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Monday, February 26, 2007

Communitarianism: A Summary

The thread on my abortion post, somewhat surprisingly to me, turned in part into a discussion of communitarianism, and specifically the idea of using the law to promote (or discourage) communally felt goods (or ills). Since at the same time I was engaged in another series of posts that had to do with liberal and communitarian political theory, it made me think that a general post on communitarian terms and concepts might be in order. I provided something like this for liberalism a few years ago, and some people found it helpful; maybe some others will find this one the same.

Like liberalism, communitarianism can refer to both an ideology--a set of more or less organized claims or ideas about political positions and actions--and a philosophy. However, I would argue that the range of arguments and proposals that can be plausibly identified as "philosophically communitarian" is much greater, culturally and historically, than is the case with liberalism. Practically all core liberal ideas are associated with the growth of personal and social liberation from the modern history of Europe: the rise of entrepreneurial capitalism, dogma-debunking science, and the rambunctious public sphere, and the skepticism of royal, church, and ultimately government authority which followed. "Liberty" surely has its positive connotations, with economic and moral empowerment and equality being treated as a necessary requirements to the realization of liberal rights; T.H. Green made that argument in the 19th century, and John Rawls did in the 20th. But by and large, notions of rights (whether natural--John Locke--or categorical--Immanuel Kant) operate in a negative way, asserting what should not be done to a person or be imposed upon her interests or preferences in the name of a religious truth, a local tradition, a community norm, or a political goal. Liberalism--as a philosophy and ideology--is thus to a great degree a carrier of the individual liberation and social deconstruction achieved in the modern West to the rest of the world.

Communitarianism, by contrast, can be applied to any of a great number of philosophical presumptions that do not aim to justify individual liberation from tradition, authority, religion, society, necessity, and so forth, but rather to positively assert the embeddedness of the self in a community. The "liberty of the ancients" as described by Benjamin Constant--in which the existence of slavery made possible the regular participation of citizens in the collective formation of civic life--is basically communitarian, and rightly so; Aristotle and others like him are complicated thinkers that don't easily fit into any one (especially modern) category, but only a seriously misinterpretation could discover in their writings a condemnation of the cultural and hierarchical claims of one's community and the affects it has on individual lives. Similarly, one can discover communitarian ideas in classical Confucianism, medieval Christendom, or in almost any other premodern worldview. Practically any theology or ontology or epistemology which criticizes or undermines individuated, critical, unprejudiced (and therefore alienated) action or cognition, and considers to be natural or good or necessary its opposite (a dependence upon revelation, an emphasis on group-ordained roles, the prioritizing of mutual benefit and progress, etc.) is communitarian. Still, such broad descriptions--which could presumably equally fit Han dynasty China or ancient Sparta or 16th-century Swiss villages, to say nothing of their modern incarnations--leave much unexplained. Thus, figuring out exactly how any person or policy identified as communitarian comes to that label is at least as important as identifying it as such in the first place.

Michael Walzer (whom I also quoted in the aforementioned liberalism post--what can I say? the man is brilliant) suggests in an old essay of his that contemporary communitarian perspectives can be sorted into two fundamental camps. The first perspective "holds that liberal political theory accurately represents liberal social practice." That is, it affirms that the doctrines of liberalism--the notions of self, rationality, and nature which emphasize economic, social, moral and political liberation--have in fact resulted in the fragmentation of civilization: we have lost our ability to connect with one another, lost even the ability to coherently explain that loss, and consequently live materialist, egotistical, self-interested, isolated lives, with no sense of a common good, no moral standards for judgment, no solidarity, no traditions, no hope for transformation or better ends. The second perspective, by contrast, "holds that liberal theory radically misrepresents real life"--that the "deep structure of even liberal society is in fact communitarian." Being born into a state of nature, outside of embedded relationships of power and meaning, is of course impossible; the way we work through our families and languages and cultures to evaluate and make sense our lives proves that. Hence, according to this perspective, liberal theory is not so much destructive as it is confusing (though that confusion could do a fair amount of destruction along the way).

