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Friday, September 15, 2006

Damon Linker's Theocons

Damon Linker's The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege will be widely released next week, and the reviews are beginning to come forth. So I figure I ought to get my thoughts out there, before they get swamped by everyone else's. After all, I've followed this book closely for as long as Damon's been working on it.

Full disclosure: Damon is an old friend, and he thanks me and some other friends of ours in the acknowledgements to his book for all the arguments we've had over the years regarding this and many other topics. For that reason, my review of the book is probably a little different from most others; not necessarily better, but different. Most reactions to the book will probably fall into one of four groups: there will be the committed, self-described theocons themselves, who will attack Damon's descriptions of Father Richard Neuhaus and others, attack his motives for writing the book, and strongly defend their political activities and beliefs; there will be political and social conservatives who may or may not be aware of or care much about deeper religious and theoretical issues, but who will be bothered at the power Damon ascribes to the theocons, will insist that it is entirely legitimate to defend traditional moral values in the public square, and leave it at that; there will be liberals who are more or less sympathetic to religion, who don't like the First Things crowd but who will find Damon's book extreme and counterproductive in terms of advancing progressive causes in a very religious America; and finally, there will be secular liberals and libertarians who will agree with everything Damon has to say, and who won't need any convincing at all that his case is accurate.

I'm not in any of those groups, and Damon's political and intellectual journey is party responsible for that. I am where I am today, and have the take of The Theocons which I do, to a great extent exactly because I've been measuring my own beliefs against his claims the whole time he's been developing them. So consider this essay the partial payment of a debt.

Damon, who as everyone who knows at least one thing about this book already is aware, is the former editor of First Things; not only did he work closely with Neuhaus and others in developing theoconservative positions and arguments through the magazine for a number of years, but he also was a genuinely believer in many of the core principles which "theoconservatism" stands for. While several factors soured him on the theoconservative project, what ultimately distanced him from that agenda was his belief the present-day movement by many conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants to introduce greater public religiosity into American life, and by many of those in the Republican party to advance that religiosity through executive and legislative action, is simply "unprecedented in American history." This is where Damon and one large group of his critics (at least partially including myself) part company. They point to Martin Luther King and William Jennings Bryan; they point to the huge role which serious Christian belief and action have played in shaping our political rhetoric and institutions; they point to straightforward acceptance of an ecumenical religiosity which characterized almost all of American social life up through the 1950s, if not longer. Compared to all that, they argue, "theoconservatism" is nothing more than yet another religiously grounded accounting of and prescription for American politics, of which this very religious country has had hundreds over the years. Damon disagrees, and the substance of his disagreement comes down to how he sees Neuhaus and others of having developed a "public language of moral purpose." He writes, in a series of passages that I think gets at the real heart of his complaint:

In Neuhaus's view, this populist religious uprising [that is, the decline of the mainline Protestant establishment and the return of fundamentalist Protestantism to prominence and public debate in the 1970s and 80s, through the agency of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and such] demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that, despite its influence and prominence, secularism could never prevail in the United States. . . . Yet throughout the book Neuhaus also insisted that the triumph of secularism was an active possibility to be struggled against at all costs. . . . Relying on the writings of the Jesuit John Courtney Murray . . . Neuhaus argued that the public affirmation of some kind of absolute authority was inevitable because "transcendence abhors a vacuum." The attempt to expunge traditional religious faith from public life would thus end up empowering an "ersatz religion" of the state. . . . Hence, the true danger of the advance of secularism was not that it would succeed in creating a society without religion, but rather that "it will lead . . . to totalitarianism." Unless, that is, the country first experienced a violent rebellion on the part of those traditional believers who refused to go along with the establishment of the substitute state religion. . . .

The country's only hope of avoiding these nightmare scenarios was for it to embrace the reinvigoration of public religiosity--or, in the language of Neuhaus's chosen metaphor, to reclothe the public square. Yet it was far from clear how this should be accomplished. On the one hand, expressing a perennial sentiment, Neuhaus indicated that "populist resentment against the logic of the naked public square is a source of hope." On the other hand, however, simply allowing each and every religious group to bring its own distinctive truth claims to bear on public questions would not yield the authentic "voice of Christian America". . . . The case of the Moral Majority demonstrated this more vividly than any other. . . . [T]he religious agenda of the evangelicals was based almost entirely on publicly unverifiable subjective experiences of being "born again" in Jesus Christ. . . . The public comportment of the evangelicals thus threatened to set back the cause of revitalizing public religion by confirming the warning so liberal secularists about the inevitably private character of religious faith (pgs. 49-50).

So what, according to Damon, did Neuhaus believe had to be done? What was needed was a broadly authoritative and public religious language--which he found, in the 1980s, in Roman Catholic dogma:

In furthering this project, Neuhaus and [George] Wiegel drew heavily on the writings and example of . . . John Courtney Murray. . . . The theocons thoroughly endorses the Vatican's Murray-inspired thaw with regard to democracy and human rights, as did most Catholics in American and around the world. But equally important were a different and even more contentious set of arguments that Murray made about the character of the American political system itself. In Murray's view, the reason the United States had proven to be such an accommodating place for religion was that it "had preserved the political-philosophical heritage of medieval Christendom" . . . [T]he American founders upheld an "older wisdom" rooted in the political limits prescribed by Catholic "natural law". . . . Earlier in the century the responsibility for defending the country's moral and religious consensus against its assailants would have falledn to the Protestant churches, but now . . . the time had come for the Catholic Church to take on this responsibility . . . of preserving and even reconstituting America's theological essence. . . . As Wiegel wrote in a striking sentence that nicely summarizes the theocon position . . . :"The issue , Murray boldly claimed, was not whether Catholicism was compatible with democracy; it was whether American democracy could survive unless it reconstructed a public consensus around those 'elementary affirmations' upon which it was founded--'affirmations' whose roots Murray believed were not the original product of the Enlightenment and its American deist heirs, but of the Catholic medieval theory of man and society." Either the United States would return to its medieval Catholic roots or the very existence of its democratic order would be imperiled--those were America's only options (pgs. 70-72).

