Monday, December 27, 2010

Like Ike?

The latest issue of The American Conservative has arrived in my mailbox, and I'm honored to have an essay included in a cover symposium observing the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's "Farewell Address," which he delivered on January 17, 1961. The speech includes Eisenhower's famous warning against the "military-industrial" complex; my own contribution reflects on Eisenhower's warnings against the rise of a "scientistic" mentality (indeed, the famous phrase was winnowed down from its original iteration as "the military-industrial-scientific complex." Also discarded was the phrase "the military-industrial-congressional complex" - either of which would have been accurate fears to warn against). I use the occasion to reflect on America's dual legacy regarding its views on science - with its dominant tradition tending to embrace the Baconian legacy of science providing for "the relief of the human estate," but also recognizing the existence of a "second voice" that has been a critical witness to the costs and abuses of the scientific enterprise and its fetish for "progress" at any price. I'll post it here when it is liberated from its firewall.

The symposium includes really fine essays by Robert Schlesinger (who offers a background about the speech, and from whom I learned of these various iterations); Michael Desch (who takes issue with Eisenhower's warning and instead lays the blame of American militarism on the Left); Lew Rockwell (who indicts Eisenhower's deep complicity in supporting the very complex he criticized - including his support for the interstate highway system); and FPR's own Bill Kauffman, who recalls Eisenhower's anti-war Jayhawk roots.

I can't think of a publication in America that would run such a symposium, all really smart reflections on Eisenhower's underappreciated speech, but all very different in their sentiments and concerns. Credit and praise goes to TAC's superb editor, Daniel McCarthy. If you're not a subscriber, you should be.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

O Holy Night

Despite conservative disapproval of the greeting "Happy Holidays," as a Christian I take no offense at the phrase. After all, the words effectively invoke the same sentiment - they are a slight abbreviation of the words "Happy Holy Days." Happy Holidays, I say, and all that those words imply - which is much indeed.

Even when contemporaries try to find a non-Christian way of getting around the fact of Christmas, there is really no escaping that the season in one way or another is about the birth of the Christ child. In the ferocious battles over such cultural markers as "Happy Holidays" vs. "Merry Christmas" or whether a crèche ought to be allowed on this or that parcel of public property, the true meaning of Christmas is indeed often lost - and not only by antagonists of Christianity. In point of fact, it's quite likely that we are all Christians to a greater or lesser extent, since most modern humans recognize the inherent dignity of the human person. And - whether secularists like it or not - this is a decisive legacy of Christianity, a legacy that remains as ever-present if unacknowledged as the pious sentiment contained in the supposedly neutral words "happy holiday."

My favorite Christmas carol is "O Holy Night," whose first verse (as translated by John Sullivan Dwight) in part reads:

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

The words capture the central meaning of Christmas: the Incarnation, the divine assumption of humanity. At that moment, everything changed: no longer merely species fodder or defined by one's birthright, all humans everywhere were now under the umbrella of Christian grace, all equally partaking in the divine participation in our humanness and expectant of redemption. That the Christ-child was born to an ordinary woman in the most abject conditions (and why liberals should love what the crèche portrays) was intended to show that the Incarnation embraced everyone in every circumstance and condition: the high shall be made low and the low shall be raised up.

Early liberals recognized that liberalism was fundamentally premised upon Christianity. The idea of inherent human dignity was unprecedented in the great ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome before the advent of Christianity, and in all likelihood will not withstand the efforts to dismantle Christianity from a place of pride in the Christian nations in which liberalism arose. It was John Locke - the ur-father of liberal theory - who recognized that Christianity was most fundamentally the source of the West's belief in human dignity. He noted in his late book The Reasonableness of Christianity that the Greeks were the most rational of all people, and yet they did not discover a rational argument that prevented them from exposing their newborn children. Locke argued that it was Christianity that introduced the idea of inherent dignity belonging to all humans - whatever their circumstance or condition - and that put an end to the practice of exposure. One sees today in the most ferocious and consistent rationalists the effort to dispel the notion of human dignity, as Peter Singer has attempted to do - in order (in part) to justify new forms of infanticide. Singer's arguments suggest that there is really no (instrumentally) rational basis for the belief in human dignity - it is a unique legacy of Christianity and undergirds liberalism itself. Yet, today liberalism increasingly seeks to dismantle the very grounds that support what it claims to be one of its core beliefs. And, while liberalism insists upon the need for circumspection and questioning, it is often ferociously self-certain that religion in general and Christianity in particular is the source of all human ills, and has nothing to do with (among other things) the idea of human dignity. Many liberals are ardent supporters of "the precautionary principle" in environmental matters (e.g., global warming), but not in the deeper and even more complex waters of moral and civilizational grounding (conservatives ought rightly to embrace "the precautionary principle" on a strongly consistent basis - it is one of the core features of the conservative disposition).

There is a deep similarity between liberalism's preferred use of the phrase "happy holidays" and its claim to believe in human dignity. Both are residues of its older Christian faith, holdovers that remain in force even as the basis for their existence is explicitly attacked and dismantled. Both are thoughtlessly invoked without reflection upon their source or meaning. Yet, both are assuredly on the way to vapid meaninglessness without the reinforcing beliefs which gave them original force and meaning, whether the joyous observance of the Holy Days or the great and mysterious gift of human dignity that arose on that December morning when the soul felt its worth.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Last Minute Gift Idea

For parents, parents-to-be, children, children-that-were, and anyone else:

Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child by Anthony Esolen
(I.S.I. Books, 2010; $26.95)

I'm devouring this book since receiving it a few days ago (a guilty pleasure amid a pile of papers to grade); it's a marvelous, delicious exercise in irony in which Esolen (one of our greatest literary scholars) purports to recommend a series of exercises by which parents can destroy their children's native and capacious capacity for wonder, imagination and faith. For my money it's the best faux self-help book since The Screwtape Letters.

Among the ten ways you can destroy your child's imagination are:

--Keep Your Children Indoors as Much as Possible
--Never Leave Children to Themselves
--Replace the Fairy Tale with the Political Cliche
--Cut All Heroes Down to Size
--Level Distinctions Between Man and Woman
--Deny the Transcendent

If that's not enough to entice you to give this book to a loved one (or better yet, ask for it from anyone who will give you a copy), here's an excerpt:

"Consider the problems of the poor fellow who has to manage the Human Warehouse, the faraway, sprawling school, stocked with hundreds or thousands of pupils. In the old days, let's say in a one-room schoolhouse, you could easily pick out which young lad or lass was blessed with a mischievous eye and a lively mind. They were the ones hanging upside down from a couple of planks nailed up on a tree in the schoolyard, or sticking bubble gum on the radiator, or reading Ivanhoe. So you got them a few more planks and a bucket of nails,or a paddle to the rear end, or Waverly. They could be dealt with. But the bigger the school, the more dangerous and upsetting a single act of imagination can be. The necessity to impose something like order rules it out. A vast enterprise like McDonald's can only function by ensuring that no employee, anywhere, will do anything sprightly and childlike in the ways of cooking. I sometimes think that if a single boy at the grill tossed paprika into the french fries, the whole colossal pasteboard empire would come crashing down. Barbarians everywhere would be grilling the onions, or leaving the ketchup out, or commandeering the Swiss to take place of the American. The great virtue of McDonald's, that of the solid, dependable, inert routine, would vanish. As in what was once called 'life,' you'd never know what you were getting."

Buy it and let imagination roam free, as God intended, and as Christmas beseeches.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Against Vocational Education, For Vocation

I have a piece up at "Minding the Campus" responding to a piece there (and in the Chronicle of Higher Education) that attacks the idea that all citizens need a university education, and - following the arguments of Charles Murray - suggests instead that most people should instead receive a form of "vocational" training. My abbreviated response is here, but I'll post my longer response here, below. I'm responding to Richard Vedder's arguments here and here.


I don’t disagree with the Richard Vedder’s basic argument that universities have become too expensive and too mediocre and too often the default for too many young people who might do well to pursue appropriate schooling through the secondary level. I wholly agree that too many university administrators, faculty, and politicians are seeking to preserve a bloated system that should be downsized and made more affordable. I agree that government funding has distorted the entire university system, from exhorbitant tuition rates to government-driven research agendas and increasingly in the form of micromanagement of university class time, textbooks and “assessments.” I agree that a reckoning is at hand.

However, I am deeply worried by the way that the reckoning in education is likely to pan out, in considerable part because of arguments like those advanced by Richard Vetter, Charles Murray and a host of other conservatives. In too many of these arguments, there is a strong equation of education (broadly) and job preparation, with the presumption that unless one is equipped with the native intelligence or disposable wealth and leisure to pursue a university education, then one’s education should consist dominantly if not exclusively of acquiring useful skills that can be employed in relatively menial labors. I am put to mind of the world envisioned by Kurt Vonnegut in his 1952 novel Player Piano in which America is divided between a workforce consisting of an “intellectual” workforce, all of whom hold Ph.D.s, and a workforce of menial laborers whose education leaves them stunted and ultimately politically restive.

