I wanted to like Les Miserables because I am so sympathetic to the underlying Christian mythos of the original Hugo story, but it took all my control to stay in the theater after about a half hour of this musical version of it.
This film lacked emotional texture. It was the same song over and over and over and over again. It was going for big emotions, but it was unrelieved, uninterrupted, strident, cliche-soaked pathos that became in my viewing of it over-the-top, eye-rolling comical by the end.
I checked metacritics after watching, and I was genuinely surprised that it got generally positive reviews with a rating of 64. Maybe this worked better in some of its stage versions, but this film version was a wretched, silly bore.
Spielberg's Lincoln, on the other hand, did work for me. It was a marvel of cinematic historical imagination. Daniel Day-Lewis was crazy good in the title role. Tommy Lee Jones's Thaddeus Stevens was a hoot. The dialogue was crisp and riveting.
Lincoln was our Bismarck. Both were all about blood and iron. This movie focuses mostly on the slavery theme, and it does so in a very compelling and interesting way, but the American Civil War was first and formost a war to maintain national unity. And Lincoln and Bismarck laid the foundation for their respective countries that insured that both would become superpowers in the next century. Was that really a good thing? I don't think so, and I wonder if a hundred years from now in a thoroughly browned U.S., when slavery and toxic racism become something read about in history books rather than experienced on a daily basis, whether Lincoln will be regarded in the same unambiguously postive light.
The Civil War, it could be argued, resovled nothing except maintaining a forced national union. Remind me again--why was that so important? Was it worth killing 600,000 plus? Are we happy that laid the foundation for the beast that we have become?
I've often wondered what would have happened the North just let the south go. Would the North have developed a less belligerent ethos and a greater kinship with Canada while the South became more third-world like with a greater kinship with Mexico? Would the North without the South have had a better chance of working through the contradictions of capitalism and evolved more easily toward European or Canadian style social democracy? Would the South have found it easier to confront the moral contradictions of slavery without the rigidifying resentment of its victim narrative?
I doubt the North would have handled the Indian issue any better--Europeans' 19th century record in dealing with aborigines the world over is pretty dismal--but I think that without the South more sane and humane policies would have been given a better chance.
Which brings us to Zero Dark Thirty. From everything I've read about it, it's about America at its worst. And for me everything that is bad about America right now is mostly about the way the mentality of the South distorts our national dialogue. The Southern narrative--its militarism, its racism, its faux Christian religiosity, its paranoia and sense of aggrieved victimhood--all of these represent what makes our politics so intractable right now. I know these are not just 'southern' characteristics, but they would play a more marginal role in our national discouse if the South were not a part of it. And if the North had evolved more along the lines of Canada, perhaps we would not have had a 9/11 and the national insanity that followed from it.
Am I being unfair to the south? Tell me why I'm wrong. Remember, it's not about individuals; it's about ethos and the group mentality that undergirds a political narrative. That's what I'm attacking, and while I am by no means exonerating the North from its many sins, I would argue that its menatality has given it a narrative that is better adapted to the complexity of the world as it is, and dealilng with the real world, not some fantasy version of it, is a prerequisite for developing a sane politics.
Moral values are not somethig that we work out rationally on the principle of utility, or any other principle, for that matter, but are irreducible aspects fo the phenomenal world, like colour. I agree with Max Scheler, and for that matter with Wittgenstein, that moral value is a form of experience irreducible to any other kind, or accountable for on any other terms; and I believe this perception underlies Kant's derivation of God from the existence of moral values rather than moral values from the existence of a God. Such values are linked to the capacity for empathy, nor reasoning; and moral judgments are not deliberative but unconscious and intuitive, deeply bound up with our emotional sensitivity to others. Empathy is intrinsic to morality. The Master and the Emissary, p. 86
If you are unaware of this book, it's definitely a must read. Now I have some extra time during the holidays I'm just working my way through it. I'm taking a lot of extra time with chapter two because I have to educate myself on brain physiology and function.
I was wondering if there was any interest out there to do a book club on it. I'm open to it if there are three or four others who might want to join me as I dig through it. I think it's a very, very important book.
The passage quoted, I think, stands on its own, but it is supported by the larger argument that he is making in his book. Rather than go into it here again, I point you to earlier post on the book.
Alex Parene at Salon has an interesting top-ten count down of the biggest hacks on the American media scene today, and I have to agree with him right down the line--from Arianna Huffington, Bill Keller, Ed Schultz, David Gregory, Tom Friedman, Nick Kristoff, not to mention the Atlantic Monthly, Drudge, CNN, and the Aspen Institute Ideas Festival.
What makes a hack? Living in an information world that is suffused with bullshit and happily accepting it as reality. Even being proud to be one of its principal purveyors.
What makes a hack? It's his or her finger-to-the-air predicatbility. His or her attempt to sound "reasonable" when the premises for everything they say are absurd. It's clueless, elite groupthink and platitudinous conventional wisdom. Why does anybody take it seriously? Anyone with a lick of sense doesn't, but it frames the "conversation", to use the fatuous Tina Brown's phrasing. Here's Parene talking about the Sunday morning talk shows:
The only people I actually know who watch these things do so out of professional obligation.
But people watch these shows. Millions of people. More people watch “Meet the Press” than “The Daily Show.” Most of those people are quite old, but it’s still the case that a significant portion of the American people are learning the contours of the great public debates of our time from David Gregory interviewing Lindsey Graham.
I wrote a few weeks ago that there is no equivalency between FOX and MSNBC, but I agree with Parene's take here:
MSNBC is more unapologetically liberal than it used to be, it’s still all over the place, with a conservative anchoring its flagship morning show, objective Beltway “straight news” proponents like Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell dominating in the daytime, and weekends full of … prison shows. But more important, it’s not as good as Fox at being compelling TV, which is why millions more people watch Fox every day. (There are demographic reasons for Fox’s advantage, too, but it’s still a huge number.)
There’s a reason Ed Schultz — the most Fox-like of MSNBC’s liberal hosts — has great ratings. That’s also what makes it so funny that MSNBC is supposedly planning on replacing him with Ezra Klein, which is like Fox deciding to replace Sean Hannity with Ross Douthat. Good for respectability. Bad for ratings.
