Friday, December 31, 2004
Misplaced Concreteness. The phrase is A. N. Whitehead's, and I'm not sure that I'm using it in the way he intended, but for my purposes it describes well the fallacy that Jacobins (see yesterday's post) fall into. The fallacy of misplaced concreteness occurs when one mistakenly thinks that one's theory of the world is the world. But our theories, ideas, and imaginations of the world are nothing more than heuristic tools to help us with an ongoing investigation. They are not ends in themselves, they are means to an end which is understanding. But understanding is an evolutonary process. It's not sometihing you arrive at in any absolute way.
It seems to me that utopianism in any form is always and example of misplaced concreteness. Utopians develop a blueprint for what they believe is the ideal society, and then work to make it a reality. Some utopians are harmless enough when they form communities that seek to realize their utopian ideals on the smaller scale. Such communities usually don't last very long, and when they are cultish, they can do harm to those who belong to them. But any free society should have enough latitude to allow such experiments. It's a the heart of what we mean by religious freedom.
But they are never so harmful as the utopianism embraced by the Jacobin personality, who insists with the use of his bayonet that the world be conformed to his utopian fantasy. Cromwell's Puritan dictatorship in England, the Terror in France, the purges in Russia, the cultural revolution in China are all the end products of this kind of utopian misplaced concreteness.
And yet there is always something admirable in the ideals that inspire Jacobins. That's why things get so muddled. The logic Jacobins promote is always seductive: Is the world a good place? No. Is a better world imaginable? Yes. Is it possible for human will and industry to improve the world? Yes. Therefore, it is possible to make the bad world into the good world if we work tirelessly to achieve that goal. I guess so. Here's the program. Are you on the bus or are you off it?
The muddle lies with identifying the program, which is grandiose and delusional, with the hope for a better world, which is real. The Jacobin seeks to make his delusional program real, and that means forcing others to get on his bus to Delusionland. And so the next step in this kind of logic ensues: To be off the bus is defeatism, and defeatists stand in the way of achieving the goal. And since achieving the goal will benefit untold billions for future generations, it is a small price to pay for the long-term good to sacrifice in the short term the hundreds or thousands or millions who stand in the way. This is the logic of the Terror.
But if Jacobin utopianism so often leads to the pursuit of such bloody impossibilities, does that mean that all social idealism is delusional? Are the only alternatives nihilism or spiritual escapism? Do we just revert to the old 'this world is a vale of tears' logic and channel all our energy to disengage ourselves from the chain of incarnations that chain us to the world's maya and delusion?
I am convinced that there is a spiritual dimension to reality, but I don't think the goal is to be more spiritual (super-rational)and less material (sub-rational). Rather the goal is to bring the spiritual into the material. Human beings are both material and spiritual beings, neither one side nor the other can be denied. It's for me a question of which side is active and which passive. As I asked in a post last week, "Who's in the driver's seat?"
So the goal for human beings ought not to be imagined as escaping from history into eternity as it commonly imagined in many spiritual traditions but rather to redeem history. The goal, therefore, is not to get off the planet but to transform it from within, but the strategy for transforming it can never be imagined in utopian terms. We don't know what the end product is, and we shouldn't worry about it.
All we can know is the world that we live in at the point in it evolving story where we have entered into it. But our understanding while always flawed is also from time to time illumined by sparks from the super-rational. These sparks are our ideals. And our ideals should not be thought less real because they are used in abusive ways by some. The problem lies not in the ideals but in the relationship one forms with them. Jacobins use ideals, which even for them have a super-rational origin, to serve subrational drives--usually the power drive. And that's why Jacobin "idealism" always leads to disaster.
The subrational co-opting the super-rational for subrational purposes is more the rule than the exception in politics. Sometimes it is done cynically, but more often than not it is done naively. I think that many of the neocons fall into the second category.The challenge is to turn this operation upside down so that the super-rational co opts, so to say, the subrational for its purposes. Again, Who's in the driver's seat?
So on the one hand it's important that we develop an immediate distrust for anyone proposing utopian programs because always there is a conscious or unconscious subrational agenda that drives it. But on the other it's important never to give in to cynicism. Our ideals are real. They are the sparks of transcendence that inspire our mostly small actions that cumulatively, like pen strokes on paper, add up to a larger and more coherent narrative that we haven't the perspective now to understand.
We don't have to understand it. Utopianism is an act of spiritual impatience. It wants a premature end to the story. It's also an act of spiritual arrogance because it presumes to think that its intimations of the goal are the same thing as knowing the goal. This is where the misplaced concreteness enters in. We don't know the end of the story yet. We don't have to know it. All we need to know about is the chapters of the story that hove been written already and to do our part now in advancing the story as it is being written now.
We don't have to have a utopian blueprint to know what to do. But it helps to have what might be described as an overarching concept. What is yours? When push comes to shove, do you really believe that history is a pointless groping in a cosmic void as the underlying metaphysics of Darwinism or Nietzscheanism proposes? Or do you believe that the earth is a prison that must be escaped as is the underlying metaphysics of much of the spiritualism of the east and the west proposes. Or do you believe that history has meaning as an evolving drama, a story with a beginning, middle, and an end, and that we humans are the writers of this story who will determine whether it has a happy or sad ending.
Those are basically the only three possibilities, although there are many possible variations within each type. I suppose you could say that agnosticism is a fourth. The third possibility is the one that interest me, but it's also the one that interests Jacobins. I guess I'm trying to suggest that it's possible to be in the third category without being a Jacobin, and that Jacobinism is a powerfully seductive perversion of a valid idealism that is essential for us human beings if we are to become what we have been created to become.
Wednesday, December 29, 2004
More on Neo-Jacobins.
We are willing to admit that all other nations are self-seeking, but as for ourselves, we hold that we act only on the most disinterested motives. We have not as yet set up, like revolutionary France, as the Christ of Nations, but during the late war we liked to look on ourselves as at least the Sir Galahad of Nations. If the American thus regards himself as an idealist at the same time that the foreigner looks on him as a dollar-chaser, the explanation may be due partly to the fact that the American judges himself by the way he feels, whereas the foreigner judges him by what he does. --Irving Babbit, Democracy & Leadership,1924
I was clicking around the web yesterday, and I found an interesting article in Orbis, the journal of the mainline Foreign Policy Research Institute. It was entitled "The Ideology of American Empire" (pdf) and written by Claes Ryn, a professor at Catholic University. It's where I found the Babbit quote cited above. Central to his argument is the idea that American foreign policy has been taken over by "Neo-Jacobins," an idea I was playing with in this post in October. The idea came to me as a way of trying to put my finger on why I thought that these neo-conservatives are not really conservatives at all. Ryn's explanations are more lucid than mine:
International adventurism has often served to distract nations from pressing domestic difficulties, but in America today, expansionism is often fueled also by intense moral-ideological passion. Since the principles for which America stands are portrayed as ultimately supranational (for Bloom they are actually opposed to traditional national identity), ‘‘nationalism’’ may not be quite the right term for this new missionary zeal. The new Jacobins believe that as America spearheads the cause of universal principles, it should progressively shed its own historical distinctiveness except insofar as that distinctiveness is directly related to those principles. Though countries confronted by this power are likely to see it as little more than a manifestation of nationalistic ambition and arrogance, it is nationalistic only in a special sense. Like revolutionary France, neo-Jacobin America casts itself as a savior nation. Ideological and national zeal become indistinguishable. ‘‘Our nationalism,’’ write Kristol and Brooks about America’s world mission, ‘‘is that of an exceptional nation founded on a universal principle, on what Lincoln called ‘an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.’’’