That was a lot of quoting, I know, but it is necessary in order to get at Damon's real, substantive argument: contemporary theoconservatism is different from past efforts to democratically maintain or expand the influence of religious principles and groups because it is sectarian and authoritarian in a way those past mergers of political agendas and spiritual witnesses were not. The theocons, in Damon's accounting, have crafted a "public language of moral purpose" that is constructed primarily or at least significantly around claims to naturally grounded, religiously orthodox imperatives--imperatives that, because of their organic connection to the American liberal order itself, are held to automatically carry an objective weight that makes all opposition to them not so much disagreements as potential instances of profound civic and moral treason. The practical, if unstated, aim of building one's theologico-political language in that way is thus not to generate perfect consensus--which is neither expected nor really needed--but rather to lead Christian majorities, even merely small ones, into feeling culturally justified in taking, and religiously required to take, extreme populist action. What Damon observes about some of Neuhaus's various statements in regards to atheists and Jews (both of whom he says can, of course, be citizens, but perhaps not entirely good ones, especially not if they insist on calling attention to themselves and their rights in such a way as to make themselves appear to be "strangers in their own [increasingly Christian] country"), and how such words contrast with the more ecumenical efforts (such as between Catholics and evangelical Protestants) that he is better known for, is just one example of the evidence he marshals to support his claim. So Damon's argument does make a distinction between the public religiosity of a Bryan or King and the religiosity of a Brownback or Dobson; his analysis does point to a difference between the religiously informed campaign against slavery in the 19th century, and the religiously informed campaign against stem-cell research today. Whether that difference amounts to the latter being fairly labeled "theocrats" is a separate issue; this basic distinction is Damon's real contribution to debates over religion and politics in America today.

As I said above, I'm only partially persuaded by his contribution; I tend to believe that folks like Bryan were in fact a good deal more orthodox and commited to developing sources of moral authority in and through their union of religion and politics than Damon would likely admit. But first, a couple of obvious caveats. One, Damon's claims about Neuhaus, Wiegel, and other members of the theocon movement are obviously all contestable. While I find many of his observations and arguments quite compelling, the fact is that Neuhaus & Co. are an astounding productive, passionate, voluble and varied bunch (just consider the sometimes head-scratchingly odd intellectual journeys some of these folks went on from the 1960s to the 1990s, as Damon details in the first chapter of his book). Moreover, they are first and foremost polemicists, extremely sensitive to the political tides. So it is not as though the "ideology" of theoconservatism, from what I can tell, is quite as complete as Damon sometimes seems to want to portray it; those more sympathetic to the First Things crowd than I (and the fact is I read it regularly, and find much that they publish smart and admirable) could no doubt go back through the archives of that journal and find any number of comments, claims, and counter-claims that modify or present in a different light much of what Damon asserts.

Two, and probably more importantly, what I've spelled out above is not what most people reading the book are going to get out of it. If the reader happens to be a secular liberal or libertarian, then the fine distinctions which Damon's analysis reveals between different forms of public religiosity are not going to matter; if it has to do with making (supposedly) private things like religion more "public," then they're against it. And if the reader is a theocon or at least a social or political conservative wanting to protect their side in the culture war and keep their bases of political power intact, the subtlety of Damon's argument will similarly be lost; all they'll see is another hysterical attack on the (quite reasonable) idea that politicians ought to employ religious ideas, particularly those which are manifestly popular with their constituents, in making policy. And frankly this result doesn't surprise me--because Damon himself, in my view, doesn't actually do nearly enough with the particular elements of theoconservatism which he analyzes. Instead, the book (which, to be fair, he intended to be read polemically anyway) invites unsubtle, either-or reactions. Damon has become a lot more secular over the years I've known him, and I think that as he worked through the enormous amount of material before him in order to craft his indictment of the theocons, he much too often employed, either explicitly or implicitly, straightforwardly (and rather easy) secular dismissals and arguments.

So, for example, he takes up Madison's writings on factions and applies it to religious denominations, concluding that above all the founders wanted to see a liberalized, disestablished, civic religious pluralism in America--thereby ignoring the important legal and historical argument that national disestablishment was meant to guarantee that the federal government would not interfere with the widely accepted and often quite orthodox public religious establishments in the states. He condemns populism at almost every opportunity, reading the populist elements of the theocon argument in light of the irrational "paranoia" that Richard Hofstadter and other midcentury liberals diagnosed as motivating all forms of popular discontent with mainstream secular liberalism--thereby ignoring the important ways in which the progressive roots of midcentury liberalism, in the Populists and the Progressives and even in the New Deal, were themselves often very publicly religious. He quotes (twice) President Kennedy, holding him up as an example of a properly secular liberalism--thereby ignoring the ways in which Kennedy had both the need and the luxury to make himself into a vanguard of secularism in an America (the need because he was a Catholic running in for president in a strongly and contentedly Protestant country; the luxury because, as a strongly and contentedly Protestant country, America at that time felt no more need to see Kennedy position himself in light whatever explicitly religious public concerns might have existed in 1960 than they did for Eisenhower to do the same eight years earlier, or for Truman before that). In short, Damon really does believe that the increasing mix of religion and politics is a bad thing--bad for religion, bad for social and educational and foreign policy, bad for American freedoms themselves--and is happy to say so, complete with occasional allusions to theocracy when it suits his purposes, even if that does what he frequently accuses the theocons of doing: reducing complicated issues to simplistic accusations. (Though again, to be fair, Damon is plainly aware of this; for better or worse, his aim was not to produce a work that didn't take sides.)

Damon's well aware that I'm disappointed in his having become enough of a secularist to be willing to bang the theocracy drum; he has similar disappointments in me, I'm sure. But let me, instead of going on about the flaws of the book (others who actually disagree with Damon more and have something invested in seeing elements of theoconservatism succeed for whatever reason can do that better than I), explain why I found it valuable nonetheless.

Unlike Damon, I don't see why I should think that increased levels of public religiosity, or even public responsiveness and limited incorporation of religion on the federal or state level through executive and legislative action, is necessarily a threat to that kind of social order which keeps our pluralistic society from falling into civil war. Damon knows that the theocons are not out-and-out Christian Reconstructionists; Neuhaus does not aim to recreate a reign of Hebraic judges. Thus, the practical threat he sees is not a potential theocratic attack on pluralism itself; rather, it is what he sees as theoconservatism's blithe willingness to play the majoritarian card in response to that pluralism. But such resistance to populist expressions invites, even demands, an argument about the place of majorities in one's scheme of democratic legitimacy, an argument that Damon does not provide. The closest he comes is in taking a few swipes here and there against the idea that sectarian, majoritarian expressions can ever be successfully discussed in light of the communitarian ideal of "civility," as opposed to being closely policed by a liberal regime of rights. Religious populism always turns, in Damon's view, secularism into a seeming enemy of "ordinary folks," and modern secularism is too delicate to be trusted to the masses.