In drawing a nearly exclusive connection between education and its economic benefits, such arguments reinforce a dominant view of education that has been implicitly advanced by universities for the past several decades and which is now embraced by most contemporary Americans – and, which arguably lies behind the need for a reckoning in education and more broadly our economic and social crisis. It is the tendency that Alexis de Tocqueville observed among Americans to reduce all matters – education included – to terms of raw materialistic calculus. We do well to recall another ideal of education, one that justified universal education for a very different set of reasons than those that now give rise to the critique of universalistic education. And, in recalling these reasons, we might also raise questions about the idea that there are differences in aptitude that condemn some set of students to an education almost entirely lacking in the liberal arts. It’s the very emphasis on careerism that is leading some educational theorists (ranging from conservatives like Charles Murray to liberals like President Obama) to seek the near-elimination of the liberal arts from a central place in the curriculum, whereas a differently conceived understanding of education’s end would insist on their centrality at every level, for every student, and for every vocational pursuit.

It is worth recalling that universal education was an American ideal born during the colonial period for reasons having nothing to do with job preparation. The first real move toward universal education was a 1647 law passed by the General Court of Massachusetts, popularly entitled “The Old Deluder Satan Act.” This act required any town consisting of one-hundred or more families to establish a grammar school where typically emphasis was placed upon the learning of Latin and Greek. It was believed by the New England Puritans that every American should have the ability to read (and write) in order to attain a knowledge of the Bible and thus be able to fend off the temptations of the Old Deluder, Satan. The early forms of “textbooks,” such as The New England Primer (or, later, McGuffey’s Reader) had as their explicit aim the teaching of grammar, but more deeply sought to reinforce the moral lessons of Christianity and the classical tradition. Thus, very young students would be introduced to the alphabet with such lines as “A: After Adam’s Fall, We Sinn’d All.” Universal education was instituted with the aim of fostering the moral character of students, including an emphasis upon human fallenness and our propensity toward sinfulness, an insistence upon moral purity and a call to act in imitation of Christlike selflessness in the service of the good of the community. Among the admonitions of these lessons was an avoidance of seeking narrowly private ends, whether personal or pecuniary. Rather, emphasis was on moral formation, rigorous intellectual training, codes of conduct, and the ideal of service to the common weal.

If one looks at the entrance requirements for a typical New England college during the colonial period, one is stunned by the incredible attainment of learning expected by colleges of grammar school graduates who at that point would typically be about 13 years of age. What students of grammar school were expected to master – not merely the elite who would go on to college, but every student educated in accordance with expectations of a liberally educated citizenry - far exceeded what is largely expected or attained by today’s college graduates. It turns out young people in most cases are capable of profound learning – if the goal sought is sufficiently demanding and integrated early enough into one’s schooling. One need only read the letters of ordinary citizens during this period (or, one can look at the letters written by ordinary soldiers during the Civil War) – the sorts of people who did not attend college but who belie the claims made by the likes of Charles Murray that such people are incapable of attaining the refinements of an advanced liberal arts education.

The problem, then, lies not in the ideal of universality of education, but the widespread transformation of the end that education serves. We can rightly point to the massive failure of universal education at the primary and secondary levels, but this has far more to do with a failure to understand the purpose of education (and its necessary reinforcement of the moral codes of families and communities) than the fact of universality itself. The goal of education toward fostering moral and virtuous members of their communities has been completely displaced by narrow utilitarian ends among students and moral relativism among the teachers. Indeed, in the effort to avoid the unpleasantness that accompanies debates over the requirements of a moral education, the only agreement that can be reached about the goal of education is that it should prepare students for gainful employment.

Education today is shaped by its end, and a society driven by private ambitions of materialistic gain can expect education to become diluted by a utilitarian ethic. The tool will conform to its end, and so education becomes defined by the ethic of the short-cut. Rampant cheating and academic dishonesty are now campus (and societal) norms (students learn ethics from widespread practices in sports and business, not from Aristotle and the Bible), and the professoriate in turn emphasizes that all norms and codes are simply expressions of arbitrary power that limit what should be our thoroughgoing autonomy. As David Brooks has noted, there is an absolute consistency between the moral relativism of postmodern academia and the careerism in the student body. The agreement between many on today’s Left and Right – that schools of every sort need to be doing a better job training students for their careers – will only reinforce, rather than challenge, this dominant worldview.

I agree that colleges bear much of the blame for their current crisis (indeed, are not without considerable responsibility for educating the class that precipitated the financial crisis that now ironically threatens their existence), and I hope and expect that they will have to change their current practices, including a serious effort to reduce tuition costs. The simple classrooms of yore did a better job educating students than the technologically advanced country club campuses are doing today, without producing the attendant pressures to get a high-paying job to pay off one’s college debts.

What disturbs me about arguments such as those found in the Vedder report is the implication that education should be fitted to the narrow vocational needs of airline attendants and cashiers, that an appropriate education will prepare them as efficiently as possible for a life of menial labor. I lament that a major thrust is afoot to dismantle whatever remnant of our older liberal arts tradition persists and to replace it with measurable forms of study that produce narrowly-trained careerists. We need virtuous cashiers and moral airline attendants as much as we need virtuous politicians and philosophers of Moral Philosophy who believe in morality. Rather, assuming a major reassessment of the role of education is in the offing, then it is not the ideal of universal education that should be the whipping-boy, but the belief that a society can flourish without a moral core at the heart of its educational mission.

Friday, December 10, 2010

End of the Culture War?

Ross Douthat is the best thing going in our punditocracy today, so it's with hesitation that I take issue with his most recent column in which he explores the changing nature of the "culture wars." My misgivings are further deepened by the impression of ingratitude that I must present, given that Ross, as an addendum to the column in question, kindly commended a short essay I'd written some time ago about particularly Catholic aspects of the culture wars.  This is a friendly gauntlet, but I throw it nonetheless .

In last Monday's column, Ross argues that the longstanding narrative of the culture wars - liberal elite who defends lifestyle libertinism vs. the stalwart heartland yeomanry who stand for traditional family values - if once true, has been outstripped by reality in the form of findings in a just-published survey directed by my friend, the sociologist Brad Wilcox at the University of Virginia.

In essence, as described by Ross, the survey finds that there are rising levels of "traditionalism" among the college educated, particularly an increase in support for making divorce more difficult (perhaps this is the generation who have felt the effects of divorce most profoundly), as well as increased levels of stated religious belief.  By contrast, the survey finds that among the "moderately educated middle" group of Americans (high school and some college, but no four-year degree), there is overwhelming evidence of rising divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births.  As Ross nicely summarizes the findings, "This gap has been one of the paradoxes of the culture war: highly educated Americans live like Ozzie and Harriet despite being cultural liberals, while middle America hews to traditional values but has trouble living up to them."

I think we should be more wary of concluding that the "culture wars" are now being outstripped by reality; rather, I think there's considerable reason to believe that underlying aspects of the "gap" between America's "two cultures" can go some way to explaining this seeming reversal.   In particular, we should be suspicious particularly of the gap between how the highly educated are living and what they are saying, and the particularly pernicious effect of the latter on the deteriorating status of the "moderately middle educated."

First, I think there is good reason to think that the "highly educated" have come to support marriage because of growing evidence that marriage is a net benefit for one's economic bottom line.  Driven by success-at-all-costs mentality, the highly educated have proven to be highly flexible in their beliefs, so long as those beliefs contribute to their earning potential.  Yet, it goes a step too far to suggest that they live like "Ozzie and Harriet," given that their marriages take place usually after a relatively long period of enjoying a succession of multiple partners (famously described by Tom Wolfe in his essay "Hooking Up" and his novel I am Charlotte Simmons.  I just finished teaching the novel to a group of Georgetown freshmen, and their general consensus was that the novel was pretty accurate, and that it was no big deal).   What might be a growing commitment to marriage among a segment of the college-educated class is generally not accompanied by a commitment to the idea of sexual self-control and the felt-need for a broader culture that would support such a commitment; rather, it could be argued that marriage is the conclusion of a long period of serial partnerships and sexual experimentation that colors more broadly the view of the highly-educated.  If marriage is good for one's bottom line, better to put it off until one has tasted the hedonistic pleasures of Babylon before settling down in Greenwich.  Yet, both decisions are born of a hedonistic calculus - first the benefits of guilt-free sexual experimentation, and then the pleasures of guilt-free Wall Street bonus checks.

These two aspects of the lives of the highly educated - sexual libertinism and picket-fenced greed - bear a direct relationship to the decline of a moral marital culture among the "moderately educated middle."  First, while it may be the case that there is a growing number of "highly educated" that express the belief that access to divorce ought to be in some ways constrained, in absolute terms (according to the survey) that number is still split 50-50, and I think it's fair to say that it is our less traditional half of the highly-educated segment of the population that tends to gravitate toward and guide the output of the cultural and educational centers of the nation.   If Ross is right that it's likely due more to the growing influx of conservative students at the likes of Baylor and Wheaton that is tilting this number than a substantially growing population at the Harvards and Princetons who support more restrictive marriage bonds, then it's safe to surmise that more of the latter will end up making films, television shows, as well as writing for the likes of Ross's paper and teaching in schools and colleges.  The culture remains dominated by pervasive sexual saturation, by portrayals of family as generally disfunctional or re-makable at will, by the presentation of youth culture as dominated by irony and sarcasm (Disney!), and a general ethic that we should all be as non-judgmental as possible.  This is the broader cultural mileu that pervades the lives of the "moderately educated middle," addicted as they often are to any and all forms of popular culture (a highly profitable industry for the "highly educated").  It may be that the "highly educated" live like "Ozzie and Harriet," but you can be sure that Ozzie and Harriet aren't appearing on a television program near you.  Their temporal neighbors - the Drapers - are more likely to be in the TV listings than the Cleavers, the Nelsons, or the Waltons.