There are problems with both approaches, as Walzer notes; they struggle when they try to turn themselves into productive critiques of our undeniably liberated world. In regards to the first, if it is true that the modern flight from norms of obligation and belonging has destroyed our ability to articulate and attend to community, why exactly would we want to subject ourselves to communitarian policies which presumably would be in vain? In regards to the second, there is the fact that, as Walzer concludes, "if we are all to some degree communitarians under the skin...the portrait of social incoherence loses its critical force." Still, Walzer believes--and I agree--that there is a lot of wisdom and truth in both approaches: it is useful to reflect on how much communal sensibility and appreciation for the public good the modern West has lost, and it is valuable to see how much of that sensibility nonetheless still haunts our moral and political thinking. Amongst philosophers and writers, I would describe Wendell Berry, Alasdair MacIntyre, or Robert Nisbet as communitarians of the former sort, and Charles Taylor, Robert Bellah, or Walzer himself as in the second camp--though almost none of these people would use the word "communitarian" to describes themselves.

(The aforementioned names are all, obviously, intellectuals who have engaged in the debate over the modern world in the United States as it has developed over the past generation or two; I could have included Thomas Aquinas, Mencius, or Edmund Burke as advancing similar communitarian arguments, though in radically different contexts.)

Agrarianism, populism, nationalism and fascism, localism, civic republicanism and humanism, traditional conservatism (both theo- and paleo-), socialism and communism, some forms of anarchism, social democracy--all of these are specific movements that are communitarian in important ways. The ontological supports that advocates of these ideologies have philosophically drawn upon or have felt led to them by range across the above divide, and of course plenty of agitators for one or more of the above theories of government and society don't feel a necessary connection to any particular sustaining philosophy at all. However, generally speaking, the more a person's criticism of liberal modernity is based on conceptions of the natural world or religion, the more likely it is to be "conservative" in the political sense, and thus tending towards the first perspective. This is the sort of communitarian ideology most Americans are used to, even though it's rarely called by that name: this is where you find advocates of traditional marriage and gender roles, opponents of artistic expressions and media that ignore local values, supporters of protective and small-town agricultural economies, and people critical of the language of rights and grievances. With them usually also comes both a sense of nostalgia or lamentation and, perversely, Republicans trawling all too successfully for votes. This attitude--and voting pattern--is familiar enough today that it is regularly incorporated into liberal writers' assessments of "Red America" or "the Homeland"; still, it doesn't capture the alternately despairing and hopeful, anarchist or countercultural, element of this communitarian critique. Of course, many of those who are persuaded by elements of this critique are not truly critical of philosophical liberalism at all; so long as the government stays small or they are able to keep a few socially conservative regulations on the books, they are content with the liberating, "creative destruction" of capitalism and individual rights. This is the primary reason why, as Ross Douthat and Rod Dreher have observed, conservatism in America today is deeply confused.

On the other hand, if one's critique of modern liberalism is based on social observations, such as about the importance of civic trust, national service, or class equity, whether derived from Karl Marx or Alexis de Tocqueville, then one's communitarianism is likely to be more inclined to the second perspective. This is the kind of communitarianism that, in contrast to the former and more politically common type, most theorists will be familiar with: Michael Sandel, Philip Pettit, William Galston, and Richard Dagger have been key figures in a small but significant neo-Tocquevillian revival, in which a re-attachment to the virtues that the liberal order presupposes, and a recommitment to its participatory demands and possibilities, are seen as crucial to restoring legitimacy to the modern democratic welfare state. Most of these individuals, strongly influenced by the social democratic left, see themselves as liberals or civic republicans rather than communitarians, a word which they (wrongly, I think) associate with conservatism and religious authoritarianism. Sometimes those in this group are categorized as "left" communitarians, as opposed to the previous, more "right"-leaning kind, and there is a certain logic to that usage (though I think "left" and "right" can be used to explore conservatism, and thereby separate the pure traditionalists from those of a more explicitly communitarian focus as well). More usually they have eschewed such labels altogether, and defined themselves instead as representing a "Third Way" or a "Radical Center," and in so doing have blurred to the point of indistinguishability the difference between themselves and scholars like Will Kymlicka who take community and culture seriously, but only on explicitly liberal terms. Nonetheless, even these left-leaning communitarians, by opening themselves up to necessity of tradition and attachment, usually find themselves less than instinctively supportive of modernity's project of liberation. The primary political form this moderate "illiberalism" takes is through populism--an easily abused term, but one which at its heart suggests putting real economic, moral, and political power in the hands of specific communities, or at least aligning such protective power with the popular interests of decidedly non-cosmopolitan non-elites. The right has long claimed the populist mantle, but today, as the 2008 presidential contest begins, there's more populist and communitarian rhetoric to to be found amongst the Democrats than the Republicans.

