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Friday, June 20, 2008

Friday PSTSS: "Summertime Blues"

My computer has finally released by the Information Technology people, who have pronounced clean after a massive virus attack this week. And it really is clean--of not just viruses, but also of cookies, passwords, my address book, and half my software, all of which I need to reconstruct. So there's my afternoon, right there.

My wife just called, frazzled and tired. The girls this week have had sleep-overs, crafts, library trips, birthday parties, trips to the park, swimming lessons, and they're bored. Any ideas?, she asked. Throw them in the back yard and tell them to entertain themselves, maybe?

It's the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Sometimes, even nice summer days can be too long.

In honor of the day (and the hope that it'll end soon), let's remember one of the earliest and best songs of summertime frustration. Eddie Cochran's short and sweet rock-and-roll masterpiece appeared as a B-side way back in 1958, and given the career of the song over the past 50 years, no doubt it'll eventually be convered by everyone.

I'm gonna raise a fuss I'm gonna raise a holler,
about a workin' all summer just to try to earn a dollar.
Every time I call my baby and try to get a date
my boss says "No dice son, you gotta work late."
Sometimes I wonder what I'm a gonna do,
but there ain't no cure for the summertime blues.

Well my mom and pop told me, "Son you gotta make some money,
if you want to use the car to go ridin' next Sunday."
Well I didn't go to work, told the boss I was sick--
"Well you can't use the car 'cause you didn't work a lick."
Sometimes I wonder what I'm a gonna do,
but there ain't no cure for the summertime blues.

I'm gonna take two weeks, gonna have a fine vacation.
I'm gonna take my problem to the United Nations.
Well, I called my congressman and he said, quote:
"I'd like to help you son but you're too young to vote."
Sometimes I wonder what I'm a gonna do,
but there ain't no cure for the summertime blues.

I suppose I could embed an old grainy clip of Eddie himself here, but why? Here's the Who, from the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967. Enjoy.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

My Mission, Twenty Years On

I don't think I've ever used this blog to talk about my own personal faith life and the places and conclusions it has lead me to. When I've talked about Mormonism--and I have a few times--it's been in connection with or in response to some political or philosophical or theological issue or candidate. I think I've only written once before about anything having to do with my own experience as a believing Mormon, and that came as part of a remembrance of someone I first go to know as a missionary for the Mormon church. Generally hen I want to talk about that sort of thing, I have the wonderful Times and Seasons blog at my disposal.

Well, I'm continuing to that, but having just written the aforementioned remembrance post for this blog, I thought I might as well link here to a couple of much more personal posts that I've written about my experience as a Mormon missionary. Twenty years ago today I began my mission, so this is as good a time to reflect upon it as any, I suppose. The first is titled "Making Peace with Missionary Work" and it's kind of the story of my mission and it's impact upon me and my beliefs, written with the understanding of such which I have today; the second is "Last Night in Suwon" and is an essay about my time in South Korea (though also more than that) which I wrote eighteen years ago, just a few months after my mission ended. So, a couple of different perspectives there. I can't imagine there are many readers of this blog who aren't already T&S readers who will be much interested in either, but still--there they are. Have at them, if you dare.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

On Red Tories and Libertarians

Over the past week or so there have been a series of interrelated flair-ups in the conservative blogosphere: some were related to George Packer's article on the intellectual exhaustion of the conservative movement in America, while other were responses to Mike Huckabee's accusation that the Republican party's ideology has suffered from the rise of libertarianism in its ranks. All of them, however, were ultimately--to my mind at least--about one thing: namely, how to make sense of the many disparate "dissident conservatives" (to use Ross Douthat's phrase) out there, and whether or not there's any way to get them together to recreate the fusionist magic of William F. Buckley, whether by creating some kind of new consensus or, conversely, rejecting some aspect of the old consensus once and for all.

It's a good question. Will anything, in terms of practical politics, come from all this intellectual ferment on the margins which Packer ignored, or did he rightly ignore it as something that will never move beyond the margins? Ross--who forthrightly owns up to his own cynicism/realism regarding such matters--is doubtful: "the gap between the Paulite paleos or the 'Wendell Berry-Michael Pollan Right' and the American political scene is roughly the size of the Grand Canyon." But others are hopeful, or at least more committed, arguing that "a tactical alliance of decentralist leftists, populists, libertarians, and conservatives is not only a good thing, but is a necessary thing if progress is to be made on any common goal."