At the same time that the dominant cultural narrative (shaped by the "highly educated") commends exactly the opposite "lifestyle" as that of Ozzie and Harriet - or, the lives increasingly lived by the "highly educated" once they settle into marital bondage - the fact is that the increased separation of the highly educated from the "moderately middle educated" means that these popular cultural portrayals of adult adolescence are the only model of marital and romantic relationships that the "moderately educated middle" are likely to see.   If arguments such as those of Bill Bishop and Richard Florida (as well as earlier iterations such as those of Robert Reich and Christopher Lasch) are to be credited, the country is increasingly geographically segmented by educational attainments and class distinctions, no longer intermingled as they would have been until thirty years ago.   Even as the popular culture is suffused with the ideal of hedonism and irresponsibility, the actual places where the "moderately educated middle" live are all but certain to have been abandoned by the "highly educated," who now congregate as a "creative class" in various coastal centers around the country and the world.  In fairness, Ross has argued that he would like to see "a willingness [on the part of the highly educated] to translate some of the more conservative habits they’ve embraced (or partially embraced) in their personal lives into law and public policy."  But - unlikely as this is to be - this would presumptively be done from a distance; what is lacking in this call is the recognition that even more important than a willingness of "noblesse oblige" to encourage public policy guidance on sexual matters is the moral witness of lives responsibly lived within communities where "highly educated" and the "moderately educated middle" intermingle, even intermarry.  One could say that historically, various laws governing sexual propriety simply reinforced these cultural habits and models; in their absence, they would be rightly perceived as distantly imposed Puritanical codes, particularly in the context of the dominant narrative of sexual liberation that our "highly educated" purvey daily on every available screen in the world.

Secondly, the upwardly-mobile "highly educated" behave as they do in order to secure as best they can a place in the highly unstable economic system whose fruits they enjoy.  To succeed in that system, they create islands of stability in and through their marriages (particularly combining incomes with other members of the highly-educated class), but at the same time engage in expanding a system that renders the lives of the "moderately educated middle" completely unstable, unpredictable, and pervaded by the sense of downward mobility.  As well-documented in Stephen Greenhouse's book The Big Squeeze,  the "moderately educated middle" has not only been geographically abandoned by "the creative classes," but economically sold down the river by their wanton expansion of "globalization" and attendant practices of outsourcing and off-shoring.  The one main lesson being taught today in our universities is how to be flexible and mobile - the very thing that comes most difficult to the "moderately educated middle."

Thus, the "moderately educated middle" are learning some important lessons from the "highly educated": enjoy yourself sexually and abandon hope about your future economic situation.  Can it be any surprise that the "moderately educated middle" is struggling so mightily to hold things together?  And, are the basic features of the "culture war" (if we properly understand what its basic contours are, which Christopher Lasch always better understood than the likes of William Bennett) really behind us, or are the very conditions described by Ross in his recent column really evidence that the war goes on?

One last piece of anecdotal evidence:  the main issues of student debate and interest on the Georgetown campus in recent semesters have been 1. Georgetown's refusal to cover the cost of contraceptives as part of its student health plan; and 2. the crying need for gender-blind housing, a policy just instituted at George Washington University.   There is little if any evidence on my own campus of the "highly educated" that there is concern about the marital plight of the moderately educated middle; rather, there's every indication that the student's main attention is on the sexual opportunities of the highly educated.   While Georgetown administrators, faculty and students talk constantly about "social justice" (which is the only way that the Catholic identity can be acknowledged by the campus mainstream), there's no attention paid to the ways that higher education in general systemically contributes to the plight of the less well-educated. "Social justice" strikes me constantly as a form of "noblesse oblige" purchased on the cheap. Still, having "social justice" as teflon protection against too much introspection, the highly educated can turn their attention to the true injustices of the day, which are the crying needs for free birth control and opportunities for university sponsored co-habitation.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Mutual Admiration

On last Thursday and Friday, Brad Birzer - the Russell Amos Kirk Chair and professor of History at Hillsdale College - was the guest of program I founded and direct at Georgetown, the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy.

Birzer has written very fine studies on J.R.R. Tolkein and Christopher Dawson, but it was his most recent book - American Cicero, on Charles Carroll of Carrollton - that was the inspiration for us to invite him to deliver the fifth annual Carroll lecture, named in honor of Charles's cousin, Fr. John Carroll, S.J., founder of Georgetown.

Brad's lecture was nothing short of brilliant - an inspiring exploration of the classical influences on the Founding, ones particularly manifest in the thought of Charles Carroll. Carroll's admiration for the ancients - especially Cicero - was evident in his understanding of the nature of republican self-government, an understanding that America today would do well to familiarize itself with anew.

The following day, Brad led a small, informal discussion about T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets for a small but intensely interested group of Georgetown students. Brad had the ineffable ability to convey to all of us in attendance that we were taking part in a great conversation of ancient origin, equally a part of the great Western tradition that stretches back to antiquity and was compellingly re-described by Eliot in modernist tones, but ancient pedigree. Every one of us came out of that room a bit dazed, wondering where we'd been for the past hour-and-a-half, suddenly stepping back into the diurnal world but one now intensely suffused with meaning, hope and sacramentality.

Brad has written about his experience at Georgetown here. It's a highly complimentary portrait of our efforts at Georgetown. I thank him for the kind words he offers about the program I lead and the possibilities at Georgetown. Appropriately, it is a time of Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 15, 2010

In Defense of Culture

This past weekend, about 20 Georgetown students and a few Front Porchers enjoyed magnificent weather, food, conversation, and good cheer in a beautiful setting in western Virginia for the second annual Tocqueville Forum student retreat. We were especially fortunate to be treated to two fine lectures by Mark Mitchell (on Wendell Berry) and Jason Peters (on beached fish, making out, Augustine and the virtues of dirt), as well as the opportunity to read, talk, dine, fish, bike, hike, throw horseshoes, and spend long evenings together over pool, cards, and a game of Trivial Pursuit for the ages.

I opened the proceedings on Friday evening with a lecture that I entitled "In Defense of Culture," which was broadly the theme of our weekend's discussions (among other things, we read selections from Josef Pieper's Leisure: The Basis of Culture, and Romano Guardini's wonderful little book, Letters from Lake Como). The text of my lecture follows:


In Defense of Culture
Second Annual Tocqueville Forum Student Retreat
Warrenton, VA

Today, in and beyond the academy, we tend to use the word “culture” promiscuously and without any real understanding of the deeper meaning of the word. At institutions such as Georgetown, and most other modern institutions of higher learning, we speak frequently of the fact and virtues of multiculturalism; while beyond the gates of academe, the word “culture” is most often combined with the adjective “popular,” indicating most often varied offerings on different forms of electronic media. Yet, while the word “culture” rolls easily from our tongues, it is not often that reflect on its meaning – and further, whether “culture” continues to exist in today’s world in any real sense. It is on the idea and meaning of the word and concept “culture” that we will devote our attention during this short but vital weekend.

I want to begin this day and a half of sustained reflection with a fairly straightforward conclusion: the modern world is unfriendly toward culture, and in particular, its dominant political philosophies have combined to displace culture from its ancient place of pride, to eviscerate culture in any meaningful sense and to leave behind a disordered set of fragments that we now call “multiculturalism.” In the next few minutes, I want to lay out a case that modernity is actually an anti-culture, a way of life that seeks wherever possible the elimination of culture and its replacement by a globalized anti-cultural monoculture, a homogenous way of life that exists in profound contradiction to the basic elements of culture that were once the assumed way of life.

The political philosophy as a whole that has effected this destruction of culture is the dominant school of thought – and life – of the modern period, namely liberalism. Liberalism, in its many forms – whether classical or progressive, whether purportedly on the Right or the Left – shares one basic feature in common, namely a hostility to cultural forms that are a pre-modern inheritance. Whether in the form of classical liberalism that forefronts individualism, or in the form of progressive liberalism that aspires to collectivism, both forms of liberalism seek to effect their ends by the same means – namely, the displacement of culture. Indeed, I would go farther to argue that the two have combined in a pincer movement, alternating in their claims toward the common end of detaching people from traditional forms and ways of life in favor of various visions of liberation.

So, what do I mean by culture? Here I turn for help from the author whom we will be discussing tomorrow, Romano Guardini. In his little masterpiece, Letters From Lake Como, Guardini gently seeks to describe an understanding of the human creature as that creature that is at once of, but not completely defined by, nature. Unlike all the other creatures of the planet, humans survive not primarily by instinct, but by artifice, endowed with none of the “natural” tools of the other creatures, but relying almost entirely on tools created through artifice, reflection, experimentation and choice. That is, we might rightly call humanity “homo techne” – “technological man” – the creature that survives through the tools he creates, one that allow him to carve out a space for survival and even flourishing from the natural world that would otherwise be so hostile and unforgiving. This understanding of humanity lie behind the Greek myth of Prometheus, whose theft of fire and the arts from the Gods allowed otherwise naked and powerless humanity to survive, and gave to humanity some part of the divine gift that so angered the gods to place Prometheus under a painful and endless punishment.