A couple of additional points. Many conservatives, and quite a few populists as well, have responded with suspicion to communitarianism in its most straightforward form, such as that articulated over the past fifteen years or so by Amitai Etzioni and others. Their primary complaint, as Christopher Lasch once put it, is that communitarianism as an ideology on its own terms is too much a creature of sociological investigation, and thus suffers from a tendency to frame its recommendations around "behavior" and "customs"--which are unreflective and static stylizations of what is actually lived out in a community--as opposed to "action" and "memory." Lasch's distinction is a little overwrought, I think, and doesn't serve his own populist agenda well, but he makes a good point: too often communitarian laws and programs clumsily aim to prop up something which has been, somehow or another, identified as important to the embeddedness of a people, failing to see that it is the context within which people can act communally that matters, and only rarely the particular form of community content. This leads to a final observation, about the association between Continental philosophy and communitarianism. It is true that the German romantic tradition, including but not limited to G.W.F. Hegel, gave rise to a phenomenological argument which asserted that knowledge, ethics and action depend upon already-existing historical and cultural horizons and materiality; this, in time, contributed to the writings of hermeneutical thinkers like Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Hannah Arendt, all of whom emphasized such communal realities as language, participation, and the Volk. While there is no real sense that any of these thinkers were communitarians in the manner I have discussed them here, it is nonetheless true that, under the influence of Arendt, social and participatory democratic thinkers like Sheldon Wolin have advanced arguments that link political action with community, thus providing a good antidote to overly sociological constructions of belonging.

And me? Well, I'm a populist, one whose communitarianism has enough of a religious grounding to take some forms of cultural conservatism seriously, but also one who is attached enough to romantic and socialist traditions to see virtue and equality as mutually compatible, if the playing field is democratic enough. But figuring out how to make it that way is something else entirely.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Why I Am Not Pro-Life (But Not Pro-Choice Either)

This post has been kicking around since last month, when a lot of fine bloggers were putting forward their defenses of abortion rights as part of "Blogging for Choice" Day. As it had been quite a while since I'd last written about abortion, I considered putting together a contrary post, titled "Why I Am Pro-Life." But I couldn't, because I'm not.

I've probably called myself "pro-life" in the past, maybe way back when I was in high school or an undergraduate. But I have no specific memory of doing so, and I wouldn't today. Part of this is, simply, because I'm not the hardline, simplistic, killing-a-fetus-is-murder opponent of abortion that I was raised to be. (Reading The Cider House Rules will do that to a person.) Do I still want to deter abortion, including--but not limited to--limiting abortion rights where I think best? Yes, definitely; the revulsion I feel towards the concept is still there. When I first learned about what an "abortion" was as a child, the mental image in my (ten-year-old, perhaps?) mind was of that of doctor wielding a butcher knife, stabbing a baby within a mother's womb...and frankly, the straightforward medical facts of what an abortion involves don't lead me to feel that that disturbing image is in any principled way flawed.

But while I would insist that is both impossible and irresponsible to pretend that such sentiments and feelings either could or should be excluded from political discussions, I also acknowledge that you have to be able to at least provide some reasoned account of the roots and parameters of one's revulsions for political purposes; standing alone, they provide few details and fewer answers. As time went by, the answers provided in particular by hardline abortion opponents, the one's who for reasons of religious doctrine or natural philosophy have determined that a fetus or embryo is fully human from the moment of conception, became less and less satisfying to me, both logically and theologically. And, perhaps most importantly, as I came to value more and more the (just as often left-leaning as well as "conservative") arguments for a genuine culture of life, I became similarly disturbed at the fetishism and obsessions often displayed on the "pro-life" side. A comprehensive and decent affirmation of "life" at all levels is a worthy ideal, but it lends itself idolization. One does not automatically reject moral realism and truth by realizing that reducing one's notion of life to the simple question "just when does it begin?" hardly does justice to the whole phenomenon. Opposing abortion is definitely a part of doing justice to it, but only a part.