I actually think there is an important truth here, but it is not the liberal one which Damon articulates. What is secularism? If it really is primarily a "stripping away" in some Rawlsian sense, the bracketing and veiling of metaphysical and spiritual commitments so that all that remains as a common, shared and/or public good is that which can be determined through the canons of rational discourse (whether Habermasian or utilitarian or Cartesian; take your pick), then plainly Damon's worry about the authoritarian meanings buried within contemporary theoconservatism is a real one. If you buy into the idea that modern life is atomized, denuded, individualized and deprived of meaning, then surely the last thing you would want would be to encourage the masses to engage in cultural uprisings, because the "culture" which would motivate them could not possibly aspire to any broader meaning; it would, rather, be narrowly built out of the aggregate consent of individuals. And the thing is, if you look at the many ways in which Neuhaus and other theoconservatives have defended the principles of liberalism, insisting that the liberal account of the individual and society is both accurate and workable assuming authoritative Catholic-Christian principles animate it, you have to conclude that most of them actually do by into this very account of secularism. Secular society has stripped down and made "naked" the liberal order; a religious revival is needed to clothe it again. But if this is so, that suggests that theoconservatism actually agrees with the liberal distinction between the public and private realm, which this account of secularism depends upon. In other words, the baseline problem with the modern world is that people have become too lenient in moving certain elements of human life from the public over into the private realm; the solution is not to change how people think about religion and public life, but simply rhetorically and politically get large numbers of individuals to move their religion out of their private world and into the public one. Neuhaus's pre-occupation with finding a language which is both public and authoritative thus makes sense; he wants to persuasively recast religion as something public and ordinary, something that popular majorities will agree and submit to, not because it is, say, the underlying structure of all human consciousness, but because we'll all, as individuals, consent to it (if we know what's good for us).

Looked at this way, Damon and Neuhaus really agree: the whole politico-theological problem in the modern world is, what do you fill up the public square with? Damon says its sufficiently full and authoritative; Neuhaus says it isn't. But really, they're just arguing over different sorts of content, rather than looking at the context within which the public square emerges.

In so doing, theoconservatism's drive to turn religion into ever stronger, firmer, more compelling public arguments sometimes does a real disservice to some of the great spiritual public figures of the past. One might be tempted to draw a Protestant-Catholic division here, and there may be some truth to that; whatever the weakness of Protestantism as a way to maintain the strength and flexibility of public religious presumptions over the long term, one thing it does always make clear is the level of subjective participation in that establishment, in contrast to legalistic readings of nature that present its authority in dogmatic terms. In Neuhaus's hands, Martin Luther King (whom, it must be said, Neuhaus knew well and greatly honors) sometimes seems turned around; rather than portraying King's religious call as a witness that brought people out against mainstream society, it gets turned into an argument about moral principles that are objectively right and thus must necessarily obtain. Yes, the civil rights movement was as interested as any other movement in using their moral authority to generate as many straight-up votes as possible; but it is wrong to imply that the power which civil rights movement wielded was anything other than the result of widespread, personalized, sectarian convictions, as opposed to a logically-driven consent to a particular religious doctrine. MLK shamed and praised America; he didn't catechize it.

What's going on here, I think, is that the theocons, as Damon notes several times in his book, want to believe, and sometimes say they believe, that the religious identity of Americans (and, when they get civilizational in their rhetoric, all of the West) is and always will be there, that it is a gift from God, a sign of God's hand in history....and yet, they don't actually act in accordance with that belief. Rather, they often essentially appear to be the sort of communitarians who think religious community actually isn't inevitable, that a secular and individualized world really is a functional possibility, and so religion and civil society must be fought for; they must be redeemed. But of course, as liberals at heart, or at least as conservatives who have reluctantly bought into liberal accounts of how modern society has secularized and moved away from religious community, the only way they can imagine actually fighting for religion is to transform it and its practitioners into authorities who, because they have nature on their side, you must logically consent to. They are, to borrow and turn around an old Vogelinian phrase, "eschatizing the immanent." Voegelin argued, anticipating Neuhaus (who for all I know has been greatly influenced by him), that human beings crave immanence; without religious or traditional orthodoxy to satisfy that craving, otherwise secular ideas will take the form of a kind of gnosticism, and the eschaton, the promise of salvation and completion which religion holds out, will be "immanentized." There's more to say on that subject; but for now, note simply that theocons commit this error in reverse: they are trying to take the end-times, the battles and judgments and absolutes of the last days, and make them present in presidential elections and foreign wars. They are trying to identify the immanent, the ordinary, the partisan, with the revelatory. And they probably feel they have to: if they don't, if they trust or even just allow the people to subjectively work out a religious order through their own spiritual experiences without objective eschatological guidance, then they're not going to generate enough populist force to win at the ballot box. In this, they may be right.

Of course, things aren't ever so theologically tidy. In practice, in real battles over abortion or divorce or public decency or any number of other social conservative concerns, coming up with good content matters, and hence I can still read First Things and benefit from it. And similarly Damon, in defending his secular priorities, can attack the content he reads therein. But I confess being sad that Damon didn't feel inclined to wonder if there isn't a completely different reading of secularism--one that sees it as part of the broader religious history of the West, one that doesn't implicitly accept the liberal account of things and thus unintentionally agree that modernity had stripped community away--which would suggest different ways of talking publicly about religion besides transforming it into something that can be perfectly aligned with a partisan agenda. (Though I guess I can't be too sad--if Damon's arguments hadn't forced me over the years to consider where I really thought the theocons had gone wrong, then I might not have ever been able to articulate how I think religion and public life can potentially go right.) There are, in fact, many of forms of deep and serious (even "conservative"!) piety that are obviously public but not in any sense driven by populist pre-occupations; populist sentiments themselves are, I think, quite abused when taken out of their subjective contexts and turned into an objectively accounted crusade. Among other things, that's when populism is most likely to become warlike, exclusionary, paranoid--qualities which I do not at all agree with Damon in thinking always characterize public religiosity, but which admittedly have graced the pages of First Things a fair amount lately, especially as things have turned bad for their champion, George W. Bush.