Yet, as Guardini strives to explain, the human freedom to exert some measure of control over nature is nevertheless ultimately governed by nature. The variety of human cultures arose in great part because of the various ways in which nature manifests itself. Human techne developed alongside nature, seeking to conform itself to nature’s offerings, its rhythms, its cadences, and in cognizance of its place of majesty and governance. Human practices and traditions arose in concert with the variety of natural diversity; thus, while every culture has tended to share certain basic features – the celebration of birth, the ceremonial acknowledgement of adulthood, the sanctification of marriage, honor paid to the elderly, and the memorialization of the dead – these practices have varied in accordance with the accumulation of experience and interaction with the world.

The accumulation of these practices and traditions as a way of life is what we call culture. Culture is among the paramount forms of human technology, perhaps in its purest form the lived collection of memory. Again, Greek myth is instructive: the Muses, who embody the different arts and sciences that we have come to call “culture,” were the daughters of Mnemnosyne, the goddess of Memory. Culture is thus unique to humans, for it is the way that we make the continuous flow of time present to us in spite of its fleeting nature. Culture is the repository of memory of time past, just as it is the promise to the future, an inheritance that is passed on to future generations. Culture assumes that, in order for future generations to survive, the accumulated knowledge of the past must be passed on, and thus, that the conditions of life of the future will be continuous and similar to the conditions of life of the past. Culture innovates, but slowly, carefully, cautiously, with awareness that novelty can endanger as much as it can liberate. Culture, in fact, tends to mistrust the new, the strange, the unique, as temptations that can offer shortcuts or easy solutions that experience shows more often than not to be a Siren’s song.

Culture, then, cultivates: it is the medium and the context in which each new generation is raised, part of a long narrative that stretches back countless generations and assumes the existence of countless new generations. Culture is not only knowledge, but also a set of dispositions – in particular, gratitude to the past for what has been achieved and passed on, and a sense of obligation to the future for what is owed as an inheritor of something one did not create, but rather, which created and fostered you. Culture inherently teaches us that we are part of a web or a fabric of intertwining strands, each part necessarily in combination and relationship as part of a larger whole. It was such an understanding of culture that led the great author G.K. Chesterton to describe us as all part of that “democracy of the dead,” as equals because of our shared presence in a long narrative in which we are part, and which we can expect to remain part of after our deaths and the death of all of our kin.

Now consider the modern philosophy of liberalism. Liberalism begins with the political philosophy of Hobbes, with refinement by John Locke, with the idea that humans by nature are naturally free and equal. These thinkers sought to describe the natural human condition to be one of autonomous and whole individuals who have no past, no culture, no history, no relationships, no memory. They are like Athena, sprung from the head of Zeus – and, for that reason, its theorists were described by the political philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel as “childless men who have forgotten their childhood.” Even as we are prompted to leave the State of Nature for reasons of its inconvenience, this vision of natural human liberty remains the standard and even ideal. We enter society better to enjoy liberty, but society itself ideally will work toward creating conditions in which we can enjoy the kind of autonomous liberty that was only insecurely our natural condition in our pre-political state.

That standard is introduced into a world of actual cultures, attachments, histories, obligations and gratitude. That ideal – the autonomous individual – eventually comes into conflict with that reality, and liberal theory eventually becomes liberal practice, weakening and then outright destroying those bonds. Culture is experienced as a constraint upon the freedom of the individual, and for that standard to be realized, the limitations represented by culture must be overcome. The autonomous individual at the heart of liberal theory cannot in fact come into being in reality without first liberating him or her from the inheritances of cult and culture. Liberal theory thus redefines all human relations in its wake – rather than culture in a sense defining the individual, rather the individual becomes the judge of culture, and places all relations and bonds under the logic of choice and voluntarism. Whether one’s religion, one’s community, one’s nation, even one’s family, all human relations are redefined by liberalism’s logic. Inheritance becomes a lifestyle; culture becomes “multi-culturalism,” a set of fashion or styles that one can try on for size, entering and exiting at will.

Liberalism begins by claiming to be neutral among personal ends and choices, indifferent to the ultimate purposes of individuals so long as those purposes do not come into violent conflict. However, one can quickly see that this indifference must eventually become outright hostility toward those choices that involve ultimate purposes, particularly inasmuch as they involve not individually defined ends, but ends that require community and culture for their fruition. So long as such communities and cultures are open and make no authoritative claim on the individuals who belong to them – so long as there are strong opportunities and rights of exit – then such communities can be tolerated by the liberal state. But, this very logic proves destructive of the fundamental status of culture, which requires a kind of preliminary devotion and loyalty in advance of choice.

One sees, then, how a diversity of cultures becomes the liberal form of multiculturalism. Cultural diversity in the truest sense results from internal standards and practices within cultures, and cultures collectively and cohesively provide definition of their beliefs, their practices, their customs, their ways of life. Cultures patrol their borders, defining what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, and involves distinctions between members and outsiders. “Multiculturalism,” or – to use the updated language – “diversity” – reduces beliefs and ways of life to the level of the individual, demanding then in advance of any belief that every individual first assent and commit to a willingness to tolerate any other belief or way of life, so long as there is no threat of physical harm. What becomes intolerable are people who will not give that preliminary assent, who insist that certain standards or beliefs ought to govern in a particular context or setting. Such people need correction, restriction, or ostracism for their intolerance.

The result is the elimination of actual diversity in the form of groups, institutions, associations, in favor of a kind of uniform monoculture of individualistic diversity. A good example of this is to be found in universities today: universities everywhere constantly invoke the language of “diversity” – by which of course is meant the “diversity” of lifestyle choices based upon individual choice – and seek to eliminate any remnant of actual cultural diversity by which colleges and universities were once differentiated (e.g., different religious, regional, historical traditions….). What remains is a monoculture of completely identical individualists: no matter their individual “lifestyle” choices, they first must maintain a preliminary allegiance to the ideal of multiculturalism – that is, the indifferent toleration based in the logic of individual choice. This is the anti-culture of liberalism.

There are profound consequences of this transformation. Culture is and was the conduit of memory, the carrier of obligations and the necessary condition for gratitude. Culture binds the generations through a fostered understanding of generational continuity. By destroying the basis of culture, liberalism induces a strong form of temporal myopia. In such a setting, humans understand themselves to live for themselves, shorn of their gratitude to the past and their obligations to the future. They tend to irresponsibly draw down on the cultural inheritance of the past even as they fail to replenish its stores. And, they tend as well to borrow against the future, unmindful of the children they are increasingly unlikely to bear. Culture is seen as an obstacle to the achievement of this temporal condition. Technology, rather than being culture itself, seeks to replace culture. We create instruments that liberate us from past practices and which we are certain will be displaced in the future. Our technology now liberates us from the need to know what previous generations once had to know. In such a situation, can there be any wonder that education becomes obessed with the up-to-date, and sees it as a central role to liberate its students from obligations to know deeply about the past?

Along with the destruction of the basis of culture, liberalism also seeks liberation from nature. As much as culture, nature is a limit upon thorough human freedom, a set of external constraints upon the possibility of satisfying an expanding set of human choices. Where culture was the generational effort to live alongside nature, conforming a range of human activities to its rhythms and ways in the expectation that future generations would be able to live well by the same set of practices, liberalism views nature as a foe, as an enemy that needs to be mastered so as to achieve ever greater expanses of human freedom. Technology now no longer conforms at some level to nature (think of Guardini’s example of the sailboat), but rather transforms nature, subjecting it wherever possible to uniformity and standardization. The destruction of culture and the conquest of nature go hand in hand, just as culture and nature at a certain level were bound together. Where culture attempted to understand the limits of human freedom in relation to the natural world and human nature itself, the modern project rejects the idea of such limits, actively transforming the world – and increasingly, seeking the transformation of humanity – as best to accord with the liberal ideal of the autonomous individual.

This place, then, is a perfect setting for us to reflect on the meaning and possibility of culture in today’s world. It would seem that culture is everywhere under duress if not outright retreat – in all but its most superficial, which is to say, eviscerated forms – but a serious question lingers over your generation today whether this wager could be won. Let me quote some lines from Wendell Berry – the Kentucky farmer, poet, essayist and novelist, whom we’ll be hearing more about tomorrow. If we are indeed at war with nature – to use the phrase that comes right from the writings of Francis Bacon and has been echoed over the years by such acolytes as America’s philosopher, John Dewey – then, Berry urges us, we need a frank assessment of how the war is going. And so he writes,

“This war, like most wars, has turned out to be a trickier business than we expected. We must now face two shocking surprises. The first surprise is that if we say and believe that we are at war with nature, then we are in the fullest sense at war: that is, we are both opposing and being opposed, and the costs to both sides are extremely high.