And what's with Luke Russert?
Parene goes on to say:
I’ll give MSNBC its due: Chris Matthews is probably the worst interviewer on television but he is also undoubtedly one of its most fascinating and watchable personalities. Rachel Maddow is obviously and deservedly a national treasure. MSNBC’s new weekend morning programs, hosted by Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry, seem like a novel experiment in attempting to produce genuinely intelligent television using the medium of cable news and its popular tropes. “The Cycle” is exactly 25 percent great.
Matthews is a hack, but he's nuts, so I guess Parene finds that entertaining. I don't, and I can't watch him. I"ve not seen the Harris-Perry show, so have no opinion. Maddow is no hack, but I find I can't watch her show either. She just gets on my nerves. The Chris Hayes show has been consistently excellent; it's the opposite of Meet the Press hackery because he has an interesting variety of very smart, knowledgeable people on, many of the Mensches, and he seems to pick only people who won't deliver the usual b.s., and when they do, he's been pretty good on challenging them.
I don't have a problem with bias; I do have a problem with bullshit--with talking points and platitudes and cluelessness. That's what makes a hack.
See Also "Primitivs, Hacks, Naifs, Fools, & Mensches"
From Ezra Klein in the New Yorker:
This, Edwards says, is the reality facing modern Presidents, and one they would do well to accommodate. “In a rational world, strategies for governing should match the opportunities to be exploited,” he writes. “Barack Obama is only the latest in a long line of presidents who have not been able to transform the political landscape through their efforts at persuasion. When he succeeded in achieving major change, it was by mobilizing those predisposed to support him and driving legislation through Congress on a party-line vote.”
That’s easier said than done. We don’t have a system of government set up for Presidents to drive legislation through Congress. Rather, we have a system that was designed to encourage division between the branches but to resist the formation of political parties. The parties formed anyway, and they now use the branches to compete with one another. Add in minority protections like the filibuster, and you have a system in which the job of the President is to persuade an opposition party that has both the incentive and the power to resist him.
Jim Cooper says, “We’ve effectively lost our Congress and gained a parliament.” He adds, “At least a Prime Minister is empowered to get things done,” but “we have the extreme polarization of a parliament, with party-line voting, without the empowered Prime Minister.” And you can’t solve that with a speech.
I have from time to time expressed my frustration with Obama for not using his bully pulpit to at least try to change the rules of the Beltway game, but I've also suspected that we're at a point in which rhetoric or any efforts to persuade in the ordinary sense can make no difference.
Klein's article goes further to argue that there's strong evidence to suggest that a president's using the bully pulpit probably makes things worse, because it forces the opposition to publicly oppose him. Deals can be made when they are out of the public spotlight, but are much harder when they are exposed to the media scrutiny that forces legislators into their partisan silos.
The bully pulpit is meant to persuade the public, not the insiders, but public opinion doesn't matter except on election day, and in between elections it's an inside game where the players are legislators who are unpersuadeable once their party's agenda is set. After that it's not about what's best for the country, it's about falling into line, making sure the other guy doesn't win, and protecting yourself from the abuse that will be heaped upon you by FOX and talk radio.
From "I am Adam Lanza's Mother". A mother talks about her 13-year old son after having an argument about what color pants he needed to wear to school:
The morning of the pants incident, Michael continued to argue with me on the drive. He would occasionally apologize and seem remorseful. Right before we turned into his school parking lot, he said, “Look, Mom, I’m really sorry. Can I have video games back today?”
“No way,” I told him. “You cannot act the way you acted this morning and think you can get your electronic privileges back that quickly.”
His face turned cold, and his eyes were full of calculated rage. “Then I’m going to kill myself,” he said. “I’m going to jump out of this car right now and kill myself.”
That was it. After the knife incident, I told him that if he ever said those words again, I would take him straight to the mental hospital, no ifs, ands, or buts. I did not respond, except to pull the car into the opposite lane, turning left instead of right.
“Where are you taking me?” he said, suddenly worried. “Where are we going?”
“You know where we are going,” I replied.
“No! You can’t do that to me! You’re sending me to hell! You’re sending me straight to hell!”
I pulled up in front of the hospital, frantically waiving for one of the clinicians who happened to be standing outside. “Call the police,” I said. “Hurry.”
Michael was in a full-blown fit by then, screaming and hitting. I hugged him close so he couldn’t escape from the car. He bit me several times and repeatedly jabbed his elbows into my rib cage. I’m still stronger than he is, but I won’t be for much longer.
The police came quickly and carried my son screaming and kicking into the bowels of the hospital. I started to shake, and tears filled my eyes as I filled out the paperwork -- “Were there any difficulties with… at what age did your child… were there any problems with.. has your child ever experienced.. does your child have…”
At least we have health insurance now. I recently accepted a position with a local college, giving up my freelance career because when you have a kid like this, you need benefits. You’ll do anything for benefits. No individual insurance plan will cover this kind of thing.
For days, my son insisted that I was lying -- that I made the whole thing up so that I could get rid of him. The first day, when I called to check up on him, he said, “I hate you. And I’m going to get my revenge as soon as I get out of here.”
By day three, he was my calm, sweet boy again, all apologies and promises to get better. I’ve heard those promises for years. I don’t believe them anymore.
There are some odd things about this piece that make me wonder if it's fictional. Nevertheless, it dramatizes an important truth.
I assume that this mother, fearing her son as she does, has enough sense not to have an arsenal of guns in her home. Which rasises questions about the sanity of the real Adam Lanza's mother. Regardless of her mental state, the fact that she had those guns in her home given the instability of her son points to a second theme. From Evan Osnos's Letter from China in the New Yorker:
One of the arguments that authoritarian governments use to ward off the call for greater political freedom is to argue that American-style democracy is no guarantee of good policy. They point to American voters who depend on government benefits but denounce the prospect of tax increases to keep up with the costs. Defenders of China’s non-democratic system point out that even as the United States is lashed by growing effects of climate change, we have failed to compel our elected leaders to do much of anything about it. Over the years, I’ve grown used to these arguments, and my response has rarely wavered: Sure, we might make dumb choices sometimes, but we will defend, to the end, the right to make choices at all, because we believe that our collective conscience, freely expressed, will eventually lead us in the right direction. When it comes to guns, it is getting harder to muster that argument abroad. Every new shooting, every new failure of will and citizenship, slashes another hole in our credibility as a way of life.