This view of America’s role can hardly be called patriotic in the old sense of that word. Neo-Jacobinism is not characterized by devotion to America’s concrete historical identity with its origins in Greek, Roman, Christian, European, and English civilization. Neo-Jacobins are attached in the end to ahistorical, supranational principles that they believe should supplant the traditions of particular societies. The new Jacobins see themselves as on the side of right and fighting evil and are not prone to respecting or looking for common ground with countries that do not share their democratic preferences.
Traditionally, the patriot’s pride of country has been understood to encompass moral self-restraint and a sense of his own country’s flaws. By contrast, neo-Jacobinism is perhaps best described as a kind of ideological nationalism. Its proponents are not precisely uncritical of today’s American democracy; Bloom complained that American democracy was too relativistic and insufficiently faithful to the principles of its own founding. But it should be noted that he regarded those principles as ‘‘rational and everywhere applicable’’ and thus as monopolistic. Greater dedication to ‘‘American principles’’ would by definition increase, not reduce, the wish to dictate terms to others.
For me the key to understanding the Jacobin spirit is that it is absolutist in its commitment to abstract moral ideals and has no interest in the particularity of cultures and traditions. The only thing that is important for Jacobin politics is the achievement of the ideal. Working toward that goal is what animates its sense of high moral purpose. But it always turns into a bloody mess because it leads inevitably to an ends-justify-means strategy. There is a link between the mentality of the Inquisition, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and now the Project for the New American Century. There is a moral idealism in each that is used justify horrific violence. In the end the ideals don't matter; it's all about the assertion of power.
I'm with the great anti-Jacobin Burke. Let things evolve. Let individual cultures and nations find their own way. There is no need to force recalcitrant premoderns into the world system. It's inevitable that they will merge into it. Our focus should be on working to insure that the world system be a just system rather than working to force people into it who don't want it.
For maybe they have good reason not to want it. While I think it is inevitable that a progressively interdependent global system is the planet's future, it is not inevitable that the global system will create a world that most people would want to live in. And it will not be a good system if it is permanently rigged to favor haves over have-nots.
Call it empire. Call it benign hegemony. Call it what you want. If people are feeling dominated and unfairly treated, they will fight against it. The rest of the world does not have a problem with the democratic ideals that the neocons profess, they are justifiably suspicious that the U.S. is promoting them as a cover for a different agenda, which is American economic domination.
Insofar as that's who we have become--economic bullies with a big military stick-- we have become the bad guys. To what degree we've become that, I don't know. But it's clear that's how the world perceives us. And when naive Americans ask with this tone of hurt incredulity, "Why does everyone hate us?" that's why. They don't hate freedom; they hate sanctimonious bullies. Everyone does.
And rather than promoting democracy abroad, perhaps we should be more concerned about getting our own democratic house in order. Because right now it's a mess. And I know that many of you think I'm alarmist, but we are in very grave danger of losing it altogether.
We'll let Professor Ryn have the last word:
A philosophically and historically inclined observer is reminded of the terrible and large-scale suffering that has been inflicted on mankind by power-seeking sanctioned or inspired by one or another kind of Jacobin moral and intellectual conceit. Communism, one of the most radical and pernicious manifestations of the Jacobin spirit, has disintegrated, at least as a major political force. But another panacea for the world is taking its place. The neo-Jacobin vision for how to redeem humanity may be less obviously utopian than that of communism. It may strike some as admirably idealistic, as did communism. But the spirit of the two movements is similar, and utopian thinking is utopian thinking, fairly innocuous perhaps if restricted to isolated dreamers and theoreticians but dangerous to the extent that it inspires action in the real world. The concern voiced here is that neo-Jacobinism has come to permeate American public debate and is finally within reach of controlling the military might of the United States.
Prudence, realism, compromise, and self-restraint are indispensable qualities in politics. They have been reflected in traditional American institutions, in great decisions made by American statesmen, and sometimes in American public opinion. They have constituted the first line of defense against all manner of foreign and domestic threats, including surges of passion and eruptions of extremism. Given the atrocities of 9/11 and the need for a firm American response, the prominence of crusaders in the Bush administration is perhaps not surprising. But it is also a sign that needed old American virtues are weakening or disappearing. The continued ascendancy of neo-Jacobinism would have disastrous consequences. By acting under its influence America’s leaders may be setting in motion fateful developments that they and their successors will not be able to control.
Tuesday, December 28, 2004
Support that Means Something. I don't think it's necessary for me to comment on everything that's happening. There's no point in saying what is obvious. I wonder sometimes what compels people driving, more often than not, SUVs or those monster pick-up trucks to put one of those yellow ribbon "Support our Troops" stickers on their back hatches. Why do they feel the need to say something so obvious and universally accepted? Who doesn't support them? Who doesn't admire their courage? Who doesn't want them to come home alive and in one piece? (If what they really mean is "support our president" or "support the war" then that's the bumper sticker they should display instead.)
But if to say "Support our troops" is obvious, it should also be obvious that we should support any relief efforts extended to those countries devastated by the tsunamis. Here's the site for Red Cross donations.
World War IV. I've been reading Norman Podhoretz's long article about how our battle with Islamic terrorism should be thought of as World War IV. (World War III was the Cold War.) I think the following paragraphs tell you a lot about the mentality from which such thinking arises:
The sheer audacity of what bin Laden went on to do on September 11 was unquestionably a product of his contempt for American power. Our persistent refusal for so long to use that power against him and his terrorist brethren—or to do so effectively whenever we tried—reinforced his conviction that we were a nation on the way down, destined to be defeated by the resurgence of the same Islamic militancy that had once conquered and converted large parts of the world by the sword.
As bin Laden saw it, thousands or even millions of his followers and sympathizers all over the Muslim world were willing, and even eager, to die a martyr’s death in the jihad, the holy war, against the "Great Satan," as the Ayatollah Khomeini had called us. But, in bin Laden’s view, we in the West, and especially in America, were all so afraid to die that we lacked the will even to stand up for ourselves and defend our degenerate way of life.
Bin Laden was never reticent or coy in laying out this assessment of the United States. In an interview on CNN in 1997, he declared that "the myth of the superpower was destroyed not only in my mind but also in the minds of all Muslims" when the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan. That the Muslim fighters in Afghanistan would almost certainly have failed if not for the arms supplied to them by the United States did not seem to enter into the lesson he drew from the Soviet defeat. In fact, in an interview a year earlier he had belittled the United States as compared with the Soviet Union. "The Russian soldier is more courageous and patient than the U.S. soldier," he said then. Hence, "Our battle with the United States is easy compared with the battles in which we engaged in Afghanistan."
Becoming still more explicit, bin Laden wrote off the Americans as cowards. Had Reagan not taken to his heels in Lebanon after the bombing of the Marine barracks in 1983? And had not Clinton done the same a decade later when only a few American Rangers were killed in Somalia, where they had been sent to participate in a "peacekeeping" mission? Bin Laden did not boast of this as one of his victories, but a State Department dossier charged that al Qaeda had trained the terrorists who ambushed the American servicemen. (The ugly story of what happened to us in Somalia was told in the film version of Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down, which reportedly became Saddam Hussein’s favorite movie.)