“The second surprise is that we are not winning. On the evidence now available, we have to conclude that we are losing – and moreover, that there was never a chance that we could win. Despite the immense power and violence that we have deployed against her, nature is handing us one defeat after another."

We would need to further assess the costs of the destruction of culture – not only the liberties that it may have gained individuals, but the extreme burdens in particular it has placed upon future and increasingly the present generation. We could expect, after all, that along with the liberties that would accompany liberation from gratitude to the past and obligations to the future, would also come discernible forms of irresponsibility, in the form of both moral and natural depletions of past inheritance and burdens and debts (rather than inheritances) being bestowed upon future generations. A civilization geared toward extreme presentism – a preeminent feature of modern anti-culture – would be the expected result.

Perhaps the worst burden of all would be the sure knowledge that one’s death would mean one’s elimination from the memory of humankind. The destruction of culture involves the elimination of temporal continuity in the form of remembrance and memoralization, those stories that are told about the souls of those still present in our own practices and ways. If the past ceases to be a guide or in any way relevant to the actions of the future, then the faster forgotten, the better. We speak today of a “health care crisis” in terms that only treats us as bodies, and for such radically individuated bodies, the cessation of our life is the worst imaginable possibility – the summum malum of Hobbes. Living in culture of memory and expectation, one’s death – while always hard – is not the worst imaginable possibility, since one’s death is not tantamount to a condition as if one had never existed. Although we live longer than ever, we live amidst a “health care crisis” that we can’t see is a crisis of culture, and the sickness lies in the unhealth of family, community, and cult. Membership in these – not more health club memberships – is what is needed.

We can remember only in times of leisure. As Josef Pieper argues, leisure is the basis of culture, because it is especially in our feasts, festivals and in reflection – all, in skole – that we recollect and anticipate, that we weave the past and future into our present. Over the course of these several days and two nights, let us feast and be festive and reflect – let us have that true experience of skole, of leisure. Let us taste what a cultured life would be.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

On Damon Linker's "Religious Test"

Here is the text of my comments just delivered at the Boisi Center at Boston College.


Damon Linker has written a book - The Religious Test - that seeks to provide some specific “tests” whereby the belief of political leaders can be measured and assessed by the polity. He writes of several specific areas in which public expressions of religion potentially stand in contradiction to the norms of liberalism. Among these are areas relating to religious pluralism; the priority of liberalism (and the Constitution) over public religious claims; the requirement of science to be free of superstition; the eschewal of claims to know God’s providence; and the need to accept diverse views on sexual behavior and arrangements. In all of these areas, Linker argues that liberalism is the standard by which the public claims of religion are to be judged. Religious expressions are to stand before the bar of liberalism, and where found wanting, should be rejected by the electorate and even curtailed by the liberal state.

Linker concludes his book with a criticism of such “new atheist” authors as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, differentiating himself inasmuch as he does not seek the wholesale elimination of religious belief, but rather to ensure that where it persists, that it be quarantined to largely private expressions. For example, he draws a stark distinction between the kind of religious belief and practices of the Amish, who – while relatively closed and authoritarian – nevertheless do not seek to alter the political composition of the polity – and the kinds of belief and practices of a growing number of home-schooling Americans, many of whom express a strong commitment to changing American law through by campaigning for and voting on behalf of elected representatives. In the latter case, Linker argues, its activities threaten to use the mechanisms of the liberal State to advance a set of sectarian aims. It is not the belief as such that worries Linker, but its potential for political influence. Thus, he concludes, “If the home-schooling movement continues to grow, and if significant numbers of its members continue to view their separatism as a prelude to overthrowing elements of the liberal political order, then the liberal state might have to revisit the issue in the name of defending the common good.” In the end, his arguments end up being politically and practically indistinguishable from the New Atheists – so long as religious belief remains sealed and safe behind private walls, it can be tolerated. Otherwise, there is a danger that the liberal commitment of neutrality to all ultimate ends could be compromised by an infusion of religiously-influenced belief.

This view of liberal neutrality, then, disproportionately burdens not religious belief per se, but those religious beliefs that have a public or political dimension. In the American setting, this disproportionate burden falls particularly on evangelical Christian and Catholic believers. While the claim to neutrality among beliefs is commonly invoked by liberals, this claim is reminiscent of the description of “law’s majestic equality” offered by Anatole France over a century ago – its equality is achieved by “forbidding the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.” The singularly burdensome nature of Linker’s liberalism upon religious belief is suggested most revealingly in a passage in which he would disallow Catholic politicians the opportunity to oppose permissive abortion rights because, he writes (in italics): the Supreme Court has declared [abortion] to be a constitutional right (73; Linker’s emphasis). It seems unlikely that this same prohibition to question Supreme Court holdings would apply, for instance, to current Democratic criticisms of the Citizen United decision permitting unlimited political contributions by corporations. One wonders if the same prohibition would apply to those who opposed the Supreme Court holding in the Dred Scott decision. One wonders, too, why a provision was even left in the Constitution for its own amendment if the ability of citizens was to precluded at the outset from debating the terms of the basic law.

Liberalism has always purported to defend a neutral stance toward ultimate goods or final aims, to stand impartially above the contesting claims of citizens, and instead open a sphere of liberty for the pursuit of personal goods. Yet, smuggled into this very claim of neutrality is a substantive worldview that, over time, remakes the world in its image in support of a highly individualist, voluntarist, and autonomous prevailing set of norms. Its purported neutrality about ends is a kind of solvent that, over time, corrodes non-individualist, non-voluntarist and non-autonomous ways of life, slowly but relentlessly dissolving what are often pre-liberal cultural inheritances under the weight of liberalism’s logic. The claim to be “neutral” among worldviews itself contains a worldview that, over time, transforms all human societies. Ironically, it fosters first by a kind of societal logic, and then by force of law, the conditions described by its first theorists, namely, the vision of humanity described in social contract theory. Bertrand de Jouvenel suggested that social contract theories were conceived by “childless men who had forgotten their childhoods,” but in fact, liberal theory fosters social and ultimately legal conditions in which we are increasingly childless, siblingless and generationally disconnected. It begins with a false assumption about how humans exist by nature – without histories or culture or memory - but over time makes them into the spitting image of the creatures that they fantasize exist by nature in a prepolitical state. What nature could not in fact create, liberal politics fashions by artifice.

Yet, liberalism is largely blind (willfully or ignorantly) to its own heavy hand in the transformation of society, believing all the while in the claims of its own neutrality. This obdurate blindness is on full display in what Linker describes as his “culture wars” chapter, entitled “The Impossibility of Sexual Consensus.” It turns out that the title is a wild misnomer, for at the outset he acknowledges that there was once broadly just such a consensus in the United States about sexual proprieties, and indeed, even states that this consensus existed for a long time throughout much of the West. Yet, having acknowledged that it was in fact possible to have some widespread sexual consensus, he goes on to assert that “America’s pre-sixties sexual traditional was the political and legal expression of a historically contingent cultural consensus.” Given his acknowledgement of the longstanding nature of this consensus, one would think that it might invite the slightest bit of curiosity about how this widespread and longstanding consensus broke down, but instead Linker is satisfied to posit that it was an “historically contingent consensus” and leave it at that. Yet, having now broken down for some inexplicable reason, it is now the role of the liberal state to exit the business of preferring one form of sexual arrangement over any other, and thus, making marital and sexual relations a matter of indifference in public policy. The corrosive solvent of liberalism – first informally undermining arrangements that gave priorities to marriage and family based in stable communities of memory and tradition, mainly by its redefinition of all human relationships in terms that give priority to individual preferences (a language and self-understanding that is deeply aided and abetted by market capitalism) – then turns to the apparatus of the State to confirm its own handiwork. Far from being a mysterious breakdown of an “historically contingent” set of arrangements, one worldview (and indeed, one form of sexual consensus) replaces another. The difference is, liberalism masks its work behind claims of neutrality.

Linker’s liberalism – by dint of its claims of lacking any substantive philosophy – also gets a pass throughout his book, portrayed as wholly reasonable and judicious in comparison to irrational, authoritarian, and often ignorant religious belief. Yet, example after example in Linker’s book belie any such claim, rather intimating the ways that liberalism is inherently prone its own excesses, ones to which religious voices have historically afforded witness and important correctives. Take two “tests” proffered by Linker: “Honor Worldly Knowledge” and “Do Not Presume to Know God’s Providence.” In making a case for the irrelevance of religious belief for science, Linker does not acknowledge science’s internal incapacity to exercise limits over its own applications. Linker (predictably) names the Scopes trial as an instance of religious “obscurantism” that too often opposes to the reasonableness of scientific findings, but neglects to mention that the textbook assigned by John Scopes – A Civic Biology – recommended a program of eugenics based upon “natural selection” and racial classification and ranking. Most people don’t know about this fact because the liberal re-telling of this episode only perceives religious obscurantism, not the dangers of progressivism and the reasonableness of religious defense of supposedly substandard humans. And in making his case against religiously-inflected nationalism, Linker too quickly glosses the fact that the most virulent forms of nationalist providentialism in American history were generally advanced by liberals (or inspired by liberalized theologies that collapse messianism and politics), and that it was more “traditionalist” Augustinian belief that underlie the critique of national self-congratulation ranging from cautions by Lincoln to chastening admonitions by Reinhold Niebuhr. In these instances and more, it could be argued not only that Linker would unjustly exclude religious voices from political debates, but that liberalism is in desperate need of such religious voices, if only to prevent it from its own worst excesses.