After the Newtown attack, a Chinese commentator with a nationalist bent wrote, “When I see these democratic elites pretending to condemn the murderer, it seems absurd. You are the people who sustain the gun policy. You are also the people who condemn the shooter.” And another:
As the ‘free, democratic, human-rights-based’ land of heaven, the one that has lectured other countries everyday for a hundred years about ‘freedom, democracy, and human rights,’ even to the point of armed intervention, America should calm down and examine its own gun-control policy.
It takes a lot to make China’s government—beset, as it is, by corruption and opacity and the paralyzing effects of special interests—look good, by comparison, in the eyes of its people these days. But we’ve done it.
It should also be noted, China is way ahead of the U.S on the environment as well. Does anyone really believe that our collective conscience and political system has the capablility to learn from its mistakes and frame a sane energy and environmental policy? I don't.
So what do we have to show for our so-called freedoms? We have an absurdly expensive and redundant healthcare system run primarily to benefit special interests in the healthcare industry. We have an energy and environmental policy run primarily to benefit the fossil fuel industry. And we have an insane gun policy to which any sane reforms are obstructed by right-wing idelogues who think their guns (1) keep them safe from other crazy people with guns and (2) keep them free from the government that will enslave them if they don't have the guns to defend themselves when the government comes to enslave them.
A lot of people think that over time China's economic liberalization will lead it to become more democratic and to look more like the United States. I think the opposite is true: the United States will come become more authoritarian and come to look more like China. An authoritarian government, at least, is not politically paralyzed; its elites can look at the bigger picture and develop policies for the long term and it can make decsions that insure its survival. I'm not sure the United is capable of that anymore. And when a people feels that the government no longer has the capablility to keep them safe from corporate predators, crazies with guns, or environmental cataclysm, it loses its legitmacy.
For isn't the fundamental premise of the Hobbesian social contract that individual citizens give up their freedom in the eat-or-be-eaten state of nature to a sovreign power whose primary responsibility is to keep people from killing or enslaving one another in the war of all against all? If citizens become convinced their government can no longer perform that basic function, it is no longer legitimate, and its citizens should replace it with a government that can perform it. People want to be safe more than they want to be free, and if the U.S. government qua democracy cannot find a way to break its paralysis in the face of fundamental issues that threaten the health and welfare of its people, those people will happily embrace someone who can find a way. It's just a question of time before some future crisis becomes the straw that breaks the proverbial camel's back.
The most important cultural divide is not between east and west or north and south, but between premodern and modern. In the former the great majority of people live in a 'given' world and in the latter a chosen world. We all live in a given world, of course, one bounded by history, but those of us born into modern societies are bound by history , for better or worse, in a way significantly different from those born into traditional societies. We are not bound in the same way to a world given to us by the ancestors. In fact, we are rather disposed to reject that world. And unlike people born into premodern societies, we have a wide array of alternative values matrixes, of "belief systems" as they've come to be known, from which we can choose. The essence of modernity as contrasted with premodernity is precisely this attitude toward the ancestors, and everything, for better and for worse, follows from that.
The traditionalist resists living in any world different from that given to him by his ancestors. Contemporay American traditionalists, for instance, object to homosexual marriage/civil unions not primarily, IMO, for religious or spiritual reasons. It has more to do with how gay marriage represents yet another stage in the erosion of what remains of the world given to them by tradition. For moderns, the ancestors are guilty until proved innocent, and their innocence can only be proved in the court of rationally determined utility. For premoderns the tradition embodies the wisdom of the ancestors, the culture heroes who lived in a golden age, who understood things to which we have since become insensible to. For moderns, this is nonsense.
While I agree with traditionalists that there is more in the tradition than is visible to the modern eye, I understand modern skepticism about all things premodern, and I embrace putting tradtion on trial, so to speak, but I think that better criteria need to be developed in making judgements about whether the tradition is guilty or innocent.
For western educated elites, there is nothing much about their traditions that is very attractive. If anything, they are embarrassed about the negative impact that that white males have had on the course of world history. But the same sensibility that finds the traditions of the West so unattracitve is very often attracted to non-western traditions. Think about the recent interest in exotic Asian and aboriginal premodern traditions, like martial arts, Buddhist meditative practices, or shamanism. And what's that tatooing all about? That kind of tradtionalism is driven by a weariness with the soul flatness of modernity, and a longing for something that has texture and depth and soul.
So these non-western traditional forms have a 'cool' factor with significantly more interest and credibility for late modern sensibililities than those traditions whose familiarity to us has bred mostly contempt. But do those exotic traditions make claims that withstand the scrutiny of critical conscisousness more resiliiently than the western tradtions we have find contemptible? I don't think so. We tend to see the exotic "foreign" traditions in their best light, the familiar western traditions in their worst. Ask the Chinese what they think of Tibetan traditionalism. They see it much the same way as western seculars look at Catholics--medieval holdovers.
So there's a part of me that connects with the traditionalists because like them I understand that something precious lies in those traditions, but I would make a distinction between a living traditionalism and a zombie traditionalism. A living traditionalism is supple, adaptive, sacramental; a zombie traditionalism is brittle, rigid, non-adaptive; they are the forms abandoned by the life that shaped them and inhabited by an animating force that is not native to them. They are a mere going through the motions. A living traditionalism is increasingly rare because the cultural ecosystem that supported it has been been destroyed in societies with capitalist economies. In such societies there is no longer a living memory of the ancestors conveyed from generation to generation; there are only the archaeological remains, shriveled museum pieces, that point to but no longer possess the life and creative juice that made them.
Insofar as the forms and rituals continue to be practiced in a state of undeadness, it's a kind of make-believe, like a child playing house or soldier. It's like a modern European who burlarized a museum exhibit of ancient Egyptian pottery, clothing, and furniture, and replaced all his modern stuff with them, and then lived his life as if he were an Egyptian. Using something now created by another culture doesn't change who you are now, and too often that's what traditionalists are really doing. Their understandable distaste for the flatness of modernity has impelled them to "go native" in the past. This is a deep form of alienation.