There is a religious discontent with modern liberal secularism in this country; this Damon knows. He would have rather the theocons had, at the first signs of that discontent, rejected public religiosity entirely, embraced the liberal account of secularism as not only correct but a wise compromise, and preached solely private resistance to changes in our culture. I'm glad they didn't; they have done good things with their influence, they've put issues on the agenda that might never have made it there otherwise. But now, with them fixated, at least as Damon persuasively presents them, on their current path of preaching unity between moral truth and popular power and partisan success, I think they need some serious correction. If Damon's book can help provide it, more power to him.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Five Years Ago Today...

...I was working at Mississippi State University, in the small town of Starkville, MS; it was my first job out of graduate school, and I'd been teaching there for about three weeks. I got on my bike that morning around 8am, CST, as I usually did, to ride to my office; I arrived about 25 minutes later. As soon as I pulled my bike into my office building, someone--I think it was a graduate student--shouted out me, "They've bombed the Twin Towers!" (The first plane had actually hit about 40 minutes earlier, before I'd even left our apartment; the second plane hit just after I left. We didn't know, as we didn't have the tv or radio on that morning.) My reaction was a huge--huh? Who were "they"? What towers? (I thought, briefly, that she was talking about some local fraternity prank gone horribly awry, with a local landmark I was unfamiliar with having been attacked.) Within minutes however, I had the whole story: everyone was talking about it, a television set tuned to CNN had been wheeled into the main office, and our extremely professional and competent secretary said, with terror in her voice, that there were more planes out there, and no one knew where they were going. The day was filled with rumors.

I had called Melissa as soon as I'd gotten the gist, told her to turn on the tv; together, with her watching live coverage and me listening to NPR, the news broke of the plane attack on the Pentagon, around 8:40am our time. We had just moved from the DC area a month or so before, and were shocked and scared. Immediately we began thinking about friends back in Washington: the Baileys (Ross worked at the PriceWaterhouseCoopers office downtown), the Meloches (Melanie worked at the Canadian Embassy, just a mile or so down the Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol building), and many more. For the rest of the day, I tried to contact them by phone and e-mail, just to make sure they were safe. (I eventually got through to James Meloche; Melanie was safe, though obviously scared out of her wits, as was everyone in Washington DC that day. Melissa got ahold of her friend Wendy Bailey, and they talked as Wendy watched the smoke rise from the Pentagon from their apartment window.) I suppose I should also have been thinking about our New York City friends too, but I didn't know how to get in touch with them--and given the total breakdown in regular and cellular communications, probably couldn't have gotten through even if I'd tried.

I taught two classes that day; all we did was talk about the attacks. I didn't know much more than anyone else; if I had any advantage over my students, it was only because I had high speed internet in my office and spent every spare moment clicking from news site to news site, particularly Slate magazine, the New York Times, and Andrew Sullivan's website. (Anyone who read blogs--or whatever they were called five years ago--back then read Sullivan that day; his was the most regularly updated, best written source of information on the web, by far.) I listened to broadcasts from New York City as the towers fell. I spent hours on the phone with family and cousins I barely new. I went through the day stunned.

A couple of days later, I wrote a long e-mail to many of my oldest and best friends; I titled it (too cleverly, I think) "Western Civ? Your Life Is Calling," and it betrayed my near total absorption at that moment into the neoconservative rhetoric of war and civilizational conflict. I wasn't the only one: I remember one of my friends, someone who has since renounced the neocon/theocon position entirely, agreeing with me heartily, and calling Samuel "clash of civilizations" Huntington nothing less than a prophet. Basically, as the days went by, the more I thought about the hugeness of the attack (in those first few days, they were talking about perhaps over 5000 dead; I remember one commentator saying that 9/11 may turn out to have been the largest single-day slaughter of American citizens ever, far surpassing Antietam, which ultimately didn't turn out to be too far from the truth), and especially the more I thought about the religious and cultural fury which made it possible for so many people to work so long in preparing the attack, the more I became convinced that there simply was, on the one hand, Christians who were sufficiently tolerant and modern so as to be willing to allow for diversity and pluralism and Jews within their society, and on the other hand, radical Muslims who could stand for none of those three things, found them all an affront, and found the overbearing power with which the U.S. clumsily promoted those things around the world an intolerable insult. So, we were stuck. I did not believe, at that moment, that it really would be possible to retreat, even if we wanted to; our very identity as a civilization bound us to a logic that made conflict to Islamic radicalism unavoidable.

One of my friends, though, was a voice of doubt. Of course we could retreat, he said: we could dial back our support for Israel, we could pull our troops out of Saudi Arabia, we could do a dozen different things. And, in time, I came to realize that he was right--not that his recommendations were necessarily correct, but that his basic analysis was. Our antagonistic position vis-a-vis the Islamic world was at least as much constructed--from out of social and economic as well as cultural and religious factors--as it was historically driven. Wiser heads than mine always discerned the element of choice in our reaction to the murders and devastation of 9/11; as terrible as the attacks may have been, they did not lock us into a situation in which we were bereft of all interpretive power, all ability to pick and plan our battles. Actually though, I think I probably did know, all along, that we were not so obligated, that the rules of war and sovereignty and history had not simply and totally and irrevocably changed on that one September day. But I suppose that, for a long while, I just didn't want to have to think about all the actual, "reality-based" options; I preferred the language of imperatives.