Let me close by suggesting that Linker’s book, and the family of arguments to which it belongs that date back at least to Rawl’s Political Liberalism, is fundamentally distracting and even damaging to the fabric of the American polity. It operates out of a belief that the greatest threat to contemporary democracy is a massive wave of conservative Christian soldiers who threaten to usurp the levers of liberal democracy and put the nation under a Theocracy. The evidence, it seems to me, is quite contrary: over the past forty years, by many measures, the cultural forms and practices that have been often most important to traditionalists have weakened and even collapsed – including, as Linker celebrates, the basic fabric of marriage and family life. I think the evidence suggests that the oligarchic elements of the Republican party have consistently attracted and then co-opted religious conservatives for their electoral support, and then have engineered ever greater concentrations of economic power with nary an effort exerted on behalf of the causes dear to social and religious conservatives. In the meantime, these plutocrats – much quieter – have enjoyed relatively little critical attention by the Left, which instead has become absorbed with an embrace of identity politics, and has largely eschewed a serious reflection on the titanic inequalities that now pervade our national life in favor of denouncing social conservatives. The Left’s narrative has wholly obscured the fact that it was these very religious conservatives who were once at the heart of the Left. Offering them no place at the table of the official Left today – indeed, treating them when possible with dismissiveness if not outright condescension – the egalitarian economic populism of this segment of America now lies dormant and their energies are instead bestowed upon a Republican Party that yearly further decimates their way of life. There is a straight line backward from the Tea Party to Reagan Democrats, but then further back to William Jenning Bryan’s people and the Jacksonian and Jeffersonian Democrats. There was a time in this country when the Left was more devoted to equality than to lifestyle autonomy, and it was more often than not religious conservatives were the most vocal defenders of democratic equality. Linker articulates a contemporary understanding of Liberalism that asks us to be indifferent to a variety of lifestyle choices, but we ought to ponder whether such indifference can be reined in, or whether it results in indifference toward our fellow citizens in a much wider scope.

Linker’s story is finally informed by its own triumphalist and Providentialist storyline, the history of the victory of Liberalism and the need for it to maintain firm control of what he calls the “skirmish line” between religion and politics. This storyline wholly obscures what I think to be the real story – the story of how modern economic conservatism and modern identity liberalism have combined in support of titanic inequalities in our society, the former in the name of corporate profit and the latter in the name of lifestyle autonomy and the “secession of the successful.” Truly homeless today are the religious conservatives whose voices Linker would silence rather than engage. America needs the older lyrics that religious voices once raised as a prophetic witness to the Republic, that language of equal dignity that demands more than indifference and more than the private reveries and worse, the self-congratulation of today’s autonomous individuals. It calls for the language of community, fidelity, memory, and a belief in our shared fate that was ever the greatest contribution of American faith to the Republic. So long as contemporary liberalism insists that those voices be shut out of the public sphere, they will continue to sing a querulous and tinny song, one that remains out of tune with the better angels of their own beliefs.

Monday, November 8, 2010

In Beantown

On this coming Thursday, November 11, I'll be a discussant on a panel about Damon Linker's new book The Religious Test. The panel is being sponsored by the Boisi Center (directed by Alan Wolfe) at Boston College - information about the panel is here.

I have just reviewed the book for a journal - I'll post the review here when it runs, as well as some version of my comments at BC. Let's just say I have some rather deep disagreements with Linker, but then, longtime readers would already know that (since we've mixed it up on several occasions in the past, for instance here and here, and I expect we will yet again).

Monday, November 1, 2010

Good Work

With a day to go before the midterm elections, we witness again with pronounced clarity that the fundamental divisions in our political arrangements today come from distinct understandings of the respective agent in society whose role is to secure the common good. For conservatives, “the market" is the best mechanism for ensuring good societal outcomes; for liberals, there is wide latitude for government to ensure common weal. From this basic difference comes many of our contemporary political debates and distinct policy directions. The two positions represent the opposite poles of our current political alignments, and are widely perceived as a yawning gulf separating unbridgeable worldviews.

While the differences between these two positions cannot be denied, what largely goes unnoticed is that the current divide masks a more fundamental similarity: both positions essentially relieve members of the wider society from personal obligation to think and consider, much less to act on behalf of, the common good. In each case, there is a function in the society that works to effect the good of society without reliance upon the conscious and ongoing efforts of the citizenry. In both cases, current political arrangements ask and expect little of citizens.

As is the case every several years, we are asked to tune in briefly to decide which impersonal agent in the society will work to effect the common good – whether the market or the government. We are then expected, and largely welcome, the freedom to tune back out. And, predictably, our present discontents are born of the fact that neither of these agents is very good at providing for what’s promised, giving birth to extensive civic disillusionment and frustration. Yet, rather than noticing that we are presented with false choices, we continue to oscillate between these two impersonal agents, blaming them - rather than ourselves - for failing to live up to their promises.

Conservatives take their cue from the theories developed in the early modern period, particularly the political and economic philosophy of thinkers like Bernard Mandeville and Adam Smith. Smith famously declared in his work The Wealth of Nations that the market functions not out of a sense of beneficence, but from the logic of productively-employed self-interest. Writing of the “division of labor,” Smith wrote that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” As individuals we are not charged with considering the societal good that is achieved through our self-interested transactions; rather, the accumulation of those exchanges, through the agency of the market, gives rise to general prosperity and opportunity that becomes widespread throughout the society. While Smith acknowledged a necessary role for government in enforcing contracts and even providing some relief for the poor, Smith’s acolytes regard most government activity today as an interference in the good working of the market. Republicans in this election cycle have vociferously asserted the need to reduce government intervention in the “free market,” better to secure the common good of general society.

Liberals take their cue from critiques of the “free market” model, ones that arose in part from thinkers like Rousseau, Marx, Mill, and Dewey, as well as many subsequent liberal thinkers who rejected calls for the dominion of “private vices.” It was argued by such thinkers that a society dominated by self-interest would reward the most rapacious; that commercial society tended toward a crass materialism and the degradation of the workers; and that capitalist arrangements inevitably resulted in titanic inequalities that undermined any shared sense of common weal. Each in turn called an active role of government to provide relief to the respective baleful consequences of the free market system, and gave rise to iterations of the modern welfare State through such functions as public education, redistribution and regulation.

In both cases an agent within society - not the whole of society itself - is responsible for securing the common good, whether the market or the government. In both cases, the citizenry is largely relieved of the responsibility to consider the ways in which their work contributes to the good of society. Both the market and government exist as impersonal agents that separate “commoners” from common weal.

Lying behind both of these early modern articulations was a distinct new notion of the "division of labor." For early-modern "classical" liberals, a new conception of the division of labor was to encourage each of us to concentrate only on our small piece of work, and to remain oblivious to its ends or purposes, or the ways that it contributed - or did not contribute - to the common weal. By doing so we were ensured of greater productivity through the magic of specialization. There would be no "specialist" whose job was to ensure the good functioning and contributions of our varied forms of work - "the market" would ensure good outcomes. Self-interest could thus be transformed into "public benefits."

Reacting to the impersonalization and alienation of this arrangement, Marx and subsequent critics on the Left called for an addition to the specialization of labor, namely, government itself (in the case of Marx, this arrangement was theoretically supposed to be temporary until the state would "wither away," but so far that theory hasn't worked well in reality). That is, government - its various representatives and bureaucrats - were to have as their form of specialized work the duty of providing for the common weal. This was particularly the arguments underlying many of the reforms of "Progressive" era, when "graft" was roundly attacked and a preference for a permanent "civil service" bureaucracy was proposed. A class of experts was to be tested and selected to ensure the propounding of the common good. Yet, this work was itself a form of specialized work: they were to perform their particular jobs, again relieving the citizenry of the burden of having to think about the nature of their own work (or the work of bureaucrats). No less than in the previous arrangement, the citizenry was to be relieved of the burden of thinking about the common weal.

Early modern articulations of conservatism and liberalism both summarily rejected a more ancient understanding of work and its relationship to common weal. As expressed in the Christian tradition (and echoing the philosophy of Greek antiquity), every person in society should understand themselves as having two jobs – the work they immediately undertake and the work of striving to understand the role of that work in providing for the good of society. This view was expressed most powerfully in the Christian tradition in those famous passages of St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, in which he urges the Christian community of Corinth to put aside their divisions and to understand their respective positions not as the source of individual status, but as parts of a greater whole. According to Paul, “to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the profit of all…. For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body…. When one member suffers, all the members suffer with it. Or when one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. (12:7-12:26). As Paul goes on to argue, the basis of common weal is not interest or disinterest, but love. A society that does not have love at its base is a society that will likely cease to pay attention to the ways our work is to contribute to the common weal. And lacking such attention, bad work is the likely result.