I would be a traditionalist if there existed a living tradition--i.e., something that conveyed the wisdom and practices of the ancestors that still had the possibitly of enriching one's life in this time and in this place. But I know of nothing like that which has the smell of possibility for me, and when I am with zombie traditionalists, the smell is bad, and it suffocates and depresses me. And I am particularly irritated by them when they make claims to have something that clearly they do not. I don't think they are insincere, but that they just don't know what they are talking about. If they had something, it would produce at least a few great souls, and all I see among these traditionalists are small souls, angry souls, fearful souls. What they have does not interest me in the least. I want the real thing, and I'm happier to live without anything than with some zombie version of something that once lived but does not now.
But because there is nothing there now, does that mean there was always nothing there? I don't believe that. The life was there and is still, but it's gone underground.
I am amused when people talk about creating “new” traditions. I know what they mean, but probably the word 'practice' or ‘ritual’ would be more accurate. They become traditions when they get passed on over at least two or three generations. They have to stand the test of time, and that test is that they work, and working means that they enrich and ensoul life. And I think creating new rituals needs to be done, but it's no good, it won't work, if these rituals don't tap into that underground life. The real question is not about the forms, but about finding the life.
We need rituals that will en-soul our life together again. But if a ritual or practice is eventually to become a living tradition, it cannot be 'invented'. Its sources have to be 'uncovered' or 'disclosed'. Or perhaps the word is 'discovered' or in some cases 'recovered'. And then it has to be legitimated by broad acceptance of people who refuse the bogus. It has to resonate deeply. It has to have a kind of “authority”; it has has to have some music.
In other words it has to 'work'.
So how are we to think of this discovery/recovery work?
I don't know for sure, but the idea of retrieval/second naiveté offers a clue as to how it might go about it--at least in part. Both come from Paul Ricoeur, a French philosopher of religion that I read years ago as an undergraduate. I’m not sure I’m using these terms precisely in the way he does (I should go and reread him, I suppose), but 'first naivete' characterizes the mentality in premodern societies where everything is a given. People simply accept the beliefs and values as the ancestors have passed it on to them, and they wouldn't think about questioning them. With the coming of critical consciousness (through the Greeks in the West), people start questioning the assumptions on which naive consciousness is based and inevitably they lose their naive faith that things are the way they are as “given” by tradition and the ancestors. The experience of 'truth' becomes interior and subjective, and the exterior world loses its enchantment.
But while critical consciousness is good at saying No—at debunking—it’s not very good at saying Yes. And so in order for it to be possible to say a deeply resounding Yes, one finds that he must go back and revisit the world as it was presented to naive consciousness, but now with “second naiveté.” This does not mean 'going native', i.e., reverting to first naiveté, but opening up to or becoming vulnerable to the reality that was self-evident to consciousness with first-naivete--without losing critical consciousness.
So the challenge becomes one of rediscovering what has been lost, remembering what has been forgotten. My hunch is, and that’s all it is, a hunch—that if “new traditions” are to be created, they will not have enough ballast or resonance unless they are in one way or another the retrieval of older, previously rejected rituals and practices, but now adapted to our very different circumstances. And I'd argue that this kind of 'retrieval' is possbile for the traditions of the West, and that some fusion of lost wisdom of East and West is the future of tradition. And in that future also lies the re-enchantment of the earth, and perhaps we will have retrieved what the Psalmist meant when he said, "When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth."
Two of his finest books as economic philosopher are The Rhetoric of Reaction, written in 1991 when Hirschman was 76, and Rival Views of Market Society,published in 1987. In Rhetoric of Reaction, Hirschman goes back several hundred years and identifies three basic strands of conservative argument against social reform that keep recurring. He calls them Perversity, Futility and Jeopardy. These reactionary forms of sophistry are as old as the Middle Ages and as current as the Heritage Foundation and Charles Murray: Reform will actually harm the people it as intended to help (Perversity); it will incur high costs only to fail (Futility) and it will imperil other dearly held values (Jeopardy). On display is Hirschman’s brilliant capacity for synthesis, good humor, and originality as a thinker, and energetic debunking of right-wingers throughout history.
In Rival Views, Hirschman notes that radicals and conservatives, at different times, have viewed markets as supportive—or corrosive—of the glue that holds society together. But oddly, they often switch camps. In the 18th century, conservatives such as Edmund Burke worried that the market forces celebrated by Adam Smith would undermine traditional society. Radicals of the era hoped markets would do just that. But other conservatives such as Montesquieu saw markets as taming aggressive impulses because people who were doing business with each other the were less likely to go to war. By 19thand 20th century, however, it was conservatives who had embraced markets, while Karl Marx warned that as society is marketized “all that is solid melts into air” (Marx actually borrowed the insight from conservatives) and liberals such as Karl Polanyi (and Hirschman) saw markets as destroying social norms. (Source)
I've argued before that conservatives who embrace a traditional values worldview and market ideology at the same time are involved in a contradiction that they don't seem to be aware of. You can have one or the other. Liberals understand that, and have adapted to a world defined by market forces. Liberals are not to blame for the erosion of traditional mores and norms; they simply accept the world that markets have given them.
From Dan Froomkin's article on Ornstein and Mann:
Most reporters, however -- including many widely admired for their intelligence and aggressive reporting -- simply refused to blame one side more than the other. Mann said he was struck in conversations with journalists by how influenced they were by the heavily funded movement to promote a bipartisan consensus around deficit reduction and austerity. Such a bipartisan consensus doesn't actually exist, Mann pointed out. But if you believe it does, than you can blame both parties for failing to reach it.
"The Peterson world, I think, has given journalists the material to keep doing what they're doing," Mann said of the vast network of think tanks and other influential Washington groups underwritten at least in part by Wall Street billionaire Peter Peterson
But Mann and Ornstein said that in practice, the fact-checkers may have made things worse rather than better.
"We had these little flurries of fact-checking -- which I found not worthless, but not a substitute for coherent, serious reporting -- and most of the time it just got stuck in the back of a news organization's output and there was no cost to a candidate of ignoring it," Mann said.