Why? I don't think it was because I was filled with rage at the terrorists (though there are plenty of people who admit that their reaction to 9/11 was driven by exactly that emotion). I never, not even in my deepest moments of neocon fellow-traveling, liked or bought into the whole line about the terrorists being evil nihilists; evil, yes, but nihilistic psychopaths, no. I never took what they did personally. I thought the popular condemnation of Bill Maher's completely obvious point that the terrorists, in flying to their deaths aboard those hijacked planes, had demonstrated real commitment and bravery to their cause was a hysterical overreaction (and really, I should have taken notice of that overreaction, and been aware of what it lessons it might teach unscrupulous politicians looking for an easy way to win votes). No, it wasn't anger, and it wasn't even fear (I lived in Starkville back then, remember? Who was going to bomb me?). I suppose my decision, however unconscious, to willfully support the rhetoric of imperative civilizational conflict in those first few months (and years) came out of my basic philosophical longings; as I've talked about before, I'm just a sucker for connections between ideals and identity; because I think we really are, at bottom, communal and cultural beings, and moreover because I believe community and culture are the means by which immanently realize the moral meaning of our lives, situations where all of sudden our cultural identities and our very lives become linked to a struggle over communal ideals--particularly religions--have some gut-level appeal to me. As I put it a year ago:

What happened as [people like me] watched the World Trade Center come down on September 11th was the realization, for the first time in a very long time, that one could actually see a boundary, a limit: there really was this place called "America," and it had a culture and a way of life and a meaning, and there was something outside of it, something that wasn't a function of, or susceptible to, the abstract forces of globalization, but instead took the corporate Americanization of the world and shoved it all back into national, historically embedded terms. In other words, all of sudden we could see ourselves as a community, not just a site of media and market exchanges, and a community worth loving as well. And to the extent which the struggle with Islamic fascism and terrorism proceeded on those terms, terms which presumed (and, we fancifully imagined, even encouraged the growth of, despite Bush's refusal to ever talk about any real kind of sacrifice) a solidarity with and commitment to one's own...well, the neocons and liberal hawks ended up leading a number of us national communitarians and Christian socialists around by the nose.

And some would say this still do, and I can't say they're entirely wrong. Though I've got a much better grip on the implications of my own philosophy now, and I've been chastened and become more prudent for that reason, the fact is that liberal nationalist/common purpose/meaning-of-history arguments still appeal to me, and probably always will.

If I could sum up the adventures of the last five years in my own thinking, it would be that 1) I still believe the events of 9/11 provide at least some proof that my socially or philosophically "conservative" conception of the world has fair amount of truth and explanatory power to it. But 2) I've also come to see that it is a dangerous and perhaps even terrible thing to have one conception of the world be promoted over all others, especially when the promoting is being done by a political party that seems to sometimes see itself as the singularly and morally correct response to that conception, all other explanations or options be damned.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

A Left Conservatism

Hang on; this is going to be another long one. It's been building up for a while.

If you Google "left conservatism," you're going to come up with references to a late-1990s debate amongst various left-leaning political, social and literary theorists, centering on a 1998 conference at UC Santa Cruz (thoroughly discussed here). The conference featured some well-known scholars, a couple of whom (Judith Butler, Wendy Brown) I'm actually somewhat familiar with, but by and large this particular style of theorizing (poststructuralist, antifoundationalist, and communicated primarily through various forms of cultural studies rather than philosophy proper) has never really appealed to me, and hence I draw a blank at a lot of the names that get dropped in the field. This is why God and/or John Holbo invented The Valve, with their huge throwdowns on what to make of Theory with a capital-T: so folks like me can figure out what all the fuss is about (or was, as the case may be).

While Google it at all, then? Because ever since I was put onto Norman Mailer's description of himself as a "left conservative" back during his 1969 run for mayor of New York City (by Bill Kauffman's book Look Homeward, America, mentioned in a previous post), I've been thinking that there was something useful to the term. Mailer has continued to use the label (for instance here), though in a rather idiosyncratic way. Basically, he wants to be an egalitarian, but he doesn't want to be a liberal, because liberalism simply isn't compatible, in his thinking, with "family, home, faith, hard work, duty, allegiance" and other "dependable human virtues," to say nothing of Mailer's belief in God and the Devil. But he can't be some sort of "compassionate conservative," because the folks that coined that term have turned out to be "flag conservatives": people who, according to Mailer, don't believe in living out American ideals so much as reifying them and turning them into something that can be served by military might, something that can be imposed by force. So he sticks with "left conservative," though he allows he has to constantly explain that description to everyone who asks about it.

I've blogged about political and religious labels a couple of times before; looking back at those posts now, I wonder if I didn't try to push what is basically a semantic point too far. Obviously, calling someone "left" or "conservative" (or "Christian" or "liberal" for that matter) can have different meanings depending on the situation. All I really meant to get at in those posts was this: many labels can equally describe a full-blown ideology, with philosophical and ontological underpinnings and a set of theories and arguments detailing how things do and ought to work, or an attitude or "adjectival" posture, a tendency that governs how one works through and expresses one's chosen ideology for reasons which may be completely unrelated to the ideology in question. For me, as someone who finds the fullness of liberal philosophy unpersuasive both philosophically and ontologically, "liberal" only works as secondary description--by which I don't refer to its importance, but rather its relationship to my intellectual whole. I strongly believe in being liberal, in the sense of being careful and giving and tolerant and generous; but I don't think those things (which I suspect Mailer wants to condescendingly--and unfairly--lump together as signaling a kind of weak "optimism") in any sensible way describe the essence of human nature or human society. So, I want to use the term "liberal" carefully; when I'm talking about ideologies and ideas, anyway, I'm happy to call myself a liberal this or that, but not an advocate of liberalism itself.

So what do I advocate--some sort of conservatism? Well, yes. But it is a very narrow and specific kind of conservatism: I believe that that are goods--real, material, moral, essential goods--that need to be conserved if any kind of decent society is to be achieved, much less maintained. Practically speaking, all this means is that I hold certain standards, certain virtues, to be larger than, and thus not necessarily subject to, individual preferences or arrangements. You might protest that almost everyone's "conservative" under that definition, and I would agree: we all need to be part of a larger community and history, though most people seem to want to deny or downplay that fact. But even if you do consciously take such communitarianism and traditionalism to be the deep structure of civilization, there remains the question of how you respond to it, and indeed what you think there is about that structure than can be responded to.
Amongst these serious, tradition and community-oriented conservatives--call them Mailer's "value conservatives," or call them paleoconservatives, or call them crunchy conservatives; whatever it takes to distinguish them from those market-praising, flag-waving Republicans whom Alasdair MacIntyre called "conservative liberals"--you find some who are, deep inside, still attached (sometimes strongly attached, sometimes less so) to the kind of tribalism and pessimism that Ross Douthat identified in John Derbyshire's oeuvre: "Favor your family and friends; kill your enemies or avoid them; regard everyone else with a certain suspicion." This is a crude and somewhat unfair but not entirely inaccurate way of describing this perspective. Tradition and community are taken to be necessary and important because they are the only things that cannot (at least cannot easily) be turned into abstractions which in turn can be taxed away from you or turned against you; to the extent that the modern world sees profits, wars, borders, religions, families, markets, marriages and more as institutions and events best understood, conducted, and transformed in light of some abstract principle--whether that be individual rights or personal conscience or democratic harmony or economic progress--then the modern world has gone wrong, gotten away from the instinctual truths and embedded necessities of human existence. This is why so many religious believers have in recent decades moved towards greater fundamentalism and orthodoxy: they are looking for a faith that builds connections with real particulars, not ideal generalities. On the other hand, this is also why many "theoconservatives," as much as they may overlap politically with such deep conservatives, often actually have very different presuppositions; too many of them, to my mind, want to create an explicitly--or at least significantly more--conservative and Christian regime in the midst of the abstractions of the liberal order, rather than using their religion to rethink that order (as some do).