Contemporary conservatives and liberals are inheritors of a tradition that rejected this alternative as a way of liberating individuals from the obligations of having to pay attention. We are now exclusively holders of one job, and we rely either on the market or government to attend to the common good. The first liberation – market capitalism – has freed us in ways that have at once made us wealthy but also prone to rapacity. The second liberation – relying on government to regulate the market’s excesses – has allowed us to retain our lifestyle autonomy without the need to devote excessive personal attention to the remediation of injustices. In both cases, impersonal forces have replaced the second job that was once thought to be our true common work: widespread and personal investment in achieving the good of the community as a whole. This will be the political platform that is, and remains, missing from our current political arrangements. And, while tomorrow many of us will engage in what we believe to be our civic duty, instead we will be indicating our resignation from the same.

(Cross-posted at Front Porch Republic)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Conservative Tradition in America?

In my previous post I promised to post my remarks from my appearance at "Conservatism on Tap" here, but I've since done so over at "Front Porch Republic." For those who don't regularly tune in there, the lion's share of my comments are here.

Longtime readers will find little new here; my thoughts were a summary and precis of a number of themes I've been discussing here and elsewhere for some time now. Still, it is sometimes a beneficial exercise, and useful to newer readers, to offer a summary statement.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"Conservatism on Tap"

I'll be the featured speaker at tomorrow evening's Washington D.C. "Conservatism on Tap." My topic: "Is There a Conservative Tradition in America?" The drunken debauchery will be begin at 7 p.m. at the District Chop House.

More information here.

If I actually get some words down on paper, I'll post my thoughts here.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Gunning for Number 12

In a recent column in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman writes of a “values breakdown” in the United States that is leading to low student achievement and a general decline in American responsibility and motivation. He cites several articles that decry American self-indulgence, our endless striving to get-rich-quick, our societal-wide eschewal of sacrifice, our pettiness and petulance. For the first time in memory, I found myself agreeing with Friedman.

Alarmed that this couldn’t possibly be right, I reflected further and concluded that, while I agreed with Friedman’s conclusions in nearly every particular, I disagreed with the way that he had framed the column and, indeed, found in the very framing the likely source of the very decline of which he writes - a source about which he is eerily incurious

The column opens and closes with a lament that America has lost its way, particularly that it has ceased its civilizational quest to be and remain always “Number One.” He points especially to the example of the “Greatest Generation” who made such great sacrifices – most visibly and brutally on the shores of Normandy and on once-unknown Pacific islands like Iwo Jima and Okinawa - and laments that today's generation no longer emulates their example. He concludes with the observation that it is the Chinese and Indians today who have the values of our “Greatest Generation”: “a willingness to postpone gratification, invest for the future, work harder than the next guy and hold their kids to the highest expectations.” Without a restoration of values, he writes, we are destined to remain “Number 11” (according to one recent ranking) and perhaps fall even lower in the worldwide rankings.

Friedman doesn’t ask the obvious question: how is it that the children of the “Greatest Generation” became such slackers? How great could they really be if they couldn’t do the one thing needful of any generation, namely, raise their children to be responsible, motivated, hard-working, even self-sacrificial? To what do we attribute their monumental failure?

Might it have something to do with the deeply ingrained idea and evident reality – certainly rampant by the time of the end of the Second World War – that the U.S.A. was and must forever remain Number One? What’s the point of being Number One? If the evidence of the half-century of the post-war is any indication, to be Number One means you have earned the right to be lazy, irresponsible, self-indulgent, short-sighted and hedonistic. You have accumulated the power and the wealth to demand that the world serve you – whether through currency seignorage, energy proctorates that and foster clientelism and radicalism, cheap overseas labor that keeps American “consumers” in a permanent condition plastic-addiction, and a popular culture that promotes indolency, irony, disrespect and a general worldview that nothing is to be taken very seriously. If we wonder what has happened, we might start by looking at the “Greatest Generation” and the ways in which they enjoyed the spoils of being Number One - and in which they transmitted that sense of entitlement to their children.

How does one persuade young people today that they have been given a bad lesson at the hands of their elders and from the outlets of “culture” from which they have deeply imbibed? (a "popular culture" developed by - the Greatest Generation!). It’s likely that nothing but real hardship will have any impact at this point: much of the current generation has led a very easy life and has come to expect that everything comes easy. Yes, there are intimations of hardship in their peripheral vision, including incessant background reports like the release of yesterday’s data pointing to a dramatic rise in American poverty. But, for the most part – plugged in to endless distractions from Facebook to ITunes to “Reality” television – they are oblivious, blithely confident that the order of the world has been arranged for their pleasure and titillation.

Friedman reveals the depth of our own confusion in his passing description of the various sources from which a motivation to strive and achieve come. He writes that “Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a ‘good’ college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure.” Today, the greatest source of motivation – at least that which I see in young students who are, indeed, motivated – comes from the same get-rich-quick assumptions as their parents, which comes from all of the above-named sources but one. Friedman equates “curiosity” and “ambition,” but I would submit that long before our young are able to develop a healthy sense of curiosity – that “wonder” from which the human impulse to know and discover arises, according to Aristotle – adults of “the Greatest Generation” make sure that the primary motivation is “ambition,” but only insofar as one’s efforts are undertaken in order to ensure outsized rewards in return for the markers of achievement (i.e., credentialing). Our motivation is to be “Number One” so that we can continue to have prosperity bought on the cheap. However – as we are rapidly discovering – this is not a long-term business plan.

Perhaps it may be some consolation to reflect on the similar emptiness of Indian and Chinese efforts to be Number One. Their reckless entry into the modern pursuit of “power after power that ceaseth only in death” seems bereft of even the residual compensating virtues that seemed to at least accompany the worst of American ambitiousness. Our residual admiration for the yeoman farmer, for the small town, for the virtues of hard work, loyalty and decency (mostly now seen on commercials for Pick-up trucks) is real if otherwise increasingly unlived. It is within an imaginable possible future that those residual values may reassert themselves, even at the “price” of dropping even from Number 11. I say – Go for it! – let’s aim for #12 (which, incidentally, is Germany, and by many measures - including my own anecdotal evaluation - is doing much better than us), and leave the bad parenting to the Chinese and Indians.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Legislating Participatory Democracy

In the most recent issue of "Perspectives on Politics," a publication of the American Political Association, I am a participant in a symposium of several scholars discussing a recent book by Carmen Sirianni entitled Investing in Democracy. By way of very basic summary, Siranni argues that there is a strong need for government intervention in, and sponsorship of, civic participation. In some senses I agree with Siranni that a properly constituted government will encourage a strong civic life; I disagree that this can be accomplished by means of the typical programs of a liberal state. Rather, my argument is that the liberal state is constitutionally designed to discourage civic participation, and that the required solution is far more radical than the one he proposes. Rather, his suggestions would likely only worsen the condition of an otherwise terminal patient.

My entire contribution follows.


Response to Carmen Sirianni’s Investing in Democracy
Patrick J. Deneen
Georgetown University

Carmen Sirianni tackles a worrisome problem in his ambitious book, Investing in Democracy: what can be done to elevate levels of civic participation in the world’s oldest liberal democracy, and to inculcate in future generations a strong sense of civic obligation and concern for common weal? Nearly every political scientist not only knows, but in some form or another admires, Tocqueville’s classic analysis of modern mass democracy in which he commended an education in the “arts of association” and the presence of vibrant and active civic and political associations for the perpetuation of liberal democracy. Yet, studies continue to show declining levels of participation and membership in civil and political associations, and high levels of mistrust of and alienation from government. While agreeing on the needed cure of the ills of an apathetic citizenry, most political scientists are hard-pressed to recommend a means to improving the patient.

Siranni – a sociologist and professor of public policy at Brandeis University – takes the radical step of arguing on behalf of active government assistance toward the fostering of civic spiritedness. Not simply content to lament the decline of civic participation and call for amorphous increases in participation, he has examined several instances of government providing various incentives for, and even financial support toward, increasing civic participation in matters of local and national policy. Given how much of contemporary life – from market economics to centralization to mass-media distraction – makes the maintenance of such associations increasingly difficult, it stands to reason that it may require Government itself to redress the decline of civic participation in the workings of Government.

Yet, Tocqueville noted that Government itself would increasingly replace associations as the locus of our civic lives: “It is easy to foresee that the time is drawing near when man will be less and less able to produce, by himself alone, the commonest necessaries of life. The task of the governing power will therefore perpetually increase, and its very efforts will extend it every day. The more it stands in the place of associations, the more will individuals, losing the notion of combining together, require its assistance: these are causes and effects that unceasingly create each other” (Democracy in America, II.ii.5). Sirianni, while noting a debt to Tocqueville, does not sufficiently heed Tocqueville’s caution that the Government of liberal democracy itself increasingly becomes the main obstacle to, and replacement for, the very participation he seeks to recommend.

Sirianni’s faith in the positive role to be played by government in fostering civic engagement blinds him to its inherent dangers. A case in point: early in Investing in Democracy, Sirianni approvingly quotes from former EPA Director William Ruckelshaus, who claimed that only when the Federal government engages in the education of the citizenry about the complexity of government would “the United States … be ready for self-government” (41). Sirianni responds, “No head of a federal agency, to my knowledge, has ever put it better.” In effect, only with the assistance of the Federal government itself, will the American citizenry be capable of self-government. I think many would find this idea a source of concern, and would decry his lack of curiosity about how we have arrived at a point at which leaders of a government constituted by the people adjudge that the citizenry may yet be capable of self-government. Sirainni’s celebration of this statement suggests that he wears a highly distorting set of blinders.