So, I don't use the phrase "pro-life"--it's limiting, often inaccurate, and does the debate little good. The attachment of many opponents of abortion rights to it is, I think, symptomatic of one of the larger problems in the debate: the desire on their part to stigmatize the act of abortion as always and uncomplicatedly a crime against a living being--an act of murder, in essence--is at least partly reflective of the desire to get around the reality that millions of women (and, indirectly, men) choose abortion every year. Far better to address the thing itself, rather than the context within which the thing arises, is quite often the underlying, unconscious thinking here, I suspect. And which is, of course, the same sort of underlying thinking that led millions of basically decent people in the 19th-century to oppose slavery, but feel no need to reflect upon their own racism, or the social and economic structures that they benefited from and which kept freed slaves and their descendants from enjoying any sort of real equality with whites for over a century. That's not to say that ending slavery wasn't a legitimate end in itself; and by the same token, I wouldn't say that facts about the real viability of unborn babies are irrelevant to legislation on abortion. For certain they are not. Yet one should not get away, as some pro-lifers seem to want to, from the central point that it is the context of choosing that matters most. The medical knowledge that makes abortion possible is not going to go away; all that can be affected by agitation over the issue are the circumstances under which the desire, the wish, to make use of this knowledge is to be considered justified, or regulated, or permitted, or condemned, or denied. And that means talking about choice.

You have to hand it to advocates of abortion rights: the rhetoric of choice is perfect for advancing their cause in the modern world. Who doesn't want more choices, after all? Or, more particularly, who wants "the state" or "the government" or "fascist Christians" (they're all pretty much the same to the abortion lobby in this day of Bushist theocracy, right?) to make choices for you? Nobody does, that's who. Abortion as a supremely individualistic, personal, private, even affirmative act makes perfect sense--you control your own body, you determine your own sex life, you weigh your own feelings, you chart your own future...it all fits together. The availability of abortion is a technology, a tool; it gives you more options, it leaves open more doors you can go through--or go back through, if a relationship or opportunity or lifestyle doesn't appear to be turning into what you thought it would back when you first chose it or unthinkingly went along with it. And please, let's not get waste our time talking about how depicting "choice" in such terms is terribly harmful and/or disrespectful to those obviously and indisputably tragic cases when abortion arises as an option in the contexts of violations like rape; I will quite willingly shut the hell up and listen with an open mind if someone wants to attempt to explain to me why it is they believe that any possible form of democratically determined, revulsion-grounded abortion restrictions (parental notification laws, mandated counseling and waiting periods, etc.) will always weigh terribly and entirely upon exactly those women who are most in need of society's protection, but I have little patience for people who wish to pretend that the alignment of abortion rights with "choice" is somehow wholly and solely tied up with those awful few cases. Because it's not; in the minds of the overwhelming majority of abortion-rights advocates, it's about allowing people--almost always white, middle- and upper-class, secular people--more and freer sexual choices than previous generations enjoyed. Being able to rely on a technology that makes it somewhat easier to choose whether or not to have the baby, or to marry the guy, or to stick with the relationship, or to remember last night, or to finish the degree, or anything else, also means it's somewhat easier to choose more sex, period. (Let us praise the honesty of Matthew Yglesias here: "That legal abortion encourages premarital sex is feature, not a bug.") And again, what could be more modern than that?

Nothing, I suppose, if you're of the (in some ways almost misogynistic, if you think about) opinion that the biologically male model of sexual behavior--that is, being able to have intercourse often with no physiological or (one hopes?) psychological consequences whatsoever--is normative and ought to be available to everyone regardless of gender and indeed ought to be enabled through legal guaranteed rights. And there's equally nothing wrong with it if you view one's sexual choices as indistinguishable from any other set other commodified choices, ideally having no ramifications on one's living arrangements, extended family, position in society, obligation to future generations, unacknowledged dependence upon unwritten moral standards, involvement in collective goals, etc. (And no, I haven't plucked that list out of thin air; while it would be, of course, ludicrous to claim that every single sexual act that evades or ignores its own inherent and/or conventional consequences and obligations is therefore a crime against civilization--human beings would have never made it out of the hunter-gatherer stage if such were the case--anyone who maintains the opposite and equally ludicrous view that, all things being equal, women and men ought to be able by right to enjoy sex without their futures or thoughts or relationships being messed up by any of that communitarian crap in any way, clearly has only ever had sex on the starship Enterprise's Holodeck.) Obviously, I think both of those beliefs pretty flawed on their own terms. But if you do nonetheless believe either of those things, however slightly, however unconsciously, then at the very least one really ought to consider how the embrace of such a plainly individualistic ethos might, say, infect one's other political commitments.