And then there was this terrible irony: "Fact checkers almost seemed obliged to show some balance in their fact checking."
"There was some damn good stuff done, and stuff that really did hold Romney to account," Ornstein said. But no fact-checker intent on "appearing to be utterly straightforward, independent, and without an axe to grind, is going to actually do the job of saying that we're going to cover 20 fact checks on one side, to three on the other."
So, Ornstein concluded: "If you looked at where the scales should have been, and where they were, they were weighted. And they weren't weighted for ideological bias. They were weighted to avoid being charged with ideological bias."
It's hard to exaggerate just how popular Mann and Ornstein were with the press before their apostasy. They were quite possibly the two most quotable men in Washington. They were the media cocktail party circuit's most reliable walking talking points.
And now they are virtual pariahs.
In response to the the “Neoliberalism” post I put up earlier this week, Jonathan took issue with me for talking about freedom as having a legitimate role in the public sphere. He wants to reserve for freedom a special status that should not be degraded by association with more vulgar uses of the word especially as they are typically used in the political and economic spheres:
…freedom, if it means anything, is rare, difficult of achievement, and entirely inward. It is not to be confused with civil liberties, with economic justice, with political self-determination. . . The concepts it can usefully refer to are religious, philosophical, perhaps aesthetic. To encounter the word in any popular medium is to encounter it under a perverted, materialist form. I'm all about waging a struggle against what's described above as neoliberalism, or consumerism, but if I do so, freedom is not my battle-cry.
...There are, I admit, logical and ontological links between internal and external freedom. But the true nature of such connection depends on a proper understanding of what an external freedom can be. Civil liberties are not freedom. Moral relativism is not freedom. Anything, in fact, that incurs debt and obligation (such as the exercise of virtue, social life), or runs up against limit or constraint (the use of resources, economic life), is not freedom. Only the creative act is free, or say rather, is an imaging forth of freedom: because even creativity is not totally free, with us, but only with God. Worship, art, and some higher thought are the only forms (or images) of freedom available to us.
Yes. I'm with him in wanting to preserve for freedom this sacred interior quality, that it is the one capacity that makes humans humans as spiritual beings, and that without it we are just a talking sack of chemcals. But isn't there a way of speaking about freedom in the public sphere that avoids the degradation that he fears? Because we so often encounter the use of the word freedom in a degraded form in the public sphere, does that mean any discussion of its role there leads to a degradation of it?
If we define freedom negativelyas a state of liberation from compulsion, wouldn't that leave room for a broader discusson of its more positive or creative aspects? Sometimes the compulsion is a more interior experience and sometimes it is more exterior. You can argue that interior compulsions--obsession, addiction, delusional thinking--are more serious and destructive of the soul. But even if we think of freedom in this profoundly interior sense, Isn't it possible to think of political and economic arrangements that either promote or inhibit the exercise of it in the public sphere?
Maybe because The Hobbit is being released this weekend I have Tolkien on the mind, so let's take Mordor as the type of political system defined by hugeness, by domination and submission, and the Shire as the type defined by smallness, localism, face-to-face relationships, and self rule. In Mordor the people must submit to the will of the leader; in the Shire people submit to laws they enact through debate and consensus. In Mordor, the space for the exercise of freedom is profoundly restricted, not in the interior sense, but certainly in the public sense. In the Shire, it is broad enough for people to exercise it both interiorly and publically.
In Mordor there is no public space for Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. In the Shire, the space is there, even if most people choose to fill it with compulsive distractions. In the Shire it's possible for a community to self-correct, and reorganize their public life; in Mordor that is not a possibility.Having political and economic arrangements that provide a broad scope for the exercise of freedom does not guarantee that it will be exercised, but it's possible to talk about those arrangements as either creating or restricting the public space for its exercise.
In contemporary America, there is still a rather broad space for the practice of freedom, even if it is rarely used. Consumerist ideas about freedom are adelusion that traps large swaths of the American population in collective patterns of compulsion, and their lives individually, and our lives together, would be healthier were not that the case. But these compulsions are reinforced by the structural requirements of the economy and the interests of the mass media, and both domintate the public sphere in ways that make it extraordinarily hard to resist. Nevertheless, there is nothing that prevents us from living a life that is publically resistant to it.
In the early American republic, which was far more Shirelike than America is now, the ethos of economic sphere assumed that citizens were economically free, that they were self-employed farmers, small businessmen, and professionals. The franchise was limited to people with property because there was a fear then that if the vote were extended to salaried workers, their employers could compel them to vote as the employer dictated. (We saw employers using this tactic in the last election.) It was a commonplace that people could not be free in the political sphere unless they were free in the economic sphere. A similar logic applied to extending the franchise to women, since they were economically dependent on their husbands.
That simpler Jeffersonian world gave way to the economic warlordism of the Robber Baron era after the Civil War that turned much of America into Mordor. The new problem that the founders couldn't not grasp was the way that the population, diversity, and economy would grow and change, and in doing so make their Jeffersonian imagination of America as a network of Tokienesque Shires obsolete. Bigness and huge concentrations of power and wealth became a problem by the turn of the century that no one could have envisaged one hundred years before. And so spirited Americans who understood how the scope of the new wage slavery was destroying freedom in the public sphere began to organize to push back.
The Progressive Movement emerged to pressure elected representative to use the power of big government to break up monopolies, to regulate private-sector economic behaviors that negatively impacted the common good, and to provide social safety-net programs to ensure a minimum of economic security and dignity for those helpless to provide it for themselves. That balance between the public interest and free-market capitalism brought us the unprecedented prosperity of the post WWII period.
Putting aside the question whether that prosperity and the consumerism that came with it was a positive or negative for the exercise of freedom, the important thing was the consensus that a balance had to be struck between the interests of the market and the common good. That balance is what creates the public space for the exercise of freedom in the public sphere, and it's precisely that balance that has been systematically destroyed since 1980 justified by a perverse appeals to liberty understood as negative freedom from the government so that positive freedom can be exercised in the marketplace. The laudable freedom protecting principle of economic independence and self-reliance, became perverted into the the unrepublican vice of unrestricted greed to become as wealthy as possible. The ideal was no longer the economically independent farmer or small businessman, but the plutocrat, the millionaire, and America became the place where anyone can become one.