Is there any other kind of true conservatism besides this one, a conservatism that actually means something as opposed to just being a rather pedantic use of the term on the one hand, or an almost wholly rhetorical one (in the sense of nominally conservative liberals just trying to slow up the progress and creative destruction they've otherwise made their peace with) on the other? I think so. When Mailer called himself a left conservative in his strange and magnificent The Armies of the Night, he said that he aimed to "think in the style of Marx in order to attain certain values suggested by Edmund Burke." (I liked that quote so much I put it up on my sidebar.) What I take that to mean--and I have no idea if Mailer himself did ever or would ever elaborate it in quite this way--is that the modern world has been fundamentally conditioned by the kind of abstractions and transformations which the conservatives I described above loathe. Traditions and communities cannot exercise the same authority they once did in a world in which individual subjectivity has conditioned our very understanding of the self (at least in the West--but increasingly, most everywhere else as well). Technology, social fluidity, democracy: all genies let out of the bottle. This could be cause for a jihad-like revolt against modernity, or a St. Benedict-like retreat from it (both of which are themselves interestingly compromised responses, but leave that aside for now). Or, it could be cause for calling forth a Marxist response, one carried out on behalf of Burkean communities and traditions. By Marxist, I don't mean historical determinism and revolution; I mean a focus on the central Marxist insights: alienation, commodification, imperialism, and so forth. Why a Marxist response? Because Marx--and what I'm really getting at here is also present in a wide range of socialist responses to modernity--recognized the truth of the Burkean (though for him it was really more Hegelian, and therefore Rousseauian) insight into the connection between consciousness and communal, historical, material reality. Repairing the human consciousness did not mean a continuing project of subjective liberation, with the aim of making the burdens of modernity privately manageable, but rather addressing issues of power and production that make the transformations of modernity into alienating burdens in the first place.

Ah, many conservatives might say, you've just there gone completely off the rails: imagine trying to put Rousseau and Burke into the same sentence! It's audacious, I admit. But I think the only reason why it seems audacious is that the deep Burkean tradition (and its echoes in the conservatism of Americans like Russell Kirk, the Southern Agrarians, Robert Nisbet, and so forth) has evolved into a position which basically accepts the collapse of the modern project: with the end of the authority of tradition comes the impossibility of community, a banal emotivist future, and the likely decline (or violent overthrow) of the West. In short, to borrow a point from Michael Walzer, such Burkeans are the sort of communitarians who think that we are at the point, or nearly at the point, where our communal nature is irredeemably broken up. The problem with this argument, however, is that--given that the human race, even in the decadent liberal (or is it postliberal now?) West is, well, still here--it implies that community and tradition must not have been part of our "deep structure" after all. Whereas the Rousseauian perspective says, fine, okay, our original nature has been lost, we're in chains. The liberal response is to deny the chains, or insist they aren't relevant to individual life anyway; the deep "right" conservative response, especially in its more religious iterations, is to say something like, yes, the chains are real, it's a catastrophe, but in a sense the chains have been there since the fall of Adam, so let's just make the best of it until the eschaton. Rousseau's response preserves true conservative seriousness, but rejects the identification of specific social and economic and cultural problems with original sin. Instead, it, respects the need for embeddedness and connection by suggesting that we remake our chains. Why can we do that? Because within and through modernity the deep structure abides; we're just having difficulties actualizing it, because we've been so intent in fighting internecine battles within liberalism that we've ignored all the other ways in which we could be responding to the world. (The position I'm articulating here is heavily influenced by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, who has made I think very persuasive arguments for an alternative understanding of modernity, one in which the ecology of modern life itself reveals a consciousness of, and need for, traditionally and communally realized moral instincts and epiphanies.) Liberal goods are real, this position says, but they must not be allowed to interfere with the conservation of more necessary, traditional and communal Burkean goods. But at the same time, it is "left"; it follows Hegel and the romantic tradition (which itself drew upon older, mystical ones) in acknowledging that there is a subjective, constructed, willed aspect to our deep structure, and those traditional and communal goods which reflect it; it sees that structure as something which must be regularly (as the Goethe quote I've also added to the sidebar makes clear) re-articulated and thus contextually realized. And so it insists that traditions and community must not become fetish items, so static that their advocates focus only on preserving (or mourning for) their content, and not the context that allows people to discover, even in the midst of modernity, new ones.