Bin Laden summed it all up in a third interview he gave in 1998:
After leaving Afghanistan the Muslim fighters headed for Somalia and prepared for a long battle thinking that the Americans were like the Russians. The youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized, more than before, that the American soldier was a paper tiger and after a few blows ran in defeat.
For people like Podhoretz (and Charles Krauthammer) it all boils down to whether Americans have the balls to fight savagery on the savage's terms. It's all about prestige in the way I was describing it in earlier posts. This is schoolyard stuff. This is the mentality of a medieval mind who is so intent on not "losing face" that he is willing to fight any battle even if it means to losing the war. This is the mentality that led to the disaster in Vietnam, and it's reactive and moronic in a world where the rules have completely changed.
Podhoretz's thinking really is the thinking of a medieval mind, and the narrative he weaves in this article is compelling only if we really think we are living in a medieval world as he seems to do. For someone who is so obviously insecure in his manhood as Podhoretz seems to be, the U.S. has to prove it to medievals like bin Laden in a show of arms as we have done in Iraq.
Well, if nothing else Iraq has proven that American soldiers are well trained, tough, and up to any achievable task that they might be asked to do. The question is not whether Americans have the will to fight, but whether their leaders have the intelligence to chose the right fights. It's not about having the will; it's about having the smarts.
Richard Clark and Thomas Barnett, in my opinion, see the situation much more clearly. I'm not totally on board with either of them, but I do think that they have a much more realistic view of the world as it is and of the approaches that must be developed if terrorism is to be effectively confronted. They lay the groundwork for the conversation that should be taking place. Macho Cold War cranks like Podhoretz are looking at the world through the rear-view mirror. They are like the French generals preparing for World War II as if it would be fought like World War I. They shouldn't be taken seriously for a minute.
Friday, December 24, 2004
Who's in the Driver's Seat? Implicit in much of what I've posted in the last month or so is the idea that Progressives have to develop a clearer idea about what progress means and then build a compelling narrative around it that people can rally to.
I think that the word progress has become too deeply implicated with our notions of material progress and technological advance, and what I want to suggest is that it has to be reframed as having more to do with the promotion of civilization over barbarism. Technological advance is neutral; it can serve either barbarism or civilization depending on the will of those who develop and use it. But it cannot in itself be identified with civilization
As I argued in an earlier post, civilization has had a bad rap since Freud wrote his famous book about its discontents. We have come to think of civilization as what happens to us when we lose touch with what is natural and and spontaneous. We think of civilization as having mostly to do with manners, as if being civilized somehow reached its pinnacle in the court of Louis XIV. Well, in my definition of the word, it's hard to imagine anything more barbaric than the behavior of Louis's courtiers. They just found the most sophisticated ways to serve their subrational gods, Sex, Power, and Money.
The distinction that I'm trying to make here is not between sophisticated and unsophisticated, boorish and elegant, ill bred and well bred. There are many well-bred, elegant barbarians. And most people who rise to positions of power in organizations where wealth and power are the main rewards are an easy place to find examples of them. Because my definition of a barbarian is someone who serves the subrational rather than trying to master and tame it. Mastery is obviously a life-long, individual project for any who seeks to undertake it, but there is a social dimension to it as well. And it starts with establishing a consensus about what are our culture-wide aspirational ideals.
Mastery does not mean suppression and it has failed if it results in repression of any kind. The opposite of what I intend to say here is that the subrational energies and impulses that we associate with sex, power, and money are evil and need to be Puritanically expunged from our experience. I think of them rather as the raw material out of which something beautiful and good can be created. Without their energy our human projects are dry and lifeless. The challenge is not to suppress the subrational but to govern it.
So the question that I'm trying to raise is whether we are active or passive in relationship to subrational impulses. Are we as individuals in the driver's seat or are we in the passenger's seat? Do we live in a culture that encourages us to be drivers or passengers? What would a society look like in which most people were drivers? Is that the world we live in today?
In the cultural and entertainment spheres of our society, do we allow ourselves passively to be swept away by the intoxications of the coarsely erotic or are we encouraged to master erotic energies to create warmth, beauty, connection? In the economic sphere, are we swept along in the rush to get rich, and do we measure our value as humans by our success in doing so? Or are we encouraged to work to make our wealth serve a larger collective good? In the political sphere, are we encouraged to admire the ambition and command of the powerful and to become like them, or do we seek to channel our ambition to empower those around us?
I know it's not easy to work all this out in practice. It's hard enough in our individual lives, and seems impossible to to imagine as ideals governing our collective life, even if there was a consensus that they were desirable, which there isn't. As I said the other day, the devil is in the details. But you have to start somewhere. And for now, at least, it starts with simply asking the question: Who's in the driver's seat?
Wednesday, December 22, 2004
Core and Gap. I was watching C-Span the other night, and it was showcasing Thomas Barnett, a peculiar, but very bright guy who teaches at the Naval War College. He has come out with a book entitled The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the 21st Century. Apparently it's a pretty hot ticket, ranked #42 on Amazon's seller list.
I've ordered and will read the book, but a few preliminary thoughts. This guy, in my view, at least understands the new reality that we're dealing with. He described himself at one point as a neocon, but he is not one in the Richard Perle or Donald Rumsfeld mold. Those guys seem still to be in a cold-war mode. Just plug in 'terrorists' where 'Soviets' used to be in the old cold-war formula. Barnett is a neocon in the sense that he believes that the Developed world should be proactive in bringing what he calls gap countries into the world system, which he calls the Core.
Whether or not you agree with this approach, and I'm going to reserve my opinion on this until after having read the book, the man does seem to understand that the U.S. cannot do this alone. He talks not about the U.S. as a solitary actor, but as a member of the Core, and he sees the task as one of promoting "connectedness" to those nations and cultures that are outside of the core which he calls the Gap. Connectedness means being integrated into the world system or Core, which now comprises the Western countries, but also India, the Russia, China. The Gap therefore is mostly in the South, and you can argue about that. But that's where the terrorists, the rogues, and the genocides happen, and everyone has a common interest in bringing those in the Gap into the Core, and in some cases, military intervention will be necessary to promote this goal. That seems to be the gist, but as with everything important, the devil is in the details.
In principle I have no objection to the developed countries intervening in the internal affairs of Gap countries. We did the right thing in the Balkans, and we should have done more in Rwanda. Maybe we (the Core nations in Barnett's lingo) should have intervened earlier in Iraq when Saddam was massacring Kurds and Shiites. My problem all along with the recent U.S. invasion of Iraq was not any opposition to the principle of intervention. My problem lay with its timing, its unilateralist preemption doctrine, its deceptive, manipulative strategies in building public support, its historical-cultural obtuseness, and with the grandiosity of the Rumsfeld/ Perle vision of the New American Century which was its inspiration. The Bush Administration should never have been allowed to invade, and we will be paying the price for it for years to come. In my opinion, the people in this administration have neither the competence nor the moral vision to have succeeded in such a difficult, complex task.
But first glance that's not where Barnett seems to be coming from. He supported the war, but he does not appear to be a proponent of American empire or of America as a benign world hegemon. He seems rather to be presenting what I thought was pretty close to what Kerry was proposing in terms of developing a multi-lateral approach to solving the very serious problems presented by these cultures who refuse to enter the modern world.