Two excerpts here, both which refer to experiences which took place during counter-protest "defenses" at abortion clinics by abortion rights advocates. One comes from an e-mail sent to me by Crooked Timber blogger (and atheist lefty) Harry Brighouse, used with his permission; the other from an essay by DePaul philosophy professor (and atheist Maoist) Bill Martin, titled "A postsecular contribution to the debate on abortion," from his book Politics in the impasse: Explorations in postsecular social theory. First Harry, responding to a comment I made about the way mainstream liberals sometimes get in the way of religious and atheist leftists from connecting with one another:

[I should tell you about] my experiences at abortion clinic defences in the late 80's and early 90's. I used to be much more confident than I am now that abortion was permissible, and was in a milieu which participated in the defences--I must have gone to 15 or so in my time. I HATED them for several reasons. The most striking were these--I hated being in a demonstration in which the police were on our side; I hated being in a demonstration in which my side was visibly composed of wealthier more privileged people than the other side; and I hated the fact that I knew that, my socialist contingent excepted, the people on my side were less committed to my ideals of social justice than many of the leaders of the other side; who were often leading lay Catholics and Catholic priests whom I'd seen at meetings and demonstrations in support of our Central America work and helping to organise community support for strikes of low paid workers (this was in Southern California)--you never saw the NOW or NARAL people at such things.

Now, from Bill Martin:

Most people in the anti-abortion movement associate the pro-choice movement with the middle class. This is not entirely accurate, but I think that the dominant rhetoric of the pro-choice movement is very much a product of the middle-class point of view. This is mere empiricism, of course, but I might mention some things I've seen at various pro-choice demonstrations. At a demonstration at the state capitol in Topeka a few years ago, a woman was carrying a sign that said, "Choosy mothers choose choice." That seems to sum up the whole consumerist ideal right there. Although some fellow demonstrators said that they found this slogan "cute," I found it disgusting—just the sort of thing that says that, out of concern for "my choices," I don't want to deal with any of the hard questions that should be at the heart of the abortion controversy....[T]he point is that the rhetoric of choice is embedded in a general ideology that has it that there can be no larger struggle over values. Of course, in one sense, that is true—in an anti-participatory society such as the one we live in, there certainly is not going to be any substantive official debate over values. But the rhetoric of choice simply accepts this state of affairs—and therefore has nothing more substantive to tell the people who are genuinely concerned about the moral questions of abortion than, "don't tell me what to do"—accepting that the best solution is simply for each person to be able to decide what they want, in the atomistic isolation and serialization that is the stock-in-trade of anti-participatory society....

Many people in this society who identify themselves as conservative are worried about a society, and especially an economy, that seems to simply rip up the fabric of life for no good reason. Many of these conservatives who take their frustration and resentment in the direction of fascism (whatever it is officially called) do not see the ideology of "just do what you want" as any kind of alternative to a community structure. And, in fact, for that part of this group who are not wealthy members of the middle class, the ideology of choice can't have any great appeal, because these are people who are not used to having all sorts of choices in the first place. The liberal response is to simply see this as an impoverished form of life, and to treat these community-minded poor and/or working-class people as ignorant....[But] when I see poor and/or working-class people lined up in the anti-abortion ranks, I see a willingness to sacrifice over fundamental value questions that I do not see on the side of the rhetoric of pro-choice. I see an engagement with values that is denied by the pro-choice rhetoric. Frankly, I'd rather argue and struggle over what our values ought to be with someone who believes in values than with some "choice" advocate who doesn't, who isn't primarily motivated by values....

I wouldn't want to pretend that either Harry or Bill Martin (whom I the good fortune of meeting with a couple of times, long ago; he was visiting BYU because he was fascinating by the "illiberal" elements of Mormonism) are on my side in this debate. Clearly, both are at least a little troubled by abortion, if only because, as best as I can tell, they recognize that the defense of abortion rights as first and foremost a personal choice very clearly enunciates a particular (and close-mindedly liberal) position regarding a host of complicated issues arising from sex, family life, parentage, cross-generational obligations, the raising of children, etc.--and that all of those things are, contrary to beliefs of some egalitarians, inextricably tied up with achieving a just, fair, and loving society. Yet both, so far as I know, still basically believe that abortion rights are worth defending because of the never-entirely-sharable-or-transferable costs which opposing them would sometimes force onto certain classes of women. (And in case it's not clear, let me say again: I completely agree that the fact that many opponents of abortion rights care not a whit for addressing the costs their policy preferences would have on the social fabric through greater education and social spending is simply despicable. And the fact that even greater numbers of abortion opponents are unwilling to think critically about the way the alienating, disposable, work-and-play-centered as opposed to family-centered pace of modern life has exacerbated inequalities in the set of mutual relations and responsibilities between women and men which they envision is just as bad. As Stanley Hauerwas has observed (via Kim-loi Mergenthaler), "if you think that you can be very concerned about abortion and not concerned about the privatization of American life generally, you are making a mistake.")