At present, I don't have much of a dog in this fight; despite sharing the same name and more than a few principles, my own brand of "left conservatism" is significantly different from that kind which gets drawn into disputes between paleocons, and until further notice (or until Huckabee runs again) I still tend to hope and believe that the kind of traditionalist-plus-egalitarian reforms we need are more likely to occur amongst the Democrats than elsewhere. Still, when I see that list of potential allies in favor of remaking our late-capitalist society (or, at least, the Republican party) into one more respectful of popular sovereignty, humane living, family and neighborhood support, and local values, I'm attracted, and I have to ask: can Red Tories and Christian Democrats join up as well?

My fear is that the answer would be a reluctant but firm "no." Why? The answer, I think, comes out in an exchange between John Schwenkler (a relatively new blogger whom I've just discovered; I wonder if we ever crossed paths while at Catholic University?) and Rod Dreher over Huckabee's comments. Dreher allows that his criticism of libertarianism (which he doesn't back down on in terms of substance) ignores the possibility that "a pluralistic society like ours, some accomodation with libertarianism is probably the best chance we neotrads have of carving out a communal life for ourselves," which is something I have to agree with; this is related to what Steven Lukes once called the "libertarian constraint": the fact that no society can ever be healthy without some decentralized means of communicating and empowering our diverse and specific tastes, allegiances, groupings, preferences, etc. Lukes was right, and Schwenkler is too...except that, almost immediately, I see him as taking the proverbial mile: "it is in our best interest to ally ourselves with the forces of unbounded freedom rather than those who wish to care for us all from the cradle to the grave." Or, as Schwenkler puts it in another post:

If, as is surely possible because what they’d be saying will be true, the Paulites and the Neo-Trads can convince the fast-growing homeschooling, home-birthing, raw milk-drinking, organic-farming, and backyard-gardening segments of the population that the State is their enemy and not their friend, that they’ll be best able to live the lives they deserve if the gummint just stays out of their hair, then we will have the makings of a movement. Call them the Farmer’s Market Republicans, or maybe the Joel Salatin Coalition. Just watch your backs, folks - they’re on the move.

Well now. We're not homeschoolers (though most of my brothers and sisters are), we haven't had our children born at home, I don't particularly think much of the organic movement, and I didn't think much of Ron Paul either. Still, we do garden in our backyard, we do prefer local and non-homogenized milk, we're definitely--what with our ill-concealed Luddism--something of a neo-traditional family, and we go to the farmer's market all the time. So, we're all good, right? Oh wait, there's that stuff about "the State" (always with the capital letters with these people...) and the "guvmint" being our "enemy." Hmm. Nope, sorry, can't go with you there. The government is often stupid, frequently a threat, in need of constant watching; that I agree with. But I would say the same--and more--regarding Wal-Mart, or MTV, or any of the corporate entities which shape the options and opportunities we have as citizens. And as for "unbounded freedom"...well, freedom to do what? To protected from whom? Some bounds are a good and necessary thing, and it seems pretty reasonable to assume (as ought to follow from any proper understanding of subsidiarity and distributism, and therefore ought to be obvious to anyone who speaks blithely of a "communitarian-libertarian alliance") that more than a few of those bounds will probably need to be set by agencies and in forums broad enough to be comparable to...well, to governments--local, state, and national--in action. I'm as much a fan of "Third Ways" as any good populist (I even have Allan Carlson's book to prove it), but too often advocates of such reforms seem to eschew the egalitarian corollaries which must (or at least should) attend them in our democratic age, and end up apparently believing that sustainable communitarian localities will emerge without any structuring or maintenance of the socio-economic playing field at all. That's a libertarian (or anarchist) fantasy that I can't accept.