I think that the 21st will be about the development of a new global system. It's inevitable that these premodern cultures move into it. I've never thought that it's important to preserve these traditional cultures as if they were some exotic bird species threatened with extinction. All these traditional cultures will have to evolve and will inevitably merge into what will be some kind of global fusion culture. It might take another hundred years--it might take three hundred years, but it will happen. The question that needs to be answered though is whether this new system will be a haves-vs-have-nots Orwellian security state, or will it be a thriving, soulful, freedom-loving world republic. It depends on the intelligence, imagination, and fairness of the people who strive to develop the new global narrative.
Monday, December 20, 2004
From Outer to Inner. Here's another excerpt from the book:
Nietzsche was precocious in understanding our predicament at the end of the Modern Age. He understood that the meaning of transcendence as something ‘given’ by the Western tradition had all but collapsed, and that the cultural institutions and traditions of the West had withered into husks, which with the rising of a strong wind could blow away. If culture is the collective soul of a people, ours has shriveled into something animated almost exclusively by economic concerns, and any talk in the media or in the political sphere about hope for the future is framed exclusively by the imagination of the commercial and entertainment worlds. We’ve become a bread-and-circuses culture, and Nietzsche described this condition as the triumph of the Last Man.
People have always lived for bread and circuses, but when a culture is thriving, there is in the air a sense of Possibility that points beyond the concerns of the everyday. In premodern cultures this sense of Possibility was associated with a natural, commonly shared religious feeling and a sense of awe. In such cultures there is a time for work and a time for festival, but each time is surrounded by the transcendent “more”, and this more suffuses secular activities with a sense of the sacred. And because the sacred was always there, even if only in the background, it was a ‘given’ in the premodern collective life of every culture in ways that are hard now to imagine. But we postmoderns long for it now, and feel attracted to those places in the world where that premodern sense of the sacred still lingers—in Asia or Africa or the Australian Outback. In such places primitive doesn’t mean backward, but ‘soulful’. This is a form of nostalgia, and indulging it is not healthful, but it points to a commonly experienced symptom of a deeper underlying problem.
Read more? Click here.
Sunday, December 19, 2004
What If? Thanks to MM for asking me to be more direct about what I think the alternative narrative needs to be. I've excerpted below a part of the longer Introduction to the unpublished book I've been sitting on for a couple of years now. As I've been suggesting in recent weeks, the challenge, as I see it, is not to condemn Darwin and Nietzsche, but to absorb them and move beyond them.
They both have come to define the narrative that all educated 20th and 21st century people live within, whether they've spent time reading either or not. And there is good reason for it. Their narratives are true, but only provisionally true, as all narratives are. As in any good detective story, things never are as they appear in the earlier chapters of the book. The evidence may seem to point to a particular conclusion, which on the face of it seems quite logical. But things change. We're in the middle of the world-historical detective/quest story right now. The detective part appeals to the scientific impulse in the human soul; the quest part to the religious impulse in it. Both are there for a reason, and both must be honored. And both have to be integrated in a sane, plausible, compelling culture-wide metanarrative.
The question for me is who will be writing the chapter that will tell the story of the 21st Century? Do the Nietzscheans and Darwinians on the left and the religious fundamentalists on the right offer the only possibilities? Maybe, to dust off an old Hegelean idea, a postmodern synthesis needs to be effected that willl develop out of this dialectic between the premodern traditionalists and the modern rationalists. Anyway, here are some ideas along the lines of developing such a synthesis:
Biological evolution understood in the Darwinian sense is a part of the story, but it’s not the whole story. Neither St. Paul, Barfield, Rahner, nor Teilhard are indulging in moonshine; rather they point to a dynamic element in history and evolution that runs parallel to the random, groping process to which Darwin drew our attention. We think of salvation history as starting with Abraham and ending with Pentecost. But why does it end there? Because that’s where the biblical narrative ends? Or is it because that’s the point in history at which Salvation ceased being exclusively a divine project and started to become a human one? After Pentecost salvation is not something given, not something simply done to us as passive objects; it’s something now that we participate in as active subjects. And yet in the common imagination of salvation we remain its passive recipients, and that’s all there is to worry about.
In the Gospels, Jesus confronts the “real world” as the power narratives of Caesar, Herod, and the Pharisees define it, and he tells them, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Because of the dominance of the spatial metaphor, there has been a tendency to think that the Gospels depict the two kingdoms as separate—the one down here in history, Caesar’s kingdom, and the other up there and outside of it, God’s kingdom. But what if we were to think of the “kingdom not of this world” as something more along the lines of a dimension within history that is an upside-down alternative to what seems to be the ordinary world as most people experience and understand it? Were Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom designed to describe life in another world or to point to a possibility for life in this one?
What if we were to adapt the above/below spatial metaphor to imagine it in evolutionary historical terms? What if we were to think of evolution as having two layers, one above and the other below—the upper layer salvation history; the lower layer biological evolution? What if before the fall these two layers worked together harmoniously, and the consequence of the fall was for the biological evolutionary layer to go its own way becoming, just as the Darwinians describe it, a random groping, process governed by the law of adaptation and survival? What if the membrane, so to say, that separated above from below had become so thick that it was virtually impossible for any influence from above to penetrate to the dimension below except by extraordinary interventions?
And what if the most extraordinary of those interventions was the Christmas event, and its purpose was to breach the thickening membrane that separated one layer from the other. And what if in Christ’s breaching it, his purpose was to plant the seed of a new evolutionary impulse at the very heart of biological evolution? And what if the seedbed for this new creation that he called the ‘Kingdom’ was the human soul? And so therefore what was before imagined by humans in the old regime as something that came from above was experienced after Pentecost as something that arose from within. After Pentecost no longer would there be extraordinary interventions from above. Whatever is above can take care of itself; but on the earth, what if the new regime that develops within is where the human story and where any imagination of an alternative future possibility for the earth lies now?
And so what if the meaning of history since Pentecost is linked to the human task to cultivate this new creation within, a project which if successful would effect a liberation for all of creation? What if the human being is indeed the measure of all things, and as he goes, so goes the earth? And what if the whole project were to fail unless human beings attend to this fragile, regime growing within and nurture its development from century to century? The biblical metaphor for such a failure is Babylon. The alternative metaphor, pointing to the flourishing of the new kingdom, is the New Jerusalem. Either is a possibility, and we have no reason to expect interventions from above to avert disaster. Babylon is a more-than-likely outcome if we cannot find a compelling way to hope for and work toward the other.
Everything changes if we think of the kingdom not as an “above,” but as a "within" and as such not outside of history. We are not exiles on the earth and our job while here is not simply to keep our nose clean for eight decades so we get to go live in some otherworldly Kingdom of God above for eternity. That’s too easy, and it promotes a Last-Man Christianity that Nietzsche was right to criticize. For the Nietzschean and the Darwinian narratives are an accurate description of history without reference to salvation history. And as such theirs follows the logic of the Fall. The story they tell is not wrong; it’s just incomplete. The Christian task is not to condemn what their stories tell us, but to tell it from another perspective. To tell it form the perspective of the transformative dynamic working now from within the very heart of evolution that if nourished will effect its redemption.
A shift from the spatial metaphor to an evolutionary/developmental metaphor does not in any way diminish the essential elements of orthodox Christian Faith. It just requires adopting a new set of mental habits in thinking about them. This book is an attempt to think about our world after having adopted such habits. My hope is that it will provoke others to do so as well, and in their doing so to develop a Christian understanding of history and time that will be more coherent and relevant to the challenges we face in a “real world” only provisionally defined by the Nietzschean-Darwinian narrative.
