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)