Having rejected the simplistic judgment that "abortion = murder" in (almost) all its variations, I can't dismiss what I assume to be Harry's or Professor Martin's ethical concerns. I struggle in trying to figure out what, if anything, I can or should do with my revulsions; and I suppose the consistent majorities of Americans who say that, while they don't want abortion outlawed, they are still are bothered by it and would like it to be rare, are in my same boat.

The rhetoric of choice, of course, provides an easy recourse here: "You say you feel revulsion at the thought of abortion? Great! I don't. So how about we pass laws that allow you to follow your revulsions and not have an abortion, and me to follow my lack of revulsions and perhaps choose one if I'm so inclined, and everyone's happy?" A wonderful response, that. Except that to affirm it is to affirm the sort of comfortably pluralistic world--a world which above all follows the preferences of those psychologically and materially in a position to benefit from the safe navigation of that pluralism--which abandons the engagement over values and the effort to build something common, something shared. Choice, as an ideological priority, is rather commercial: it is about managing one's options, about taking care of business. The matter of which choices are right or wrong, which are to be valued and made plentiful and which are to be hopefully turned into an option which--as Hillary Clinton put it--"does not ever have to be exercised," requires more than liberal privacy and individual preference can provide. It requires collective engagement, and a willingness, perhaps, to "sacrifice over fundamental value questions." Simplistic "pro-life" mantras surely won't get you that, but treating the whole matter of sex and family and life as--at least as it manifests itself in the lives of the large majority of those who appear to actually do most of the marching under the "pro-choice" banner--something which, well, gosh, you just have work it out for yourself in the moment, gets you even less.

I'm not a pro-lifer. I'm a Kansas voter now, and I was happy to see Phill Kline booted out of the attorney general's office. But neither does that mean I think Wichita's own George Tiller ought to get a pass, just because in our present world I can't see my way clear to dismissing him as evil incarnate. What he does is, to be sure, at least in part, revolting. Trying to spread and strengthen and situate that revulsion, and working to responsibly and democratically incorporate it into the shared norms and laws of our society, is complicated and difficult, with numerous political and legal challenges along the way. Maybe it won't ever happen; maybe it's a foolish and indefensible goal. But at least, in trying, I'm engaged in a genuine social project--whereas the rhetoric of rights and choice is mostly non- or even anti-social. Not that that hurts it as a movement in contemporary, non-participatory, my-your-own-business America; anything but, in fact. Still, it's a point for liberal defenders of abortion rights to keep in mind, next time they wonder why so few people from the office or the grad seminar show up to walk the picket line with the janitors.

Friday, February 16, 2007

When in Rome...

I'm sure no one needs entertainment recommendations from me; still, I give them anyway. Sometimes I actually manage to have an opinion on a current movie, but most of the time I'm just blabbing on about some trend or genre I find interesting--that is, when I'm not being a crazy fanboy or making some ancient pop observation. This particular observation and recommendation isn't quite ancient, but it is late, all the same. Still, it case anyone cares, here it is: watch Rome.

Unfortunately, at this moment, I'm not--we don't have cable, so I'll just have to wait until the current season is released on dvd and I can Netflix it. But I just finished the first season this week, and man--not, perhaps, the very best television I have ever seen, but certainly close to the top. I have almost completely missed all the highly-praised HBO series of the past several years; even when we had cable, I only very rarely tuned in to an episode of The Sopranos or Big Love, and I've yet to see a bit of The Wire or Deadwood (despite the fact that the latter two, in particular, keep getting praised to me by various political scientists and theorists who find their exploration of community and its corruptions utterly compelling). But something about Rome really appealed to Melissa and I (our daughter's interest in Greek mythology, perhaps? my old collection of Will and Ariel Durant's Story of Civilization, sitting there on the shelf and mocking us for knowing so little ancient history? the fact that Julius Caesar was being played by Ciarán Hinds, my wife's beloved Captain Wentworth? who knows?). Anyway, we decided to gamble on it. Melissa bailed after watching the first season's very first episode; HBO-style sex and violence just wasn't something she was interested in wading through. Generally, I have very little patience for that sort of either; while I know from experience that I am far more tolerant of vulgarity and raunch and blood than most folks of my religious persuasion, I still am only really content with it when I see it truly serving a story well-told, and for the first few episodes of Rome, I have to admit I didn't see that. But I stuck with it, and man, am I glad I did.