You can read the longer essay from which this piece is excerpted here.
Thursday, December 16, 2004
Facts Are Not What They Used to Be. In yesterday's post I wrote about how stories are more important than facts. All I meant by this is that facts are passive and inert, and what brings them to life is a narrative that weaves them together in a more or less compelling way. People with more imaginative power develop stories that are more compelling than the stories developed by the less imaginative. Imagination is the active principle, and everything depends on the source of its inspiration. Inspiration often comes from above, but perhaps more frequently it comes from below.
This is an age-old problem for rhetoric. You can develop a compelling story that is less true than a story that while uninteresting is more true. The facts are only as good as the story that brings them into some pattern of meaning that people, for whatever reason, want to buy into. And human motivation for telling stories and believing them is a profoundly complex kind of thing.
During the modern period, there was an optimism that the subjective element in knowing what is true or not could be taken out of the process. Hardly anybody believes that anymore. Even in the sciences, there is a growing inclination to see scientific truth not as in any absolute sense objective, but as a provisional consensus reality. The scientific community accepts this or that as true now, but who knows what it will accept five hundred years from now? Five hundred years ago, the smartest people in the world thought the sun revolved around the earth. There is little reason to think that our picture of things now is any less provisional than it was then.
So facts are not what they used to be. This diminution of the importance of objectivity is aggravated by information overload. Our lives are flooded with so much information that one individual can never feel comfortable that he or she controls but a small sliver of it. The overload of information has ironically led to valuing it less, and so we no longer really care about facts in this postmodern milieu in the way we did during the modern period. We find ourselves in a situation which is very similar to the one premoderns experienced in which truth claims are credible not according to some rational, objective criteria, but according to the authority or the power of the source. The GOP understands this. The Democrats don't.
We saw this play itself out dramatically in the last election cycle in which our sense of what is real, no matter which side of the political issues we might be, was shaped by our subjective estimation of the credibility of the sources, and that credibility depended on whose basic narrative we bought into. If you voted for Bush you found the GOP narrative credible, and you disregarded the "facts" that were brought to light by "Liberals" who had in your view little credibility. And the same is true for Kerry supporters, like me, who found it impossible to believe anything that administration officials said.
But while slightly less than half of the country is like me in not buying into the GOP narrative, there are also a lot of people like me who, while they voted Democratic, don't buy into the Democrats' narrative either--I just thought of it as relatively less dangerous. And I think that if a real progressive politics in the U.S. is to get any legs, it has to come up with a more compelling narrative than the GOP story whose appeal lies in its traditional-values familiarity. And in order to do so it has to draw on the same same resources from the tradition, but it has to do so with sincerity. In other words, the people who promote such a narrative have to have imaginations which are genuinely, deeply inspired by it.
And that's why people like Barak Obama are more likely leaders of a robust American progressivism than Michael Moore. I'm ok with people like Moore playing the gadfly roles that they do, but no broad-based consensus is going to develop around their basic secular-left narrative. But if a compelling religious-left narrative is to emerge, it has to be something that the secular left can respect even if it cannot accept its premises. The first part of achieving that is in proving itself to be sane which requires accepting the world in all its complexity as it is.
But we're no longer in the modern era--we're postmoderns now, and the rules for determining what is real or not have changed. Reality, I would argue, is up for grabs. I'll explain what I mean by that in future posts.
Wednesday, December 15, 2004
Quote of the Day: Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart." Vaclav Havel.
Telling Stories. We're interested in stories, and not particularly interested in facts. Every story needs facts, of course, but they are secondary. The facts are there just to provide some ballast for the story. There are always so many facts that don't fit into the story, and insofar as they don't fit, depending on our commitment to the story, we have a tendency to disregard them. Every good story has an element of truth in it. But the story's the thing. It is in many ways its own self-contained truth.
Complex, pluralistic societies like ours comprise many stories that function to organize our experience into cultural narratives. Some are happy to coexist with others. Some seek to dominate the field. There is, for instance the feminist story, the Christian right story, the Green story, the Nativist/militia movement story, the Freudian/Nietzschean/Darwinian story, the hippy story, the capitalist story, the socialist story, and so on. People are attracted to one or another--or maybe more than one--of these stories because they make sense--they are true to their experience, and so a lot depends on the quality of one's experience. The narrative a person feels himself drawn to may not explain everything, but it explains enough to give a person some sense of purpose and meaning. For some it's simply a matter of whatever gets them through the night.
The best stories, of course, are true, not just because they meet our emotional needs but because they embrace a broader understanding about what is real. Dostoyevski's stories are in this sense true, even though they are fictional. But other narratives make what we think of as scientific truth claims, which can be evaluated in a different way. The Darwinian narrative, for instance, is truer than the creationist narrative because regardless of what we would like to believe there is this pesky thing called the fossil record, and any honest attempt to think clearly has to take it into consideration. But the best stories are the ones that both embrace the facts and also resonate with this universal and profound hunger for meaning. The best stories equally satisfy the mind and the soul. The pure Darwinian narrative gets an A for the first, but a D- for the second.
How does this work in politics? I would argue that the GOP won the last election because it developed a narrative that a majority of Americans found emotionally compelling because it was directed toward making them feel safe in a time of intense anxiety. I would also argue that this narrative, no matter how emotionally satisfying, depended very little on facts or on what was real. It was smoke and mirrors. It won the day because a more effective, truer narrative was not proposed by the Democrats. But the GOP understands better than the Dems that people like a good story, and that it has to have emotional resonance. The Dems mistakenly think that the facts are enough. They're not.
Insofar as you could say that the Democrats had a meaning dimension in their narrative (as opposed to a laundry list of issues), it was rooted in hope. If the candidate were more effective, he might have developed a hope narrative that could have competed with the security narrative, but he didn't. And I think that's the biggest reason he didn't win more votes in an election that should have been his for the taking. The real emotion driving support for Kerry had little to do with him; it had mostly to do with a growing level of alarm about the direction in which the GOP is leading the nation. Saying No to the GOP story isn't enough. There has to be a counternarrative to which the nation can say Yes.
American progressives are at a disadvantage now because they don't have a compelling narrative that they can all rally around despite the differences among their different factions. The right has its own problems with fragmentation, but it was able to rally around the basic fear/security narrative. That narrative will continue to win the day so long as progressives are unable to define a compelling alternative narrative.
A compelling progressive narrative is always easier to develop when the battle lines are more clearly drawn. If you were a black in South Africa or a Catholic in Poland in the 1980s, it's clear who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. If you were a farmer in the U.S. a hundred years ago, it was clear who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. If you're a Ukrainian today, it's also clear. The problem for Progressives today is that the Democrats are not really the good guys--they have become GOP lite. And the bad guys have been very clever at disguising themselves to appear as the good guys.
And they have done this while at the same time convincing a majority of voting Americans that Progressives are the bad guys who support the decadent agenda symbolized by homosexuals, Hollywood, and nihilistic intellectuals and cultural elites. Progressives have allowed themselves to be defined in this way because they have no compelling alternative narrative to fight back with and that would inspire more sensible, decent Americans to support their cause.
What I've been trying to do in my posts over the last year is to advance the argument that a viable Progressive politics has to to separate itself from the laisser-faire, secular, anything-goes spirit of Liberalism and to define itself as a civilizing force in a battle against barbarism. It's not as if I have all this very well developed in my own mind yet. I'm testing ideas in this blog as I go.