So that old lower-car 'r' republican imagination of America was destroyed in the late 19th century, and the conservatives among us still cling to it as if it were still a possibility for us; it's not. But that doesn't mean that we cannot think about and work for economic and political arrangements that in our time create the broadest public space for the exercise of freedom.
And that thinking about what that space requires demands that we first understand how that space has collapsed in the post-war period. One strand, contributing to that collapse has been the replacement of the balance between the public and private spheres struck in the New Deal compromise with Libertarian/Neoliberal, market-centered, consumerist idas about freedom. Freedom was no longer something we exercised in any robust way in the political sphere, it was something we cane to think of almost exclusively in market terms. Feedom equals your ability to choose a Prius or a Hummer, to shop at Walmart or at Nordstroms.
Since market choices are a part of our daily experience in ways that political choices are not, it was an easy sell. As long as we had market choices in the economic sphere, we felt free, and so why should anyone care about making positive choices we make in the political sphere? Government just gets in the way, so the only choices that have validity are the negative choices that diminish the power exercised in the political sphere and expand those exercised in the economic sphere. But the only way to maintain a public space for the public exercise of freedom is to maintain a balance. Imbalance leads to the Mordor of weak government dominated by corporate interests that reduce most people to serfdom or wage slavery on the one hand, or on the other a weak private sector dominated by an autocracy that reduces people to cogs in the machine of state. The danger that confronts us is the first not the second, and yet half the country fears more the second because they have been hypnotized by an unbalancing Neoliberal market ideology that has dominated the political sphere since at least 1980.
The effect of the post Reagan era dominance of Neoliberal market ideology has been to destroy the popular consensus that representative government was an effective tool in the hands of the electorate to promote and preserve the public good. And the result has been to give a broad, unrestricted field for the economic warlords to emerge again and to wreak the havoc they are wont to wreak. And now we are facing a situation where the worst aspects of the economic sector--the few making serfs of the many--are merging with the worse aspects of the public sector--the security-obsessed surveillance state with Draconian police powers. (Habeas Corpus taken away in the Military Commissions Act still hasn't been restored.) We haven't seen these powers being abused on a wide scale yet, but the infrastructure for such abuse is very much in place.
The lesson of Tolkien’s trilogy is that real freedom is personal and interpersonal, and it is exercised in concrete commitments that mostly happen on the local level, in the various Shires in which we all live, but we cannot be oblivious of the forces in history that seek to destroy those local and personal freedoms.
And when humans are in such a situation in which their freedoms are so severely restricted in the public spheres, the only path to recovery is a freely chosen resistance, which often requires heroic levels of sacrifice.
Tolkien’s trilogy is on one level a story of great powers in violent conflict, but at a deeper level it’s the story of the suffering servant, the tzadik, the righteous man, weak by the ordinary standards defined by power who freely accepts a burden and the stealth mission that went with it. The stakes were the preservation of a space for ordinary people to live freely. While so much of the story focuses on the great clash of armies, the struggle on that level was futile and nothing more than a subterfuge to keep the tyrant distracted. But the tyrant was vulnerable because it never occurred to him that anyone could do the unthinkable, that is, to surrender enormous power willingly.
Of course, Frodo needed a little help in the end, but that’s often the way it works. We never accomplish anything on our own. No matter how good we think our intentions might be, they are never pure. Sometimes our exercise of freedom is simply the effort to put one foot in front of the other with only the faintest hope that someday we will reach our destination. But as we are on our way the exercise of our freedom is best expressed when in the service of others, in the creation of something the contributes to the common good, not just our own good. And that requires that we exercise it positively in the political and economic spheres, even if it is only to create a negative space for others to freely choose to fill it or not.
While it is impossible at this stage to know whether these resistance movements will be strong enough to force political leaders to withdraw their support from privatization and testing, they have created enough of a grass roots presence to publicly challenge and contest almost every Reform initiative at the local and national level. We now have a Counter Narrative, based on strong scholarship as well as experience, which warns that Reform policies are likely to widen educational disparities rooted in race and class and weaken the nation’s schools by driving out the most committed teachers. And people are listening. An extravagantly funded Hollywood film,”Won’t Back Down” supporting a favorite Reform cause, Parent Trigger Legislation, got so little public support it was judged one of the greatest failures in the history of Hollwood film. A rally in New York City support of teacher assessments based on standardized tests, organized by Students for Education Reform chapters at NYU and Columbia, was a dismal failure. Parent trigger legislation and charter school initiatives have been voted down in several states; and lawsuits are being filed by parents across the country protesting the impact of test mandates on special needs students. (Source)
It's not just bad policies that we're fighting it's a mentality defined by crusading neoliberals who believe their own propaganda. It's like a cult. They really believe they have the key to solving problems in American public education. But they believe it the way the best and brightest in the sixties believed they were winning the war in Vietnam or th the way the neocons of the last decade believed they were liberating the Iraqis. They are wrong but they are incapable of recognizing they are wrong until the evidence for catastrophe is overwhelming.
I've argued in my post "Humanistic or Technocratic Education" that common ground that corporate education reformers share with the militarists that brough us Vietnam and Iraq is technocratic:
Technocracies as systems are very uncomfortable with what they cannot control or predict. They therefore see the lively, eccentric, and unpredictable as irrelevant or as a problem to be eliminated. It revels in the general, and is allergic to the concrete and particular. It cares about the abstract and quantitative and regards the qualitative as soft, unmeasurable, and thus trivial. As McGilchrist points out, it lives within a rigid template of reality, in its own mirror world, and anything that doesn't fit gets chopped off.
And so technocratic projects are always naively, if not cynically, "data driven". Naive because technocrats don't understand the limitations of the impoverished interpretive framework they use to find meaning in the data, and they don't understand how irrational interests shape their supposedly rational methods. They are cynical when they know their interpretations of the data are arbitrary or manipulated to serve predetermined agendas. They see themselves as "impatient optimists" who develop elaborate and fundamentally wrongheaded, if not delusional, strategies to change the world for the better by some limited metric of their own contrivance, but too often create even bigger messes than the one they hoped to clean up.