Of course, I can understand the lure of this argument, especially in the United States. We don't really have any kind of Christian socialist tradition whatsoever, and when you combine that with our overwhelmingly Protestant and thus not-particularly-institutionable religious culture--and they lay on top of that the cultural deformations of the 60s and 70s--you end up with the belief (a belief which only the occasional radical or conservative has ever tried to change our minds about) that civic religion cannot be substantive, that social justice has no grass roots, that any kind of collective action will always just end up being communism and secularism in disguise. But just because the argument makes intuitive sense doesn't mean it's correct: Lee McCracken points us towards a short piece by John Milbank (whom I've praised before) which recently appeared in the Guardian, underlining the fact that outside the U.S., social conservatism and economic egalitarianism needed undermine each other:

Is it really so obvious that permitting children to be born without fathers is progressive, or even liberal and feminist? Behind the media facade, more subtle debates over these sorts of issue do not necessarily follow obvious political or religious versus secular divides. The reality is that, after the sell-out to extreme capitalism, the left seeks ideological alibis in the shape of hostility to religion, to the family, to high culture and to the role of principled elites. An older left had more sense of the qualified goods of these things and the way they can work to allow a greater economic equality and the democratisation of excellence. Now many of us are beginning to realise that old socialists should talk with traditionalist Tories. In the face of the secret alliance of cultural with economic liberalism, we need now to invent a new sort of politics which links egalitarianism to the pursuit of objective values and virtues: a "traditionalist socialism" or a "red Toryism." After all, what counts as radical is not the new, but the good.

Obviously, this kind of claim isn't going to be very persuasive in the American context; even a decentralized social democracy is going to involve bounds and duties that act against and place limits upon the liberal presumptions that animate even most so-called "conservative" critiques of our current system. But that simply shows, I think, the mistake involved when you have so many of us aforementioned populists and localists and traditionalists fighting hard over this label. (In Europe, or at least some parts of it, "conservatism" still means conserving the boundaries and norms and ways of life of a community, rather than some extended dance around a presumably sacrosanct "unbounded" individual freedom.) Liberty is hard enough issue for even liberals to productively deal with, as this debate between William Galston and Michael Lind shows; perhaps it would be better for those willing to align themselves with some kind of conservatism--even of a "left" source--to get over our own attachment to it.

But then, there's that "libertarian constraint," again; the sort of thing my libertarian friend Jacob Levy keeps reminding me of. And so the back-and-forth continues...though for the moment, it still seems likely that whatever sort of coalition emerges--if any coalition ever does emerge--from all this marginal intellectual action, it'll keep my sort of populist/socialist/traditionalist on a pretty short leash. I guess I should be grateful for the bone that folks like Schwenkler are willing to throw us, and perhaps settle for that:

Of course, it’s also not specious to reject this (small-l) libertarian line of thought and argue instead that what is needed is a sort of economic affirmative action, a set of policies that give a deliberate boost to certain worthy forms of life or segments of the business sector which - whether through “market forces”, state intervention, acts of God or the devil, or plain dumb luck - are currently at a competitive disadvantage. And I think that this kind of argument needs to be given a fair hearing. But it’s crucial to recognize that the Law of (Supposedly) Unintended Consequences applies here to at least as great a degree as it does in the case of “regular” affirmative action: state action is always a crude instrument for promoting virtuous social change....Nobody gets to have it both ways, and as always the truth is bound to lie somewhere in the middle....But it seems to me that if there’s anything that “small is beautiful”-types and doctrinaire libertarians ought to be able to agree on, it’s that a bit more freedom from would, in the present circumstances, make for a corresponding increase in our freedom for.

Maybe--as long as we refrain from pointing out too loudly that an excess of the former always gets in the way of the latter, perhaps--they might let Red Tories into their coalition as well? If so, then maybe someday (with the second coming of Huckabee, perhaps) there could be a genuine social democratic argument for the Republicans, after all.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Future of Communitarianism and (or in) Quebec

I finally got around to reading the 99-paged abridged report--formally titled "Building The Future: A Time For Reconciliation"--of the findings and recommendations of Quebec's "Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences." It hasn't attracted much comment from the American blogosphere, though it should--I can't think of another work of public political thinking nearly as careful yet ambitious and serious as this.