Robert Farley was onto Rome early, and he's stuck with it, as no doubt many other bloggers have, so there's no point in me doing a rundown on the great cast and storytelling and design and so forth (though, I can't refrain from saying, the determination of the creators of the series to shed the Western European classicism which weighs down our usual imagining of Rome, and bring it to life as pulsating, pagan, Mediterranean city, something they emphasize from the opening credits and music onward, is simply genius). All the reviews you could need are out there and more. (Indeed, it's really hard for me to refrain from reading them all, so desperate am I to find out what's happening now in the second season.) But I will say this, by way of trying to draw in a different category of viewers: the writers seem to have worked out all their giddy desire to live up to the license granted them by HBO by the fourth or fifth episode of the first season, and from then on the violence and sex, while often plentiful, was never gratuitous. A lesbian romance late in the season is given full, graphic, and highly erotic treatment, and it works terrifically, because by then we know the participants well enough, and more important the actors seem to know their characters well enough--particularly Lindsay Duncan's Servilia--to be able to see how the scene is also catching the passions and plots and fears of these women up into the wider story. The same goes for the gladiator scene in the penultimate episode: you know--you just know--various HBO executives must have been glamoring to get Lucius Vorenus and/or Titus Pullo into a big old limb-hacking gladiator encounter from the very beginning; but when the writers finally (after often allowing some of the bloodiest scenes in the series to happen offscreen) gave in and gave us that moment, the result was not only gloriously gory, but genuinely and believably moving. When Lucius charged in to the ring, shouting "Thirteen!", it was more than just you're usual triumph-over-terrible-odds moment; these folks had earned our respect, and I, at least, felt like cheering just like the plebeians in the crowd. (Though, since I was watching the episode at about 1:00am downstairs, I kept it quiet.)

Anyway, pick up the dvds of Rome, and enjoy. And if you've long since discovered it, and you're finding the second season every bit as good, don't you dare e-mail me and tell me anything about it.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Romney and the (Paleo?)(Theo?)Conservative Test

Once again, nearly a month without any blogging. And as usual, in that time I've piled up a half-dozen lengthy, partially written posts that may or may not ever see the light of day (I think I've finally learned not to promise anything on this blog). As for reasons for this delay, the best I can do is blame the weather: my sunny comments about adjusting to life and winters in Kansas from back in December have been, shall we say, harshly challenged over the last month or so. No, we're not buried under 10ft. of snow; this isn't upper-state New York. But we've had much more snow and ice and sleet than apparently is typical for south-central Kansas, and the temperatures have been--again, when compared against what's typical--bitter. (I tried to ride my bike to work last week, having become tired of bumming rides off others; I was about halfway to the campus, when I noticed a sign announcing it was 17 degrees Fahrenheit out, and brother, did I feel it. I thought my nether regions were going to have frostbite for sure.) Anyway, not that any of that's a decent excuse; it's not like I blog outside. But it has made for some pretty gray, sluggish, slow days. Here's to hoping spring will come soon, and I'll have the energy to actually get some of those backed-up posts finished.

My friend and frequent antagonist Damon Linker called my attention to this post by Daniel Larison; I read his blog regularly (and everyone should; I mean, really, where else can you go these days to find serious vituperation for the Whigs?), but this one had slipped by me. Daniel has long since made it clear he has no love for Romney as a candidate for social conservatives like himself, and he's written a great deal about Romney's gaffes and the obstacles he faces in the primaries. But in this post he goes a little deeper into thinking about his own and other conservatives' concerns about not just Romney, but also Mormonism in general. I've already written (at too great of length, as usual) everything that, at this point, I think is interesting and worth saying about what it means to have a Mormon running for the highest office in the country, but Daniel's summary does prompt me to make one more comment. What catches my eye comes towards the end of his post; after he's allowed that some social conservatives are straightforward "Christian majoritarians" who just want one of their own as president, particular beliefs be damned, and that others are concerned about the perceived "weirdness" of Mormonism, either because of a general discomfort with my religion or because of ignorant and conspiratorial suspicions about it, he ends by writing:

For a few voters, and I would class myself among these, the non-Christian character of Mormonism troubles us, and its tremendous theological divergences from what some call the Great Tradition of Christianity mark it as a false religion fundamentally removed in important ways from the religion that has been the core of our civilisation. For cultural conservatives for whom that Christian heritage is extremely important, it would be quite unhelpful and even damaging to the work of preserving and renewing a Christian culture to rally around a candidate for the most prominent office in the country who does not really believe in that heritage....If we are in a civilisational conflict, electing a Mormon President is a strange sort of vote of no-confidence in our own history and a repudiation of most of the heritage that at least some of us believe we are fighting to protect (from enemies here and abroad).