Okay, you might say: even if all this is acceptable, and "left conservatism" is more than just an odd neologism, what kind of policies does it actually suggest? Well, a whole range of them, would be my response; there would be no single left conservative platform. (That's why this post is titled "A Left Conservatism"; there's more than one.) For Mailer, during his ill-fated run for New York City mayor back in 1969, his beliefs led him to emphasize decentralization and "community control" over the powerful corporate and bureaucratic interests in the city; this appealed to those at the intersection of the anarchist New Left and the libertarian right, but not many others. In more mainstream terms, what left conservatism boils down to is a communitarian politics, one that seeks an egalitarian civil society without trusting too much in either state bureaucracies or corporate munificence; it might be described as socially traditionalist and traditionally socialist, more or less. This could plausibly include Christian social democrats, Red Tories, egalitarian populists, various "Third Way" types, and many more. Most of these folks would surely disagree with one another in some important ways, and probably one of the few things they would agree upon would be to reject the label "left conservative," even if they did accept my explanation of it. It makes far more sense for them to simply see themselves as liberals who happen to reject some of the more individualistic and secular presumptions behind many modern liberal arguments, and thus are perhaps critical of the Democratic party's commitment to abortion rights, or struggle to reunify progressive causes with religious orthodoxy, or seek to articulate a liberal politics of public morality and the common good, while at the same time insisting that the real focus of any leftist critique of American society should begin and end with the real material concerns of class and culture. I don't think that's quite where they're at, but so what: at the level of policy, lining up correct philosophical labels is less important that knowing what it is you support. For these folks, that might include policies aimed at community empowerment, employee ownership, unionization, participatory democracy, parental involvement and respect, civil service, anti-consumerism, progressive taxation, media responsibility, fair trade, civic religion, localized and decentralized bureaucracies, limitations on corporate power, and more: any of these could be plausibly be described as part of this kind of left conservative platform. And this is what brings us back around to the beginning of this post.

I have no particular position in the broad argument over the implications of the postmodern attack on the Enlightenment, metaphysics, and modernity. (Well, actually, given what I've written on Paul Ricoeur and Jacques Derrida, I guess I have at least a small one.) I don't know, and have no strong opinion, on what "Theory" necessarily implies for politics and morals. However, it does seem to me that whatever else cultural criticism over the last few decades has become, it is definitely anti-essentialist, and thus undecided unconservative. There are plenty of gray areas here, as I alluded to above. But basically, if your primary concern is the (de)construction of identity or narratives or meaning, then you probably don't take too seriously the call to acknowledge certain goods as essentially worth conserving. And if that is the case, then however radical or influenced by Marxist categories your thought may be, you may well be either unconsciously ignoring or consciously denying the central claim that human beings need to be and usually want to be embedded in a historical and communal context. Which will further mean that your efforts to reform and redistribute and repair human society will be more liberal than otherwise--focused on individual preferences and perceptions, rather than collective good. Those who belong to an older, a more "conservative" left, one that has roots in a populism or a socialism or an egalitarianism that preceded the full working out of individualistic modernity over the past 50 years or so, are likely to find this sort of leftism at best a distraction, at worse a liberal elitism that ignores the real concerns of the poor and disenfranchised in the name of pursuing self-indulgent identity politics. And so people like Katha Pollit, Richard Rorty, Barbara Ehrenreich, Thomas Frank, and Martha Nussbaum, all committed progressives, got cranky about all the cultural obsessions they see abounding on the left, made snarky comments, defended talking about progress in terms of human nature, social class, and historical communities, and the poststructuralists blew up in return. This was, to be sure, very much a 1990s thing, when mocking some of the ridiculous excess of theory--think Alan Sokal's hoax in the pages of Social Text--became a standard trope of even among committed theorists. But echoes of this same debate can be heard on the blogs today.

And what about all the rest of those self-identified conservatives out there, whether "deep" or "flag" or actually really just liberal? How do left conservatives relate to them? Well, obviously the bulk of the Republican party, whether neoconservative or not, don't know what to make of them; even if the left conservatives in question end up supporting more Republicans than otherwise (which is possible; those of us of this persuasion can even learn from libertarians on occasion), they're still kooks in the Republican playbook, as some of the harsh reactions to Rod Dreher's "crunchy con" manifesto makes clear. As for other conservatives of the "right" or traditional or paleo variety, Ross's comments in the post I cited above are pertinent: the Derbyshires of the world in all their variety provided needed reminders to folks like myself. For instance, I benefit from testing my thoughts against those of Daniel Larison. I think he's quite wrong in his attack on Tony Blair and his defense of Margaret Thatcher's "there is no such thing as society" position--but it's good for me to reminded, every once in a while, of Christopher Lasch's suspicion that communitarianism was too beholden to sociology, too likely to turn social embeddedness itself into an abstraction, and thus end up both statist and anti-essentialist at the same time. I also think he's very wrong about Lincoln, the Gettysburg Address, and the possibility of belonging at least in part to a "proposition"--yet it's to my benefit to be forced to think often about the fine line between acknowledging the (I think inevitable) willing and imagining involved in finding oneself in a history and community, and allowing subjective ideas (like "all men are created equal") to get in the way of one's particular and preferably local familiarity with that history and community. This is the task that, I think, provides the real measure of the best movements and efforts in American history: the degree to which they attempt to move our society towards greater equality, greater decency, greater opportunity, while always being conscious of the need to conserve (and recreate, if necessary) the connections between people and places that allow equality, decency, and opportunity to really have meaning in the first place.

Ok, this has become ridiculously long. But I still have a couple of things to say on the topic, picking up on posts and arguments from some of the people I've mentioned above, as well as a few others, going back several months. (I told you this one has been building up for a while.) Expect some posts on nationalism, populism, progressivism, and Canada, hopefully in short order.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

I Get By With a Little Help from My Friends

Labor Day is over, and so that must mean the fall semester has finally, truly, begun. I've only ever taught at schools whose academic calendars began sometime in late August, and Friends University is no exception. I've never been able to handle that bit of scheduling well, mostly because I've always been off to the American Political Science Association's annual meeting just before the Labor Day weekend, with the result that my classes are interrupted for about a week only a week or so after they formally begin. Not the best way to build up momentum in the classroom. So, I've long since developed strategies for just introducing material for a couple of class periods at the beginning of the fall semester, without actually engaging it in a serious way; I always leave that for after the long weekend. Though this year I didn't go to APSA--the first time I've missed it in about eight years--so I suppose I could have plunged right into the material. I didn't though; old habits die hard. Anyway, now the game is truly afoot.

There was an interesting ceremony at the beginning of the school year here at Friends; a freshman convocation, which featured the university president, a couple of vice presidents, the athletic director and some others, all saying the usual things to the incoming freshman class. But a couple of things about it really struck me. First was the great effort that went into, at the beginning of the convocation, actually greeting all the new students, getting them to stand up if they were from another country, if they were from a state other than Kansas, if they were from a Kansas city other than Wichita, if they had graduated from this or that Wichita-area high school, if they were the oldest or youngest child in their families, if they were the first in their families to go to college, and so on. I liked the thoroughness of it; obviously it was doable only because Friends is a small place (our class of 2010 is around 300 people), but nonetheless, it really seemed to reflect an institutional desire for the students here to feel named and, well, enjoined. And this was emphasized further at the end of the convocation, when all the faculty and staff present joined hands and made a circle around the freshman class, and then bowed their heads to be led in prayer by one of the pastors who work here, for a blessing on the school year and those who had begun their sojourn through higher education with it.