Why did I read it? For a couple of reasons. First, because I care about Canadian politics (see here and here for examples)--partly because of old friends we have there, partly because my family and I have spent a fair amount of time there, but mostly because I think Canada's political environment brings forward issues and ideas that we rarely see expressed in the United States, and yet which are, I suspect, crucial to the future of the modern liberal polity. Of course, this isn't an original observation. Canada's convoluted constitutional arrangements, its struggles over language rights, its frequent arguments over national identity: all have been used creatively and thoughtfully by many scholars in recent decades to explore multiculturalism, liberalism, nationalism and so forth...with the not incidental result of pushing more than a few Canadian philosophers and political theorists who know this material best to the forefront of their respective fields, the greatest example of which clearly being Charles Taylor. Which leads me to the second reason I read the report: Taylor was the co-author of it, along with the sociologist Gérard Bouchard (though both of these men are bilingual, it was typical for Quebec to appoint co-chairs to the Commission, an Anglophone--Taylor--and a Francophone--Bouchard). Sucker for communitarian philosophy that I am, I've read just about everything by Taylor that I could get my hands on (and yes, my blogging of A Secular Age will start...soon) for years now, and this report wasn't going to be an exception. And I'm glad for that, since it was very much worth my time.

To put it in a nutshell, Quebec faces a constant quandary, a question about how to maintain elements of its particular constitutive cultural identity (which is itself hardly that of an isolated, inclosed, premodern Amish community, but rather is actually quite modern and liberal, as far as these things go) in the midst of both the larger multicultural reality without--the federation of Canada, of course, though also in a sense all of North America--and the emerging challenge of multicultural accommodation within--represented in this report mostly by Muslim ethnic and religious movements, but more broadly pertaining to many other such internal challenges as well. In writing this report, Taylor and Bouchard have essentially written an instruction manual for liberal nationalists and communitarians everywhere. What the report has to say about "interculturalism," "harmonization," "public language," and more, all gives examples of what the practical project of maintaining a community--a community without the advantage of being tiny or the ward of an overarching pluralistic state, but rather a community which sees itself as a "nation" and thus must governs itself in light of international trends and realities--requires today.

The background story of the report is pretty straightforward. A little more than a year ago, following a series of continuing controversies over immigration and cultural (in)sensitivity that had grown in intensity (though the report suggests that much of that supposed intensity has been the product of media-enabled misperceptions on all sides), the Quebec government called for the formation of a commission to conduct public hearings, investigate legal claims and allegations, and make recommendations as to how Quebec ought to handle such controversies in the future. The overarching goal was to articulate, within the context of the sort of society Quebec is and presumably wants to remain, a policy regarding the "reasonable accommodation" of diversity and minority claims which greater numbers of Quebecers could accept. This led to the appointment of Bouchard and Taylor, and the beginnings of a long process of dialogue with dozens of communities and representative groups, a great many of which led, unfortunately, to the airing of paranoia and suspicion, and sometimes outright bigotry. Jacob Levy--nicely ensconced at McGill University in Montreal--followed this process for months, and with the completion of the commission's task and publication of its findings and recommendations, he conducted a fine online summary discussion of the report with Globe and Mail readers. Jacob has been able to talk to Taylor about the report, and Taylor is apparently optimistic about it effects; despite the fact that, as Jacob documents, the government of Jean Charest in Quebec immediately squelched the report's most prominent suggested reform--that the crucifix which hangs on a wall in the Quebec National Assembly be removed--Taylor apparently feels that the simple fact that the commission did what it did (note that the front cover of the report carries the slogan, "dialogue makes a difference") will contribute to an improvement in feelings in Quebec...or, at the very least, will have helped prevent feelings and actions from getting much worse.

The report is filled with numerous small details that I would think anyone interested in issues of religion, culture, and democracy would find fascinating. (That France combines a rigorous official secularism with extremely generous state support of religious schooling, for example.) But for those who care about Quebec, Canada, and what both might have to teach the U.S. about community and culture in our late-modern world, there are a few key points in the report which deserve special attention:

1. No amount of theorizing can deny basic demographic and economic choices.

Despite the wishes and fears of unreconstructed, rural, Catholic Quebecers (whether such people are real and numerous or mostly just brought into existence by worried conservatives), communities change, and the basic foundation for those changes are to be found in how individuals in a free society choose to act. The reports spells about those choices and changes bluntly:

Readers should keep in mind that our reflection is delineated by the basic societal choices that Quebecers have made in recent decades. Their low birthrate and desire to sustain demographic and economic growth have led them to opt for immigration. At the same time, many Quebecers have abandoned religious practice and have distanced themselves from the French-Canadian identity in favor of the new Quebec identity. They have also decided (until further notice) to belong to Canada and, consequently, have come under the jurisdiction of its intitutions. They have undertaken to shift to globalization and, as the common expression would have it, "openness to the world." (Abridged Commission Report, pg. 11)

This is not to say that Taylor and Bouchard discerned an easy liberalism hiding beneath the stated preferences of Quebecers, and make recommendations accordingly: they emphasized and respected the deeply felt uniqueness and precariousness of Quebec's situation, acknowledging that, as a "small nation" it is understandable that Quebec is "constantly concerned about its future as a cultural minority" (pg. 40), and that "for Quebecers of French-Canadian descent, the combination of their majority status in Quebec and their minority status in Canada and North America is not easy" (pg. 75). But their ultimate conclusion is once balanced by the communal and moral concerns which invariably follow in the wake of economic and demographic choices:

French-speaking Quebec is a minority culture and needs a strong identity to allay its anxieties and behave like a serene majority. This is the first lesson we should draw from recent events. The identity inherited from the French-Canadian past is perfectly legitimate and it must survive, but it can no longer occupy alone the Quebec identity space. It must hinge on the other identities present, in a spirit of interculturalism, in order to prevent fragmentation and exclusion....[I]t is a question of sustaining through symbols and imagination the common public culture, which is made up of universal values and rights, but without disfiguring it (pg. 75).

2. Interculturalism as a communitarian response to multicultural realities in liberal states.

The report defines "interculturalism" as the preferred mode of response to cultural controversies for Quebec, distinguishing itself from the policy of multiculturalism employed elsewhere in Canada, given that in the rest of Canada "anxiety over language is not an important factor" and that "there is no longer a majority ethnic group...citizens of British origin account for 34% of the [Canadian] population, while citizens of French-Canadian origin make up a strong majority of the population of Quebec, i.e. roughly 77%" (pg. 39). Interculturalism as a policy thus makes sense of how a dominant (but still basically modern and liberal) cultural majority should act upon and deal with diversity: rather than abandoning cultural history and identity entirely to individual choice, rights and differences should be respected and accommodated in light of certain public continuities and practices that have a genuine moral weight in themselves. For Quebec these include, first and foremost, "French as the common public language," as "the intercultural approach would hardly have any meaning if Quebecers were unable to communicate with each other in the same language"; following this comes the importance of the formal "development of a feeling of belonging to Quebec society" through school curricula and "symbols of collective life," all of which is premised upon "[t]he associative idea that places intercultural exchanges in the realm of concrete, citizen action" (pgs. 88-89). Democracy and dialogue are not to be seen primarily in terms of acknowledging and accounting for individual preferences, but as ways to interactively articulate and thereby identify (and help to integrate) common contexts and points of consensus in the midst of cultural diversity. Taylor's deep commitment to certain aspects of the civic republican ideal are clear here: the liberal communitarian or nationalist has to believe that the constitutive underpinnings and worth of their nation or community is not static, trapped in the past and under constant assault, but rather that--note: given shared modes of expression and participation--one's nation or community can grow, adapt, even change, without undermining the value it collectively offers to those beholden to it. (Having been much influenced by Taylor, and in turn by Herder here, this is why I tend to believe that language policy, while surely not disconnected from immigration policy, is nonetheless far more important than it.) And moreover, this adaptation shouldn't be framed in terms of individual rights, but rather as collective harmonization.