There are sincere Neoliberals, but their sincerity does not mean that they deserve to be taken seriously. Their policies at first glance often seem to make a kind of sense. Charter Schools, for instance, make a kind of sense. I could envision a world where charter schools could be a positive addition to the educational landscape. But because they have been coopted by the neoliberal agenda, they have created and will continue to create bigger messes than whatever messes they hoped to clean up. It's as predictable as the consequences of the invasion of Iraq. That, too, seemed a good idea at the time to many "reasonable" people.
Neoliberal programs often seem like good ideas when you first encounter them, but that's because we live in a technocratic culture inured to a mentality that is pathologically abstract, decontextualized, left-brained, that is data-driven while at the same time tone deaf to historical and cultural complexity, that thinks of itself as impatiently optimistic while remaining blind to the intractable humanness of humanity. And naive impatient optimism, so attractive to the average Main Streeter, that gives cover to cynics who spout Neoliberal platitudes to justify their rapacity.
Neoliberalism is a philosophy which construes profit making as the essence of democracy and consuming as the only operable form of citizenship. It also provides a rationale for a handful of private interests to control as much as possible of social, economic, and political life in order to maximize their personal profit. Neoliberalism is marked by a shift from the manufacturing to the service sector, the rise of temporary and part-time work, growth of the financial sphere and speculative activity, the spread of mass consumerism, the commodification of practically everything.
Neoliberalism combines free market ideology with the privatization of public wealth, the elimination of the social state and social protections, and the deregulation of economic activity. Core narratives of neoliberalism are: privatization, deregulation, commodification, and the selling off of state functions. Neoliberalism advocates lifting the government oversight of free enterprise/trade thereby not providing checks and balances to prevent or mitigate social damage that might occur as a result of the policy of “no governmental interference”; eliminating public funding of social services; deregulating governmental involvement in anything that could cut into the profits of private enterprise; privatizing such enterprises as schools, hospitals, community-based organizations, and other entities traditionally held in the public trust; and eradicating the concept of “the public good” or “community” in favor of “individual responsibility.”
It is a form of terrorism because it abstracts economics from ethics and social costs, makes a mockery of democracy, works to dismantle the welfare state, thrives on militarization, undermines any public sphere not governed by market values, and transforms people into commodities. Neoliberalism’s rigid emphasis on unfettered individualism, competitiveness and flexibility displaces compassion, sharing and a concern for the welfare of others. In doing so, it dissolves crucial social bonds and undermines the profound nature of social responsibility and its ensuing concern for others. In removing individuals from broader social obligations, it not only tears up social solidarities, it also promotes a kind of individualism that is almost pathological in its disdain for public goods, community, social provisions, and public values. Given its tendency to instrumentalize knowledge, it exhibits mistrust for thoughtfulness, complexity, and critical dialogue and in doing so contributes to a culture of stupidity and cruelty in which the dominant ethic is organized around the discourse of war and a survival of the fittest mentality. Neoliberalism is the antithesis of democracy. (Source)
Yes. Our idea of political freedom has devolved into an idea of consumerist choice. It should be rather rooted in an older republican tradition which stipulates that free men and women rule themselves. We've have allowed ourselves to become serfs in a world dominated by corporate warlords who have convinced us we are free because we have the choice to shop at Wal-Mart or Target or Costco.
Clinton had campaigned on a pledge to raise taxes on high incomes, arguing that the affluent had disproportionately benefited from the prosperity of the ‘80s and that the middle class had been left behind. As president, he followed through, pushing for the creation of new 36 and 39.6 tax brackets for high-income earners. He got his way, but without a single Republican vote. The 1993 budget passed the House by the barest margin – 218-216 – and made it through the Senate on the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Al Gore. Republicans guaranteed that it would ruin the fragile recovery, plunge the country into a new recession, cost millions of jobs, and fail to reduce the deficit. Because of the experience of 1990, even normally pragmatic members of the party had no wiggle room; anti-tax absolutism had become orthodoxy.
Of course, none of the dire predictions about Clinton’s budget panned out. As it happened, the rest of the decade was marked by declining unemployment and strong growth. And, thanks to the combined effects of Clinton and Bush tax hikes, this translated into a revenue windfall, resulting in budget surpluses in the final years of Clinton’s second term. (Source)
Remind your Republican friends about this when they start talking about the negative impact of taxes on the economy. And when they counter with the strained argument that it was the Republican Congress after the Republican Revolution in '94 that is really responsible for balancing the budget and creating a surplus, remind them what a Republican congress and president did after 2000: they started two unnecessary wars and cut taxes at the same time; they rammed Medicare Part D down congress's throat without any pretense that it need to be paid for, and don't forget to tell them that Paul Ryan voted for it too. And remind them of Dick Cheney's famous dictum in 2002: "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter."
Maybe there was a day when Republicans deserved to be described as fiscal conservatives, but the Republican Party that exists now does not deserve that reputation even to the least degree. They do not care about squandering the taxpayers' money nor do they care about the fiscal health of the country.They only care about protecting the interests of their cronies and keeping them well fed. They are the party of the wealthy entrenched interests; they are playing a class-warfare game and using any cover story they can to disguise it. Supply side, trickle down, Laffer curves, whatever.
Wealthy elites from time immemorial fear the mob, and in democracies they fear that it's just a matter of time before the majority legislates to confiscate everything they own. This fear is at the heart of Republican thinking at this time. These elites may not have numbers, but they have money, and they use it to coopt weak opponents and destroy those who won't be coopted, and they use it to promote propaganda campaigns that divide and conquer the mob. They believe that their survival requires it. To give in on a small thing now is to take one's finger out of the dike.
It's not a small, trickle they fear, but the flood they are certain will inevitably sweep them away. This is a fear-driven policy stance that has nothing in mind except self-protection, and the powerful, when they are ruled by fear, they rule by fear. For a fearful elite repression is the only technique to insure its survival. It doesn't have to be this way; but policies motivated by fear too often become self-fullfilling prophecies. Compromise dissipates the buidling pressure for radical change, but once things reach a boil there's no dissipating it. Fearful elites assume that things are always at a boil and that if they show any weakness, the flood will come. So they force things to a boil, and then the flood does indeed come.