In fine, this book admirably attempts to grapple with the symptoms of civic apathy and even ignorance in advanced liberal democracies, but without concern for, or awareness of, the deeper systemic causes of that condition. Toward the conclusion of the book, Sirianni speaks of a “crisis of democracy” (239), but allows this phrase to substitute for serious reflection about the nature of that crisis. And without such reflection, the book has the feel of someone putting band-aids on a patient who has already lost most of his blood.

What we now call “liberal democracy” was not at it inception called “democracy.” Its main aim was to combine a theory of popular legitimation with a State structure that would provide political, economic, and military stability; protect individual rights; increase material prosperity; and winnow the ambitious and talented from disparate places and put them in service of the modern State and its larger ambitions for national greatness. Encouraging civic participation was not on its list of desiderata: indeed, for the Founders of the United States, a great fear was the sort of popular agitation that had manifested itself in Shay’s rebellion, the proximate cause of the Constitutional Convention. Madison concluded that “democracy” – by which he meant the ancient form defined by direct civic participation – always resulted in instability and stasis; the task for the Founders was to design a system that would elicit the occasional sanction of the citizenry but leave the machinery of government to those who could “refine and enlarge” the public opinion. Madison’s view of the inherent irrationality of gathered citizens was captured most expressively in Federalist 55, in which he wrote that even had “every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” The system that Madison designed aimed to suppress civic engagement by making government distant and complex and by creating a substantial and rewarding sphere for private activity that would leave only “speculative men” attracted to positions of political power and influence.

Tocqueville discerned early in the life of the Republic that modern democracy’s trajectory was toward individualism and withdrawal into private concerns. The public sphere was one of indignity and personal irrelevance, a place where one was subject to the faceless tyranny of an anonymous majority. As stated, many today (including Sirianni) admire Tocqueville’s warm praise for the central importance of the “arts of association” and civic and political associations in undergirding the health of democracy, but they tend to downplay or ignore the deeper misgivings expressed by Tocqueville about the prospects of maintaining those vibrant town-hall forms of direct civic engagement and governance given the logic of mass democracy. It is a measure of the distance we have travelled that we today regularly use the phrase “town hall meeting” to describe a televised event in which most viewers are passive and distant. Tocqueville, I suspect, would not be surprised by this degradation of our language, and of our concept of democracy.

Instead, Tocqueville described the ultimate (if ironic) path of modern democracy being one in which the very isolation and individualism of the citizenry would contribute to the rise to a “vast, tutelary State,” compensating for what had once had been the labors of an active citizenry. Tocqueville would not be surprised that a culminating sign of this trajectory would be the call for government to reconstitute civic engagement – thereby requiring further growth of government. But, being unconcerned about the base causes for what Sirianni calls the “default” neglect of citizens by government entities, and corresponding apathy of citizens toward public life, his otherwise admirable effort to think through practically what would be required to invigorate civic activity finally deals too much in symptoms rather than attending to root causes.

Most admirably, Sirianni recognizes that civic engagement is only realistically achieved in local settings. Two of his three case studies concentrate on local (urban) efforts to foster greater civic knowledge and activity (Seattle, WA and Hampton, VA), and his third case study of the EPA emphasizes the ways in which the EPA has sought to encourage local entities to bring local knowledge to local and regional environmental issues. Yet it’s at least puzzling that what should otherwise be the “default” for a democratic people – concern for, and engagement with, issues of local bearing – should now appear to require government efforts (and tax expenditures) to be revived. Sirianni speaks often of “empowering” citizens; but if so, then it is at least worth considering why they have presumably been “disempowered.” A reason that appears not to have occurred to him is that the administrative State itself – at various levels – has been and continues to be destructive of local forms of civic participation. Such a possibility at least raises an important reservation about Sirianni’s argument: if government in various ways has effectively suppressed local forms of participation, is it prudent or realistic to expect it to substantively reverse one of its basic purposes?

The very examples offered by Sirianni suggest otherwise – for instance, his discussion of efforts to increase local civic participation in education in Hampton, VA. In seeking to improve individual counseling by full-time in-school counselors in Hampton, VA, Sirianni notes that such counselors “did not have enough time to do adequate and timely counseling because they had become loaded down with responsibilities related to testing and the requirements of Virginia’s standards of learning” (141). These “SOLs” – instituted in response to the Federal “No Child Left Behind” legislation – drive not only the daily activity of guidance counselors, but all teachers and administrators in every public school in Virginia. Increasingly, professional incentives emphasize making the grade on “SOLs,” effectively depriving educators of the ability to address local concerns or even more personal needs of individual students. Even as Sirianni seeks to emphasize efforts by local schools to encourage local participation by students, it is acknowledged in passing that local control has been effectively removed by broader State and Federal requirements that force schools to ignore varying local circumstance (in this case, students) and to become increasingly homogeneous and identical in accordance with state and national standards.

Similarly, in discussing efforts by the EPA to foster activity and ability of local entities to contribute to the protection of local environments, Sirianni altogether ignores that the source of so much environmental degradation is the result of national economic policies, ones that effectively take out of the hands of local entities the ability to govern the use and disposal of resources and waste. Commerce clause legislation and jurisprudence, as well as the Federal administrative code, have almost wholly eviscerated state control of local economic circumstance, while State legislatures are often too willing to ignore the concerns of more local entities when tax revenues and campaign contributions are at stake. Yet – stunningly – when speaking of efforts by local groups in Seattle to exert local control over economic growth (i.e, the activity that produces the environmental degradation that the EPA is then charged with cleaning up), Sirianni approvingly notes that “antigrowth ‘NIMBYism’ (NIMBY: Not in my back yard)” was nipped in the bud by procedures that blocked local citizen participation “on the front end” (83). Civic involvement is only approved, it seems, when the basic outcome has already been ensured by the leaders and experts. If such is the case, then can it be any wonder that the “default” is civic apathy and a sense that participation can only finally affirm a pre-determined end?

Just this sort of substantive political and economic commitment that is evinced in passing is a problem that plagues Sirianni’s book – one that finally raises a question about its basic object. While often praising civic participation, Sirianni is everywhere clear that it is to be conceived as having a particular orientation and end: namely, to further advance a particular version of modern liberalism that is friendly to national and global markets and ideals of individual autonomy. He speaks often of “progressive” ends of participation, indicating that participation is to effect a determined end, rather than itself determining what that end might be. This orientation becomes clear in the last lines of the book, when Sirianni frankly acknowledges that the book is intended to assist President Obama’s political aims, and the dust jacket informs us that he served as “an adviser to the Obama ’08 campaign.” This information raises a basic question: is it possible to conceive of government “investment” that would foster civic participation that would strive to reduce the size, role, scope and power of government itself? Would government support local efforts that would seek to constrain higher level activities of government – such as the “Tea Party” movement? In short, doesn’t the recommendation of government assistance toward participation skew the sorts of causes that will be advanced by that participation, making this finally a form of substantive policy and even partisan subsidization?

Were Sirianni more fundamentally concerned with the civic life of citizens – rather than increasing their role in the legitimation of pre-approved outcomes – he would need to evince more concern for the true empowerment of local entities, and leave wide latitude for the local determination of political outcomes – even outcomes with which he might potentially disagree. One would have to begin by considering ways that the vast administrative State could be constrained, and local entities given true responsibility over their own fates (Sirianni states that “the administrative State is clearly here to stay” (239), in which case, so perhaps too is civic apathy. If one can devote a book tilted at the latter windmill, why not the former?). One could devote attention to ways that localities could increase their opportunities for self-governance, from local and regional economics, to education, to a host of forms of local legislation that now takes its cue from Washington, D.C. Such efforts would demonstrate a true commitment to fostering local self-governance without pre-judging what the outcomes of such governance would look like. It could open space where local civic participation is not a lifestyle choice, but a necessity.

A basic confusion lies at the heart of Sirianni’s book: namely, the grounds for recommending civic engagement. On the one hand there is praise for ground-level “local knowledge,” but simultaneously a valorization of specialized expertise and government guidance. Sirianni labors to wed the two, envisioning a citizenry devoted to “problem-solving” led by leaders in science and government. However, civic problems – and their solutions – that may be identified by the citizenry on the ground may differ from administrative or expert evaluation. For instance, by preemptively rejecting “NIMBYism” as a legitimate civic concern, Sirianni has already substantially circumscribed the range of civic activity, determining in advance the kind of local participation that “counts.” Might not Sirianni’s “NIMBYism” be a neighborhood or city’s or state’s effort to protect itself against the depredations of economic exploitation? Sirianni finally seems as nervous about the real possibility of democratic self-governance as were the Founders, and works throughout to limit what he regards as legitimate activity to proscribed ends – ends most often that legitimate an expansive administrative State. Only with such nervousness informing his worldview could Sirianni agree with a Federal administrator that American citizens may yet “be ready for self-government.” But perhaps it is finally not due to contributions that the administrative State might make to robust civic life, but the obstacles that it has long placed in its path, that true self-government yet remains in our future.