3. Local harmony and open secularism as opposed to top-down equality.

Going along with their commitment to delineating exactly what, on the basis of their studies and their public dialogues, Quebec does and does not wanting to see done about the issues of cultural difference, Taylor and Bouchard firmly state that "Quebec's political system is both democratic and liberal," in that "political power ultimately resides with the people," but also that "individual rights and freedoms are deemed to be fundamental and are thus confirmed and protected by the State" (pg. 35). Moreover, those who participated in the commission's public consultations "massively espoused the concept of secularism" (pg. 43). But this gets to the heart of one of the largest problems which the commission faced, namely: what kind of "secularism" is appropriate for a nation where Catholicism has had such a deep and longstanding impact, especially when the secularism of post-"Quiet Revolution" seems to many Quebecers of French-Canadian descent to contrast poorly with the aggressive piety of many Muslim and Sikh immigrants? What accommodations are truly fair and proper, in such an environment? How to address the arguable ostentation of certain immigrant religious practices in light of the historical vestiges of Quebec's own once-dominant symbols, rituals, and practices?

Again, the important point seems not to be necessarily the content of proposed accommodations, but the manner in which they are achieved. (Which--going back again to Jacob's comments--would suggest that the real problem wasn't the Assembly's refusal to go along with the report's recommendation that the crucifix be moved from the Assembly Hall to a different location, but the speedy and almost contemptuous way they did it.) Throughout the report, Taylor and Bouchard are critical of a too-quick resort to the courts and juridical solutions, as opposed to following the lead of managers and interveners--whether they be social workers, union representatives, public affairs committees, neighborhood groups, or others--who are actually working in the field. They call this the tendency to go the "legal route" rather than the "citizen route" of "concerted adjustment" (pg. 51-52). Frequently, in their judgment, the accusations and animosities which lead to public outcries and demands for action spring not from those addressing the dilemma itself, finding instead that often those actually striving to come up with local compromise solutions--especially those dealing with religious claims and differences--end up coming very close to those outcomes which the statements of rights which Quebec (both as a province and as a part of Canada) has committed itself to seem to require, and with less hostility along the way. Such adjustments are part of an "open secularism"--a commitment to a neutral state which recognizes that neutrality itself to be a particular historical and cultural construction, with its own (post-)religious elements as part of it, and therefore a construction whose basic principles are not necessarily compromised by various local religious allowances, regarding food, dress, educational practices, and so forth. Extending a little bit beyond the actual wording of the report here, it seems that Taylor and Bouchard believe that part of the reason for the increase in apparent hostility on broader levels of inquiry and action is that, when conflicts and adjustments are allowed to reach that point, overarching principles of "equal treatment" become voiced ever more vociferously, with the unanticipated result of making different responses to specific problems seem "unfair," when in fact it is the reaction to them which potentially increases--by shifting--the unfairness. The report spells it out thusly:

Sociologically speaking, we have observed that a number of apparently neutral or universal norms in actual fact reproduce worldviews, values, and implicit norms that are those of the majority culture or population....Even if they do not exclude a priori any individual or group, these provisions can nonetheless lead to discrimination toward individuals because of specific traits such as a temporary or permanent physical disability, age, or religious belief. It follows that absolute rigor in the application of legislation and regulations is not always synonymous with fairness....[T]he right to equality and freedom of religion do not necessarily have as a corollary uniformity or homogeneity. According to jurists, a given right may demand adjustments in treatment that must not b equated with privileges or exemptions since they are intended to remedy a flaw in the application of a statute or a regulation. As the experts have expressed it, a treatment can be differential without being preferential.

"Differential without being preferential." For the United States, which continues to operate for the most part--legally, at least, though in much of our popular and political culture as well--under the fiction that we don't have, don't want to have, and don't need to have a common, constitutive culture (instead, we supposedly have a disembodied "creed"...as if ethnicities and nationalities and cultures don't have ideological and civic aspects to them as well), a line like this one is important. It reminds us the assimilation of cultures--or, worse, the making-irrelevant of cultures through globalization--isn't the only possible response to diversity which still respects liberal equality and freedoms. You could instead, as Taylor and Bouchard encourage their fellow Quebecers to do, take culture seriously...which means, in a liberal state at least, making the decisions necessary to make collective participation in it both available and important to all, and then adapting the particulars of the various aspects of your community accordingly. Sounds like a plan to me.

There's much more in the report than this, of course, with a great many specifics, arising from debates over kosher food, the kirpan, headscarves, and more. If you're into political or legal or cultural debates, do yourself a favor: print it out, and give the whole thing a read. This is one work of "public philosophy" that I suspect will be cited for many years to come.