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Friday, November 12, 2004

The Context People, the Context!

Obviously, you just can't say this often enough: the argument isn't that getting progressives in the Democratic party to recognize and incorporate as valid the moral concerns of America's religious voters means electing, as Matt Yglesias fears, "scolds-in-chief"; neither Ed Kilgore nor Brad Carson suggest that any of the particular elements of contemporary American culture which they list as problematic for many voters require explicit condemnation. The argument, rather, is whether or not progressives are going to express a willingness to scold, or at least a sympathy for those who feel it necessary to do so. In other words, it's not whether or not the Democrats can realize that, say, abortion or violent video games or Sex in the City has got to go; it's whether they can realize that there are possible worlds into which such things ought not go, and that respecting the popular wishes of the people involves a recognition of the maintenance, or even the potential emergence, of such a world. What is at stake in the culture war, if you want to call it that, isn't the content of the culture so much as the context within which people may determine their cultural environment, and whether in the eyes of the state they will be legitimated or marginalized through doing so. Carson, a recently defeated Democratic representative from Oklahoma puts it together:

"The culture war is about matters more fundamental still: whether nationality is, in a globalized world, a random fact of no more significance than what hospital one was born in or whether it is the source of identity and even political legitimacy; whether one's self is a matter of choice or whether it is predetermined, before birth, by the cultural membership of one's family; whether an individual is just that--a free-floating atom--or whether the individual is part of a long chain that both predates and continues long after any particular person; whether concepts like honor and shame, which seem so quaint, are still relevant in a world that values only 'tolerance.' These are questions not for politicians but for philosophers, and, in the end, it is the failure of liberal philosophy that we saw on November 2."

Limits are useful things, and even if you prefer to reject the communitarian instantiation of any one set of (religious, national, cultural) limits, the act of limiting, drawing boundaries, and (yes) scolding transgressors of such, is essential to allowing a sense of affection for one's lived context to develop. If the power of the federal judiciary or the media undermines the legitimacy of such identity and context-establishment, then there will be hell to pay (as there was in Oklahoma), and all progressive causes will suffer. True, some social conservatives want to remake the country so that it exhibits a single, unchanging moral content; most, however, simply want to be a part of any potential exhibiting. My hope is that if progressives can learn to do this, we will be able to show my fellow red-state voters how the egalitarian project can reveal and even help rectify the way our country's insufficiently socially-attuned economy itself contributes at least as much, if not more, to cultural stress than anything coming out of Washington D.C. or Hollywood. But at this point, the first steps have yet to be taken by either side.

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