I know from several people who have responded whom I respect that the effort is worth continuing. I appreciate the encouragement, but I also invite your challenges. I'm not particularly interested potshots, but welcome responses that engage with the argument as I have been developing it over the last several months. And I would be happy to hear from more of you or to be referred to those you know of who are working in in a similar vein, because I'm not aware of anybody who is coming at this from the angle that I am, although surely, there must be many.
Tuesday, December 14, 2004
Civilization and Its Discontents. It's always been interesting to me that Freud's dour assessment of civilization was written at that moment in Europe when Enlightenment rationalism came crashing down and lay all about him in shards. That book and T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, likewise written in the 1920s, stand as cultural benchmarks that mark the end of the civilizing impulse that animated the West from the time of the Renaissance. World War I was the war that marked the end of the modern era, and World War II was the war that marked the beginning of the postmodern.
Freud's 1929 book was a development of ideas he introduced in his 1927 book, The Future of an Illusion, in which he attacks organized religion as a collective neurosis. Both books have become more or less the background music that plays in most secularist thinking since then. Until recently it has been impossible for any self-respecting modern intellectual to accept that religion is anything but a form of delusional wish-fulfillment born out of the fundamental inability human beings have to accept the real ugliness and horror in the world, not the least of which is the prospect of their own deaths.
Civilization, according to Freud, is essentially the product of the fundamental tradeoff humans make to live in an ordered, secure world. The rule of law is the foundation of any civilization, for without it the law of the jungle prevails, and according to that law, the strong dominate the weak. Without the restraint of civilizing laws, the stronger prey on the weaker, the former searching out the latter to satisfy their instinctual drives, which boil down to sex, money, power.
I am inclined to think of Power as primary, and the other two as secondary. Power is aggression. Aggression is about one person or a group of persons seeking to dominate another. As Hegel pointed out way before Nietzsche, Freud, and Adler, this aggression is not economically motivated; it's about prestige. It's about the ego rush one feels in victory. Wealth is a byproduct. It's a symbol of power. You must be powerful if you were able to acquire all that wealth and to obtain all those slaves (and wives.)
Premoderns understand this seeking after prestige as essential for their "honor." Their value as human beings depended on how much of it they got, and the worst possible thing that could happen to them would be to lose it. The Chinese call it "losing face" which is basically the same thing. You lose your honor, you lose your face, you lose your identity. You're nobody. Your identity is in this sense completely a social construction. There's nobody at home behind the mask.
In its most primitive form this is a prestige battle to the death. The truly noble person is the one who would rather die than submit. This sentiment is echoed in the New Hampshire state slogan and imprinted on all New Hampshire license plates: "Live free or die." The slave is the one who makes the calculation that it would be better to live serving he who vanquished him than to be slain by him. He chooses submission. Any feudal hierarchy is based on this fundamental transaction. And it's why kings were always having to put down rebellions by recalcitrant dukes and barons who lusted to have more face.
The whole point for the old nobility was "honor", and honor was something that depended on station, and station was something you took by force of arms. The question they would ask themselves was basically: Do I have have the balls or don't I? This is barbarism of course, but it was a time when men were men, not alienated, faceless wimps sitting in cubbies in big, anonymous, high-rise cages. It was a barbarism civilized to a certain extent by the Christian-inspired chivalric code and the tradition of courtly love. But the whole underlying prestige-centered honor code was barbaric through and through.
So Freud's point was that civilization in suppressing aggression creates alienation. Alienation is what happens to human beings when they are cut off from their instinctual life. It happens when they make a choice for safety and conformity of the group that comes with renouncing one's impulse life. It is the condition of the slave. This, according to Freud, is the source of the discontent that must necessarily come with civilization. Becoming civilized requires submitting to the law, and submitting is always an act of slavishness. Most of the "advanced" thought since Freud has been about finding ways to more become instinctual and less civilized, but at the same time "nice." Wild and crazy, but loveable, like John Belushi or Jack Black. These are our contemporary models for what it means to be un-alienated. The way this works in practice is while continuing to suppress aggression, give more free rein to the pursuit of sex and money, and to put a happy face on both.
Freud's idea of civilization is the opposite of what I mean by it. His idea is what I mean by living in the dead tree, which I agree is alienation and sickness. The goal of civilization is not to suppress instinct, but to humanize it. I talked about this already in August, and it's something that has to be thought through more carefully. But the question for now is by what power is our instinctual life humanized?
Freud and Darwin would have described the situation accurately if the world were indeed a closed system. But something enters from outside the system, and the traditional word for it is grace. You don't have to be a believer to know what it is. We've all experienced it at one time or another. Civilization is what happens when grace and human instinct combine to create something new. The instincts are the raw material. Grace is the active principle inspiring our imaginations, and the human will works with both to bring something of value into the world. It can be a small thing; it can be a great thing. But if it is worth anything, all three were essential in its making.
Is there a politics today that is worth anything in this sense? Is it possible to imagine a feasible economics that we could also call civilized? Or are we just resigned to the idea that we must become either alienated slaves or barbarian warlords whenever we enter the economic sphere?
Call of the Wild. That's what conservatives who want to roll back the 20th Century so that we can all live according to the law of the jungle must be hearing. A key element in this program is the overturn of the 1942 Wickard v. Filburn, "a landmark ruling that laid out an expansive view of Congress's power to legislate in the public interest," according to Adam Cohen in today's NY Times:
We take for granted today the idea that Congress can adopt a national minimum wage or require safety standards in factories. That's because the Supreme Court, in modern times, has always held that it can.
But the court once had a far more limited view of Congress's power. In the early 1900's, justices routinely struck down laws protecting workers and discouraging child labor. The court reversed itself starting in 1937, in cases that led to Wickard, and began upholding these same laws.
States' rights conservatives have always been nostalgic for the pre-1937 doctrines, which they have lately taken to calling the Constitution-in-Exile. They argue - at conferences like "Rolling Back the New Deal" and in papers like "Was the New Deal Constitutional?" - that Congress lacks the power to do things like forcing employers to participate in Social Security. Given how entrenched New Deal programs have become in more than half a century, these plans for reversing history have always seemed more than a bit quixotic.
But that may be about to change. The attacks on the post-1937 view of the Constitution are becoming more mainstream among Republicans. One of President Bush's nominees to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Janice Rogers Brown, has called the "revolution of 1937" a disaster. And last month in the Supreme Court - in a case about medical marijuana - the justices found themselves having to decide whether to stand by Wickard.
Chip, chippin' away.
Sunday, December 12, 2004
Of Tails Wagging Dogs
Capitalism has destroyed our belief in any effective power but that of self interest backed by force.--George Bernard Shaw
In the Soviet Union, capitalism triumphed over communism. In this country, capitalism triumphed over democracy.-- Fran Lebowitz
The survival of democracy in this country is at the root of my concern. In a democracy the people make the system serve its needs. And so it would be logical to say that to the degree that the system demands that people serve its needs, democracy is diminished.
The system is consumer capitalism, which in theory is a demand-driven system that should be most responsive to the will of the people. But what if the people only want security and comfort? What if the people decide they want no longer to be free, that it's too much trouble? Why shouldn't they choose to surrender their freedom to the system so long as it provides bread and circuses and keeps them safe from enemies abroad? If this is all people really want, what need have they for a democracy? Why rule when it is so much easier to be ruled?
