atrophy. Of course, the enormous leaps in personalized technology, which have allowed us to connect ourselves to networks of art and information that involve no collective determination or distribution, as well as the abandonment of truly involving civic requirements (like a draft), only reifies this process further.

If one thinks about the history of democratic politics broadly, one can see the roots of this process as far back as the Progressive era in the early 20th century. People moved to the cities, after all, because the economy was changing, and there was work and opportunities in metropolitan areas that lured millions at the beginning of the 20th century off their farms and over the oceans. At a certain point, the civic corruptions which came along with these human concentrations were too much; reformers moved in professionalize American politics, clean it up and demand greater "democratic" accountability from it. Their relative success, however, can be taken as proof of this process: self-government becomes harder the more one's life broadens, flattens out, and speeds up; the busier and more productive one becomes, across a larger and more homogenized socio-economic space, the more one naturally desires to divide one's life up between the pace of the market and that which you want to keep sheltered and private. So why not let professionals take charge of the town meetings? Either your individual economic strategies are failing, and you're being crushed beneath the wheel, or they're succeeding, in which case they're buying you personal pleasures the provide some refuge and relaxation. Who needs the headache of making political decisions regarding the sewer system when all that is the case?

Of course, all of this is relative; by almost any comparison, civic life in America and Britain was still a lot stronger at the height of early 20th-century reforms and centralization than it is today. Using Stoker's reasoning, however, that just tells us that a serious rethinking of local democratic politics is long overdue. He writes that democracy "need[s] to adapt to the new conditions and the new citizen, both more demanding and more apathetic....the era of mass participation politics is past." To me, that's a tragic conclusion--but I also have to admit that, while I can talk all I want about the farm, the lure the (once urbanized, now globalized) city and the modern marketplace is too strong: we live in a Blackberry world, and must seek whatever level of equality and democracy we can in a situation where almost every locality of size seems to want to assess itself in light of cosmopolitan possibilities. This is where Macedo and Karpowitz come in.

Macedo and Karpowitz don't bring much cultural criticism or political theory into their analysis of the situation, which is unfortunate; I think their piece would have been improved by an explicit (if necessarily brief) discussion of globalization and capitalism, and how the expectations associated with such simply entrench the "consumerist" model of metropolitan governance which they rightly criticize. But their argument, or at least the conclusions I draw from it, is strong regardless--one of the unfortunate results of the probably inevitable professionalization of politics in American cities is that it has perversely infected our commitment to keeping local government decentralized and "popular," with the result that there develops in short order in any metropolitan area a proliferation of governing bodies that respond primarily to a very small, very select elite, with no, as they put it, "cross-class communication and intercourse" between them. (Some of the facts they present are quite arresting: that a metropolitan area like St. Louis includes nearly 800 units of local government, and that it is not unusual for elections affecting the more specialized of these units across the country to have a turnout of around 5% of the relevant electorate, if that.) The privatized model of the modern democratic citizen encourages this balkanization, since many of us possess what is in affect a "secessionist" mentality when it comes to our localities--if some local jurisdiction bothers us, we use our disposable wealth to go build another one, an enclave (or an enclave within an enclave) that will separate us from portions of the population who threaten our home values or school systems or other public (but in fact for all intents and purposes now privatized) concerns. The result is that, too often, local institutions, far from raising one's political conscious, in fact lower it; they "widen differences and place the unpleasant realities of class [and social] disparity at a distance, while also insulating us from their impact."

What to do about this problem today, understanding it as a problem that was echoed in the late 19th century by the Populists and in the late 18th by the Anti-Federalists, and which is really one of the perennial struggles of modern politics? Probably one must begin by recognizing, as I am loathe to do, that there is only so much you can do by way of encouraging civic engagement and education outside of deep socio-economic reforms. Of course one can and should always encourage love and attachment; those virtues remain worth aspiring to. But I can't help but look at my own present home, the small university town of Macomb, IL. It's a fine place, a stable farming town with a good regional university. But I've been warned (and my experience over the Christmas holiday confirms this) that come summertime, close to half the population will flee; pretty much everyone associated with the university who can leave for the summer does--because, after all, what does a west-central Illinois farming town have to offer a university-educated cosmopolitan? The result is that a lot of civic development which could happen here doesn't, because social and economic resources--i.e., the people--aren't sufficiently rooted to this particular place. Sure, this is hardly a unique situation; it's just the flip side of all those vacation towns along the Atlantic coast or the Great Lakes--it's not a crisis, just the way things are. Which is my point: this is the way we live, the way modern, mostly financially secure democratic citizens want to live--when what we can achieve elsewhere, or just in the privacy of our homes, is no different or maybe even "better" in terms of material satisfaction than what we can achieve in concert with others, "exit" cannot help but appear ever so much easier and attractive to most of us than "voice." And if this is the state even small rural towns are in, one probably shouldn't expect anything different in larger localities. There's only so much that can be done, especially in the short term, to make people love their places more; so the only path left for civic-minded folk is to try to make our places a bit more lovely, or at least more lovable.

This leads me to pay special attention to the recommendations make by Macedo and Karpowitz which deal primarily with how municipalities are structured, and their willingness to suggest that "local political structures and the ideal of local control (or 'home rule')" can be abused. Vigilantly enforced fair housing laws are an obvious way to break up enclaves and induce cross-class political recognition; perhaps even more important are steps that would, on the one hand, unify the "fragmented nature of many metropolitan areas," while on the other hand opening up many special purpose government units to public participation. This is hard thing for someone committed to empowering people where they live, but any serious communitarian has to be constantly willing--as I wrote back when discussing school district closures and education reform in Arkansas--to renegotiate the limits and scope of one's affective (and thus participation-encouraging) community, or communities as the case may be. (Such is the genuis of federal or subsidiary arrangements: you can have educational collectivities on one level, and collectivities devoted to civil or national defense on another.) Localism--whether understood in republican or agrarian or communitarian or social democratic terms--is still a mostly true principle; but if the content which most modern free people are willing to accept as a politically involving "local concern" changes, then that doesn't mean you've lost the possibility of a local, communal context entirely: it just means that as the tools and rhythms of human social life change, the reach of that which can be made vividly and engagingly "local" about it has to change also. I'm not thrilled with all the plebiscitarian recommendations that Stoker, for one, makes--electronic voting and easier calls for referendums, etc. It seems to me that, at the same time that important arguments for a more populist democracy languish, we often allow ourselves to get caught up in faux-populist stunts that do more harm to democracy than good. But I suppose, in the name of making an egalitarian metropolitan localism more possible, I ought to be more willing to work with whatever good things my fellow liberated consumer-citizens just may love, than harangue them for what they don't.