I am hopeful that it won't come to that in this country because I think Americans are wising up and won't let it happen. But it's important that we understand the game as it is being played here. It's an old game played by fearful elites, and it's not that hard to play, and yet in this information age you'd think people would be wise to it. And the national Republican leadership are the ones who are playing it right now.
There is zero that is sincere in anything that Republicans say, but about half the people want to believe it because it is so uncomfortable for them not to. It's important for them to believe that there is a legitimate party that represents their values. It's a con. And all con artists know that the easiest mark is the one who at some level wants something badly enough to divert them from paying too much attention to the details, to the fishy smell, to the look in the eye that isn't quite right.
It is hard for me to explain otherwise how any intelligent person with even the flimsiest historical memory can take anything the Republicans say at face value. Sure, the Democrats are feckless and corrupt--that's politics, but they are not so blatantly irresponsible when it comes to the welfare of the country as a whole.
As with Clinton, I am opposed to Obama's neoliberal policies. But he's a pragmatist whose center-right policy positions deserve to be part of a sane conversation about how to solve real problems we all face as a nation. I think he does care about solving the problems of the nation, even if I disagree with his basic approach. I do not believe that of anybody in Republican leadership. I do not think they well-intentioned but mistaken. I do not think that they care about the nation as a whole. I think they care about only one thing--protecting the interests of a very small group of entrenched wealthy elites, and I think that their fear-saturated, survival mentality justifies for them any means to achieve their ends.
The notion of a pervasive constructed world of falsehood and illusion built on the fabrications of the press and the liberal establishment has long been central to the American far right.1 And since Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater before him, the knowledge that its supporters have their own truth, that they are forced to battle continually against an intensively propagandized false reality, has been a vital energizing trump of “movement” Republicans. It means that Republicans, whether in power or not, are always in opposition. Even when they hold the White House and Congress, still the great bulk of the news media in New York and Washington with its vaunted “objectivity”; the culture industry in New York and California with its Hollywood vulgarity and easy virtues; the permanent bureaucracy of unionized government employees and teachers with their sinecures and perks—all remain immovably liberal. Republicans, “in power” or not, are forced to struggle always to conquer false truth, and that constant struggle has been a source of great motivating mobilizing power, as we last saw during the town meetings against the health care bill in the summer of 2009 and the Tea Party electoral triumph that followed.
Of course occasionally into these great self-sustaining master narratives comes a rude interruption from something…real. (Mark Danner, NYRB)
I have a lot of respect for thoughtful, principled conservatives. I do truly understand where they are coming from. I share their diagnosis of the disease that infects American society, but not their prescription for a cure. There is no cure; there is only what might be described as disease management. And for that you need practical wisdom, which begins with accepting the world for the broken, fallen thing that it is, and do the best you can to muddle through without making things worse while we wait for some new impulse that will bring a cultural springtime to the dead land. In the meanwhile we must be disciplined about not surrendering to extreme solutions.
Wise conservatives understand this, and they don't look for simplistic solutions to complex historical/cultural realities. They understand that it's not about the triumph of one ideology over the other, but of finding a healthful balance between polarities that must be held in a dynamic tension. Movement conservatives err, IMO, in their embrace of an idelogy that throws things out of balance.They have come to see the government as this monstrous evil that must be severely restricted, and in their obsession with the evils of big government have become blind to the dangers presented to us all by huge private-sector warlords, predators that care not at all for the health of the whole but only of their own benefit.
There are many symptoms of this imbalance, but the most disturbing is the way so much wealth and power has aggregated into the hands of so few over the last thirty years. It didn't have to happen, and if we Americans had any sense, we would not have permitted it to happen.
A more healthful society is not one which is dominated by either corporate power or government power, but by both held in a dynamic balance. That requires a mixed economy, not the extremes of a command economy or a laissez-faire economy, but one that finds that recognizes the importance of having a government big enough (and accountable enough) that it can provide a sufficient counterbalance to the excesses of the market.
Are there times when the government has overreached? Yes. I think it could be argued that there was some of that in the 70s, but then the task was to redress the balance, not go to the other extreme. But to the other extreme we went. The Reaganism and Groverism of the last thirty years has been a movement to the other extreme, and to the degree that that extremism has infected movement conservatism it has led movement conservatives into a state of mind that is deeply out of touch with American cultural and economic reality as it exists on the ground.
Conservatives blame Liberals for all that ails American socieity, but liberals are not the cause of the destruction of the traditional values and mores that conservatives cherish. Industrial capitalism in the 19th century began their destruction, and consumer capitalism in the postwar period finished it. Liberals are simply those who have adapted to the new, non-traditional social reality given to us by the disruptions of capitalism.
I've argued repeatedly here that this adaptive response by Liberalism is inadequate to the challenge that lies before us, but at least it's a place to start. It's grounded in the world as it is. The best liberals are pragmatists, not idelogues. There is nothing pragmatic about movement conservatism.
Movement conservatives sincerely believe that the "real America" in their imaginations has some relationship to the America that actually exists, and that's the mistake that sooner or later, if they are to recover their sanity and play a truly constructive role in shaping our future, they must correct. They are right to resist adapting to the world given to us over the last two hundred years, but wrong to think their idea of what that world should look like in the 21st century has even the remotest possibility of being realized. Something else is called for.
Postscript: Just saw this at Front Porch Republic:
The Republicans have joined themselves to a corporate oligarchy that can never be conservative. The Fox Corporation may tout “family values” on its news channels, but it does everything it can to destroy them on its entertainment channels. The message is clear: values are good only to the point where they might interfere with profits; then they are to be abandoned, since profit is the final good. The irony is lost on Republicans but apparent to everyone else.
Another irony is that the Unintended Consequence of the Citizens United decision might be the destruction of the Republican Party. They are more dependent than ever on a corrupt corporate oligarchy, an oligarchy that is completely out of touch with the nation and incapable of ruling. As G. K. Chesterton put it, oligarchy is not a government; it is a riot, a riot of the rich. They cannot rule; they can only ruin. The Republican Party, having become intoxicated with this endless source of funds, can only stumble around and cannot find its way.
I would not, however, underestimate the ability of Big Money to find its way, if not through Republicans, then through Democrats.