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the battle lines were more clearly drawn, the enemies more clearly defined. It was a bare-knuckled power struggle between the forces of capital and the forces of democracy. There are never decisive victors in a struggle like this. There are only changing balances of power. The 20th Century was mainly the story of the balance of power shifting away from Big Money toward the broader interests of the general population. Will the 21st Century be the story of the balance shifting back toward Big Money?
If it happens, it won't be because Big Money has beaten the people into submission as it tried to do a century ago. It will happen because it seduces them with promises of security and comfort.
Saturday, December 11, 2004
The Lizard Brain Doesn't Do Nuance. The country is in a state of fear. It's not just about terrorism; it's also about the confusion rooted in our national identity crisis that affects our level of anxiety in ways that most of us are not all that aware. When people are anxious, they are more vulnerable to think and act in response to impulses that come primarily from the subrational.
When our thinking is determined by subrational logic, courage, generosity, justice, patience, wisdom are less likely. For they are products of the super-rational insofar as they are counter-instinctual. When we are attacked, our instincts kick in and we either fight back or run away. One response isn't any less instinctive than the other. It's simply a reversion to the lizard brain. Courage is not about fighting back when it's simply a matter of instinctive reaction.
Was Ron Artest, for instance, courageous for rushing into the stands to take care of that guy who threw the cup at him? (Click here if you're not familiar with the story.) Of course not, but he probably thinks he was. It's not hard to imagine all the self-justifying rationalizations that are going on in Artest's mind right now. And they are almost certainly being reinforced by his friends and the player culture in which he lives, no matter what they are saying in public. But I don't think it's hard to see that his actions were hardly motivated by courage. Courage is not the adrenaline-fueled instinct to fight back. Courage is counter-instinctual. Courage is the spiritual power of the human will to do the right thing when everything in our blood and bones is screaming for us to do something else.
Any kind of idealism or hope for a life that is not circumscribed by our instinctual impulses comes from a super-rational or transcendent source. You don't have to be a conventional religious believer to know what I'm talking about. Civilization is a spiritual work. There is no civilization in the history of the world that does not have at its root a spiritual impulse. The spirit is what lifts us and enables us to become something more than the animals. Because the secularists have become tone deaf to its music does not mean that it is not playing.
(I know there are some people in the sociobiology school who want to reduce everything to some evolutionary function. For these people the subrational forces driving biological evolution are the logic of history and the meaningless meaning of our existence on earth. But while I'm not going to do it here, I don't think it's hard to show the bankruptcy of that line of thinking, although I know that many secularists find it compelling and "rational." Darwinian evolutionism understands correctly the subrational forces driving evolution, but it is incomplete insofar as it refuses to acknowledge the super-rational forces that are also at work.)
My problem with the politics of the left and the right (including most of the religious right) these days is that neither seems to have a clue about how the super-rational works in history. Both attempt to present themselves as "realists," and realists are focused on bread-and-butter issues--mainly issues that concern our security, which is to say issues that deal with our anxieties. And that's real, and I don't want to diminish the importance of that. But that's not all there is. And we almost always come up with inferior solutions when we try to deal with anxiety on anxiety's terms. We react rather than act. We think with our lizard brain which is just another way to say that we use our intelligence to serve subrational needs defined by our deepest fears.
I am not attempting in any way to say that there is nothing to fear. There are real dangers everywhere. But we must not allow ourselves to be ruled by our fears. And seeking to obliterate those whom we fear, however valid our reasons for fearing them, is an impulse that is as much in the service of fear as is the cowardly impulse to avoid confronting them at all. It's no better than what Ron Artest did when he ran up into the stands.
It is very likely that we will sustain another terrorist attack in the near future. When that happens the country will not be in the mood to think nuanced thoughts about what needs to be done. It is more than likely that most Americans will support a response to such an attack that will be along the lines dictated by the logic of the lizard brain.
If in our capitals or even in our churches, we had superior leadership, a leadership with real moral stature, leaders who could inspire in us real courage, rather than this bogus macho posturing that passes for it, there would be so much the greater chance that a real solution could be found. Such a one could help the country to find a measured, appropriate strategy and to frame an effective response, one designed not just to lash out as we are doing now, but to deal effectively with the root causes of the problem.
But we have no such leadership, and we have good reason to fear for the future of our republic. If we are attacked we will rally behind our president who will ask us to give up our freedom telling us all the while we must do so to protect our freedom. And it will seem to make so much sense. But the security state, which is our likely future, is a state we will chose out of fear, not out of freedom, and it will be a state in which fear shall be the rule.
Monday, December 6, 2004
Feeding the Beast. "Anything goes" is the mantra of Liberalism. It's really what we mean when we talk about "freedom" in the modern sense. The Liberal spirit is the spirit of bursting traditional restraints and reveling in limitless horizons. And it manifests first and foremost in the spirit that over the last 500 years has driven capital, science, and technological advance. And the spirit of Liberalism always saw itself as in a pitched battle with the forces of reaction--the church and the old landed aristocracy, who were always scheming for ways to bring back the old order.
The Liberal spirit was always the spirit of rationality as contrasted with superstition--of progress and growth as contrasted with the stagnant, authoritarian ancien regime. Progress was driven by technological innovation, by a new class or meritocrats, so many ambitious Ben Franklins who sought to do well for themselves while contributing to scientific and technological progress. It was the spirit of a nouveau regime that was very, very impressive in the results that it produced. It's at the heart of what we call Yankee ingenuity.
It's for this reason that the political right in this country doesn't have a problem with giving these three dynamos--capital, science, and technological advance--unrestrained license to do as they please so long as they produce wealth. "That's what makes America great," it reasons. "It's our tradition. It's what makes us Americans." And most Americans nod in agreement when such sentiments are expressed.
The political right has no problem with the unrestrained pursuit of profit, which in moral language is called Greed. And it gets into a major snit when anyone suggests that some restraints be put on that impulse. "That interferes with the mystic powers of the free market," they argue. "You can't interfere with the freemarket; everyone knows that. It's un-American. To do so is communistic. And everyone knows that communists are atheists, so therefore any program to control freemarkets must be atheistic."
So it strikes me as richly ironic that many of the people who see the freemarket as the most sacred of American ideals are also the ones who are most upset about how America has lost its soul and has become morally corrupted. If 'anything goes' is the mantra of the economic sphere, why shouldn't it also be the mantra of the cultural sphere? If it's ok for the freemarket to operate according to the anything-goes, if-it-makes-money-do-it logic of greed, why shouldn't people in their private lives operate according to the anything-goes, if-it-feels-good-do-it principle of lust. Why is it ok for a traditional vice in one part of our lives but not another?
Consumer capitalism and cultural decadence go hand in hand. We're not talking about capitalism in the sense of independent self-reliant farmers and small business people here. We're talking about how large concentrations of capital and power corrupt. When economic of political institutions become so large and powerful, as they have become over the last 150 years, they function as voracious behemoths that exist outside of human control. This beast has to be fed, we tell ourselves, or the whole thing falls apart, and we'll all be hunters and gatherers again. So we find ourselves serving its needs rather than making it serve ours. Making the beast serve our needs is called interfering with the free market, and that is sacrilege.