Now, if you step inside of Daniel's reactionary, paleoconservative worldview, then this kind of argument makes a fair amount of sense. Break it down this way: America and the West needs to affirm its historical Christian identity in order to fight its enemies and recover its virtue; electing a president is a form of affirmation; the Mormon doctrine of a Christian apostasy and a latter-day restoration of true teachings and authority means Mormonism simply doesn't connect with that historical Christian identity in any way whatsoever; therefore, electing a Mormon to the presidency will be a vote of "no confidence" in the face of threats from our civilization's enemies. It goes without saying that this argument can and should be, I think, at least partially contested on every point: it is not necessarily obvious either exactly how America's culture and society fits into Western civilization's historical Christian identity or how affirming that identity will strengthen us; a presidential election is far from a plebiscitary affirmation (and would Daniel even want it to be?); and the Mormon teachings on "the apostasy" are a good deal more nuanced and in flux then might at first appear, anyway. Still, accept the basic assumptions, and the conclusion follows.

What I find interesting here is that, given the solidness of at least this sliver of Daniel's case for the legitimacy of anti-Mormon feeling on the part of some social conservatives, Mitt Romney's candidacy can be taken as a kind of test of the sorts of commitments which socially conservative Christians embrace. Look around the some of the Christian blogs that support Mitt Romney, and what you'll see over and over again is the refrain that, as Mark Davis put it, "
a candidate's faith is of no consequence...unless it harbors the possibility of guiding his or her actions in a way I would disapprove of." Romney himself keeps emphasizing that he's not worried about Christian support, because he believes he'll be able to show those primary voters that his Mormon beliefs are sufficiently Christian to reliably guide him to the same socially conservative Christian actions regarding abortion and same-sex marriage. He may be right. And if he's right, that means the influence of Daniel's camp over social conservatives generally is...well, pretty small.

This wouldn't surprise Daniel; he knows that the number of true Christian civilization reactionaries out there is vanishingly small. But what that might also tell him, and what others ought to notice, is that such a result would also prove that the deep, theocratic and civilizational aspirations which sometimes appears to animate social conservative thinkers, and which is the subject of constant exposure and condemnation by their opponents, isn't at all strong enough to get in the way of the desire on the part of people who hold these views to get someone sympathetic elected. No duh, you might say; it's always all about winning, right? Usually it is. But if it's all about winning, it can't be equally about transforming the culture, about challenging America's mores and building a new (old?) civilization, can it? This is part of what under girds may own very poor opinion of the theocons, despite my occasional agreements with them and my dislike for some of the common attacks upon them: I think they, or at least some of the leading lights among them, like to understand themselves as engaged in some heavy and meaningful cultural warfare, and they encourage talking points derived from such to spread amongst the rank and file. Yet they do not themselves often act as if they are truly engaged in such transformation and building; instead, they mostly act like an interest group, looking to use and spread their influence within the liberal order itself. And what, really, is the point of pretending to be an oppressed Christian malcontent within a civilization supposedly under attack from within and without, if one is perfectly happy to support a Mormon candidate, with Mormonism arguably being one of the most thoroughly American religions imaginable?

To reiterate: this isn't a question for me, since I have my own opinions about the political meaning of my faith, and they aren't tied up in the political success of a moderate, corporate Republican governor from Massachusetts. (To say nothing of the fact that I disagree with or at least would want to qualify most of the common Christian assumptions about my religion implied above anyway.) Nor is it a question for those masses of generally and genially conservative Christians who vote Republican simply because there are various moral issues they're unhappy with, but otherwise are perfectly ordinary, patriotic, modern and therefore philosophically liberal Americans. But it is a question, and a challenge, for those supposedly more doctrinally and historically and culturally motivated conservatives, those kind of conservatives that I, in my odd leftist way, kind of perversely admire. Romney's success as a candidate is not only, as many of us Mormons wonder, a kind of test to see how we fit into the American mainstream; it is also a test for those conservatives whose religious commitment (or just public relations strategy) lead them to insist that they are in fact charting a new (old?) and righteous path upstream, swimming and nominating candidates against the tide. My bet? Most of them (though surely not Daniel) will fail it.