Sunday, November 4, 2007

Giving a Damn

I am reading Charles Taylor's newest book A Secular Age. In a chapter entitled "The Age of Authenticity" he describes the rise of authenticity - a kind of thoroughgoing form of individual self-realization - as being based upon a transformation of our traditional social and political arrangements. That is, the ideal of authenticity rested upon the dissolution of older forms of community that necessarily placed limits upon our individual self-conceptions. He mentions Alan Ehrenhalt's book The Lost City as one piece of evidence for the replacement of communal norms for personal preference. A thick and unequal society built on interpersonal relationships was replaced by a more egalitarian theoretical form of mutual respect. We came to respect each other's freedom - the choices of "lifestyle" - in part because we became more separate. We are freer, but more alone; we are more equal, but necessarily more self-reliant.

Taylor points out that the costs tend to be overlooked as merely "systemic" or small prices to pay for our greater liberty and our greater equality. Yet he acknowledges our widespread feeling that "community has been undermined and that people are less trustworthy today." How does one do a cost-benefit analysis on which benefit is preferable and which price is steeper - the benefit of our liberty and equality or the cost of communal norms and a thick network of relationships? No such valid analysis can occur, he suggests, because of a "a real value shift" that doesn't allow us equally to weigh the costs involved: "things that were borne for centuries are now declared to be unbearable" (480).

I would contend one of the costs that tends to be overlooked is too dangerous and unsustainable for any society to ignore. I grow increasingly convinced that our more just society is based not upon a deeper commitment to justice per se, but our increasing liberation from having to care about the fate and condition of other people. Our more just society is manifested particularly in juridical forms, but its underlying motivations are increasingly absent in our lived reality, in our social sphere. It is easy for me to claim to respect you and your way of life if I don't fundamentally care, and I know I won't be bothered, by any aspect of your life. We are a more tolerant and easy-going society not because our consciousnesses have been expanded, but because we are relieved of any burdens to see our fates as intertwined. Such tolerance is not hard-won, but an easy default. It is the toleration of the self-indulgent and the unbothered. Underlying the Seinfeldian refrain "Not that there's anything wrong with that" are the subtexts "I don't care," "it doesn't matter to me," or the reigning sentiment of the age, "Whatever." The show wasn't about nothing; it was really about tolerant ironists who didn't give a damn about anyone.

Can it be any coincidence that within a decade of the supposed renewal of political philosophy in America - the publication of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice in 1971, perhaps the most intricate theoretical justification of the welfare state ever penned - that the welfare state in America, and increasingly throughout the world, was being dismantled? The American welfare state increases in scale especially during those decades when our thicker communities are being dismantled or abandoned ("The Great Society" - in the singular). As Tocqueville predicted, it would be the ascent of individualism itself that would give rise to the felt need for a "tutelary State" to compensate for what had once been provided - albeit unevenly, informally, unequally - within the thicker webs of familial and local life. The dismantling of the welfare state is seen as a victory by the Right, but they are often uncognizant of the corresponding dismantling of communal forms that their valorization of individualism - especially the individualism of the marketplace - effectively undermines. The Left believes that the battle can be won by developing the correct philosophical articulation of Rawls's thesis (and then applying it through the Courts), all the while fundamentally oblivious to the wholesale dismantling of any real commitment to civic concern that has been a consequence of their universalizing efforts at achieving individual liberation and autonomy.

The deep connection between our theoretical liberal mutual respect and our actual condition of not giving a damn is nearly invisible, but its self-evidence is all around us. Our affluence and ease of life makes this condition seem plausible; a disruption of our ease will, I fear, reveal the superficiality of our purported respect and the absence of any real habituation in civic care.

4 comments:

Robert said...

Jack Whelan is currently reading Taylor's book as well. He makes a similar point:

http://afterthefuture.typepad.com/afterthefuture/2007/11/the-zeitgeist-o.html

Anonymous said...

a disruption of our ease will, I fear, reveal the superficiality of our purported respect and the absence of any real habituation in civic care

Heck, I don't think you need a disruption to feel this absence of civic care. You can feel it right now. Or just read Bowling Alone (for the data, not the self-serving conclusions).

What most folk cannot grasp is that civic care (trust in others and responsiblity for others) is only nurished within the family - which has been completely trashed by liberalism since around 1970. We don't have any human capital left to apply to society. Now, it's every man for himself.

And for all the problems with the boomers, they still hold a trace amount of this social trust (the last generation of children raised in intact families, even though they started the anti-family ball rolling). Once the boomers are dead, all the pretensions of the "public" will evaporate. Oh, lip service will most certainly be given, but public service? Pah.

One of my perverse pleasures is watching independent boomers (who never invested in family life) reach old age, panic at how alone and meaningless their lives really are, and attempt to grasp solace and legacy in public service as a last resort. And they find (suprise!) just how bad it is out there due to 30 years of family neglect.

IOW, it's easy for individuals to look in the mirror of society and see their own families.

Robert said...

"What most folk cannot grasp is that civic care (trust in others and responsiblity for others) is only nurished within the family - which has been completely trashed by liberalism since around 1970."

The root of the problem is much older, though. Civic care is NOT nourished only within the family. It's just that family is now one of the few places left where it is nourished because the last few centuries have seen the dismantling of most other cultivators of communal instinct.

Rudy said...

Liberalism in the U.S. has actually worked to rebuild community. The Civil Rights laws helped rebuild community that had been deliberately torn down by the Jim Crow laws etc. in order to create ethnic hatred.

It's hard to imagine how much worse our communities were before that.

As for the family, capitalism is largely to blame for the severing of ties between generations. We have to live where our jobs are, after all, and the elderly aren't often able to leave their communities to follow.