There is in my mind one defining difference between the kind of Republicans who are running the country now and the ragtag coalition of people who call themselves progressives (some of whom are Democrats).The Republicans celebrate the beast and will do anything it wants; the progressives seek to tame it to make it serve real human needs. The former, like primitives propitiating a wrathful deity, say "Feed it, do as it commands, and it will not harm us." That craven sentiment is in my view at the root of our cultural and social decadence. It renders us passive and spiritually inert. It is the bargain slaves make in submitting to their masters: "If I surrender my freedom to him, he won't kill me. I will serve him, and he will keep me safe."
For me this is the most important meaning of the last election. A majority of Americans, frightened by terrorists abroad and the moral confusion posed by homosexuals at home, decided to submit to the Big Daddy party which tells them what they wanted to hear--that everything is going to be all right, that Daddy is in control, and that he will take care of the bad guys.
Well the Republicans are not in control, they don't really understand what is going on, and there is every indication that they are going to make things much, much worse. Everything they do is about feeding the beast rather than taming it. We've given them another four years, and the beast will just get bigger and stronger and harder to deal with during that time.
In any event this is the choice that is put before Americans: Rule or be ruled. Submit to the beast or tame it. Trying to understand what taming it means will be at the center of what I write about here in the weeks to come.
Update: If you haven't seen it yet, check out Krugman's piece on Social Security today. Privatization and deregulation are the food that the beast craves. Social Security is just the appetizer.
Saturday, December 4, 2004
Progressivism Isn't Liberalism. If what I've been writing about the last week or so makes sense, then it should be obvious that Progressive politics are not liberal politics except insofar as they play by the values-neutral "liberal" rules in the political sphere. In other words, Progressives don't seek to impose their personal beliefs on anyone, but they are not shy to propose programs in the political sphere which are inspired by their beliefs and values. Most of the story of Twentieth Century politics in the U.S., as in other developed countries, has been about those programs being approved by majorities through the democratic process.
If pure liberalism is pure laisser faire, that clearly does not reflect the progressive impulse. For the progressives, whose politics date to the late 19th century (associated to one degree or another with the Populists and Socialists of that era) were concerned to counterbalance the egregious power abuses of Big Money. Big Money has always been the great advocate of small government because big government is the only thing that can check its power. The smaller the government, the fewer the regulations, the weaker the policing powers, the freer Big Money is to do as it pleases. And Big Money pleases to do only what is good for Big Money. That's what we saw in the late 19th Century as the great corporate powers came into their own, and the jungle philosophy that justified their excesses was Social Darwinism: Eat or be Eaten. This is barbarism.
The Progressive Movement was a civilizing force. It refused to accept that this jungle mentality was anything more than a license for the powerful to get more powerful. And so it understood that it had one major leverage point to fight the power of the trusts and monopolies--the power of numbers. In a democracy it's absurd that the interests of the few should dictate how everyone else should live. And the Progressives fought back through the labor Movement and the democratic process, and they succeeded, not in defeating corporate power, but in taming it or civilizing it. But we're always in danger that this beast will regress to its old jungle ways, and this "regressivism," in my view, is at the core of the GOP agenda.
In other words the progressives were the agents of progress, if by progress we mean anything that moves us away from barbarism and toward a more civilized way of life. And to me this is a key idea in defining what Progressivism means in the 21st Century. Progressivism is not just an any-thing-goes Liberalism. It ought to be thought of as the political impulse that promotes civilization over barbarism. On the one hand it means saying No to the subrational forces of barbarism as they manifest on the Left and the Right, and on the other hand it means saying Yes to the super-rational forces which move societies forward toward higher levels of civilization.
Now I realize this isn't so simple, especially the saying Yes part. But the saying No starts with saying No to the forces in American society which are seeking to roll back the progress that was made through most of the 20th Century. And as before, so now: the only way for this to be done is through the power of numbers. But the problem lies in that the Labor movement is moribund, and Big Money has found a very effective way of disguising its age-old agenda by wrapping itself in the flag and keeping us in a state of fear about terrorists abroad and homosexuals at home.
In any event this is likely to be our state of affairs for some time to come because the Progressive Movement has become more associated with the barbarism of the Left than with any aspiration toward real progress. Its value at this point lies in that it is the only force in resisting the barbarians of the Right who seek to roll back the real progress made during the 20th Century. It will be our state of affairs until a robust Progressive counternarrative is developed that truly points a way forward that all clear-minded, decent Americans can support.
Friday, December 3, 2004
Time out of Season. The point I've been trying to make in the last several weeks is that we're intellectually confused when we use the terms liberal or conservative. Most people have come to understand the terms to mean pro-establishment or anti-establishment. But the establishment since the New Deal has been associated with Liberalism as its popularly understood. And the people who now call themselves conservatives are therefore anti-establishment because they seek to dismantle the institutions that have developed over the last seventy years.
These anti-establishmentarians are corporate capitalists who are in the root, laisser-faire meaning of the word really Liberals. Even though most them would call themselves conservatives, they have no interest in conserving anything except their own prerogative to do as they please. They are driven by laisser-faire logic, and that promotes innovation and change, and it seeks to remove any inhibition that stands in its way in the pursuit of whatever promotes its growth. Capitalism and technological innovation go hand in hand, and both together are the juggernaut that has created unprecedented levels of wealth. That's the only objective of this machine--nothing else matters, least of all the institutions and values of any tradition-centered society.
The current common usage of conservative and liberal makes more sense when we are in the realm of values in the cultural sphere. Conservatives here identify with traditional values as they were taught to them as children, which for most Americans is rooted in one or another of the Judeo-Christian faith traditions. They are uncomfortable with what they perceive to be the anything-goes mentality of the people whom they think of as Liberals. I understand where these conservatives are coming from, and I think that they are right to think that our culture has become decadent if not barbaric. But their analysis of the causes is obtuse, and their prescriptions for a cure naive.
The cause of this barbarism is not Liberalism. Liberalism is an empty form and everything depends on what fills it. The form used to be filled with an optimistic Enlightenment rationalism, which was, in the main, a great civilizing force. But that optimism was destroyed by the World Wars I and II, and the vacuum left by its death has been filled by consumer capitalism, which is a barbarizing force. If our culture has become barbaric, consumer capitalism is the spirit of that barbarism. Conservatives are understandably upset about the progressively crude levels to which our popular culture has plunged, and they seek to combat this decadence with a restorationist agenda by dusting off and restoring social forms that worked in the past. But such an agenda is inadequate for the way we live now, and it is doomed to failure because it does not adequately understand or confront the social/economic forces that are at the root of the problem.
So now what? I think that we are in a very dramatic period of cultural transition. We are neither here nor there. The barbaric, money-driven power of consumer capitalism is the tail wagging the dog, and it will continue to be the primary force shaping our national and global culture until a robust counternarrative arises. If the barbarism of the current consumer capitalist narrative is driven by the subrational, then a civilizing counter narrative, when it arises, must be driven by the superrational.
What that means is impossible to say with any specificity. But as I've written before I think that it will be like the germination of a seed that has been dropped by the great tree of the Tradition. Our period of cultural transition is like winter. There may be seeds strewn all over the place, but the time isn't right yet for them to break open. The frustration and impatience that most of us feel is caused simply by our having to live in this time out of season. Things can't grow in winter. But it won't always be winter, and our discipline should be all about being ready for when the seasons change. We can't relax. There's much to be done. But what we do is winter work to prepare for the spring work that lies ahead. The birth of something new lies before us, whether in my lifetime or not I don't know. But I have no doubt that spring will inevitably come.