Yes, Friends University is a praying kind of place, and I like that. The Quaker influence is still strong, though not in any way official; the actual religiosity I've observed here thusfar has mostly been mainline Protestant. I suppose what has hung on most from the institution's many years as a Quaker school is this general, often very pious, commitment to finding God in and through one's friendship with others. The atmosphere is mostly relaxed and informal, but with that informality comes a kind of spiritual seriousness: being friendly, being open and available and patient and fair, is what makes the world a better place, what makes communication with the divine (what one person here described to me as "your walk with the Lord") possible, what purifies the soul. Before faculty orientation, there was an invitation for those so inclined to get together for a small devotional, with discussions of our hopes for the coming year and prayers--free-flowing, conversation prayers--that we will be assisted in reaching our goals, and in reaching out to others as they reach for their goals. It was what I've always imagined pietist conventicles (which I've studied a little bit about for my work on Herder) were like, with a sense of community arising immanently from individual acts of confession and encouragement and exploration and concern; and not merely a community of feeling, but an actual binding between friends and fellowcitizens, a real circle of prayer.

There are, to be sure, criticisms of this Quakerish/pietist notion of friendship. Theologically, it often results in an undermining of the obligations of membership and faithfulness that make a spiritually enriching community of friendship possible; the form of friendliness takes the place of the substance which presumably premises it. And political theory often borrows much from that theological critique: the assumption is that the sort of friendship I'm describing here can only exist between family members, immediate neighbors, or others whose relationship is both longstanding and close-knit; to ascribe such a communal ideal to anything more expansive than that is either nonsensical or tyrannical or both. Besides, even if you could have such intimacy on a broader, more public level, who would want it? The result--so say many--would be a world stagnate with cloying connections, politics as a perpetual family reunion. You need ideas to get things moving, and ideas pay little allegiance to friendships (or friendliness, for that matter).

Joseph Epstein wrote a fine essay in Commentary back in July, titled "Friendship Among the Intellectuals," in which he discusses Norman Podhoretz's book Ex-Friends, and the phenomenon of breaking off a friendship solely because of a disagreement over ideas. He admits that, for him, "a person's general point of view is more important than his opinion on specific issues," but still that "it seems undeniable that general agreement on...major [political] matters is a great lubricant for a friction-free friendship." I suppose he's correct--and yet, I want to resist the notion that the ability of people to successfully trust in and connect with one another is usually dependent upon an abiding, prior agreement on certain key essentials. Obviously, if the point of disagreement between me and someone else has to do with the acceptability of pedophilia or armed robbery or something else that impacts upon my ability to live and take care of my family in an ordered and decent society, then all common ground has been lost. But most political disagreements fall far below that standard. I really do believe that it is possible to be civil with--and, through that civility, potentially realize the existence of a deep (and I think spiritually grounded) bond with--other people with whom one has even fundamental disagreements with. I don't think this is sliding towards the gooey, "everything's relative; let's just all get along" accusation which is (often though not always unfairly) leveled at the pietist vision of human relations; rather, I think it is an insistence that how one behaves (hopefully in a decent and friendly way!) is part of one's substantive beliefs--one's position on taxes or war or religion or the environment is inextricable from how one follows through on that position, and a primary manifestation of that "following through" is one's encounter with opposing positions. True, in the actual work of political decisionmaking, some are always going to be excluded from certain coalitions, and some lines will have to be drawn. But in the more everyday tasks of everyday life--including, for example, teaching a class or running a university--I don't think there need be any serious problem with simultaneously being firmly committed to one's ideas, and firmly bound to one's friends, and seeing both as part of a way of living that makes a person more than the sum of their parts.

There are personal reasons why I write all this, of course. I've been fortunate enough to pick up a lot of friends over the years, and at different times as opinions have changed, some of them have had serious disagreements with me, and I with them. But I treasure the fact that, so far as I can tell, I can still call all of them friends. A close friend of mine is about to come out with a book that is costing him a lot of friends; I have some major disagreements with the book (as well as some major agreements, both of which I'll talk about in a couple of upcoming posts), and admit that some of what he says about certain personalities in that book are borderline mean. Yet it perplexes me to seem him attacked as a "Judas" and "turncoat," and saddens me that there are people who have apparently lost all interest in him or his family or his life simply because he has decided he no longer shares some of their priorities. To which I can only say....um, so? I mean, obviously it matters a great deal from within the once shared base of belief; in matters of politics as well as religion, seeing an apostasy always hurts. But I don't see why it necessary must interrupt the ability of two or more people to continue express themselves--in regards to their beliefs as well as everything else--in such a way as to keep that circle an enriching reality.

An old teacher of mine recently commented on this, in a religious context: how to account for the fact that he can be friends with people who wouldn't be friends with each other? While there are many good answers to that question, the one I like best is pretty simple: he is a person who desires to find and keep friendships with others, rather than identify, quantify, and measure himself on the basis of who his friends are. I suppose that we all, if confronted with extremes such as I mentioned above, must go the latter route at least to some degree; I do not care to be the sort of person who can be friends with a child molester or a believer in human sacrifice or an unrepentant Enron executive. But take that latter route as the only one possible--that is, assume that the friendships through which you can experience a richer life can only exist on terms of prior religious or political agreement--and the result will always be, I think, at least a little self-centered. If I want to be part of a circle, that that means I need to learn from and take from and be moved by those on both sides of me, left and right. Sure, sometimes the circle will be broken, and sometimes it ought to be; hell, even Friends University will kick someone out if they can't abide by some basic rules. But we ought to work to avoid that result, and need to remember that it is a truly sad thing--and I mean real sorrow, not a self-justifying "well, I'm sorry if you feel that way...." sort of thing--if the circle can't be patched up. It is through friends--whether they be our family or just our fellow citizens--that we get by in this life; life's too short to cut people off unnecessarily, else one will find yourself unable to encircle and pray for--literally or otherwise--all that you properly ought to, in the end.