Reviving discussion and community in a fractured society

Susannah Black recently wrote a long essay on the civic dimensions of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. She writes that “Dreher advocates for engaging in practices of sociability and debate, to remind ourselves of our natures as political animals with rational souls. He discusses the work of Vaclav Benda, who during the years of Soviet domination of central Europe saw groups that deliberately engaged in such activity as a ‘counter-polis,’ a much-needed forum for exercising the rudiments of political thinking and action, in the midst of a totalitarian state that did not allow for this part of human nature to be exercised: a sort of secret public sphere.” Black expounds on a the role that these kinds of groups can play within American society:

Given the profound breakdown in civil communication and discussion that so many have noted, especially in this most recent election, and given the incoherence, lack of memory, and rejection of solidarity at the heart of both the left and the right branches of the American political community, what these groups can do is precisely what Benda himself called for them to do: to remember how to think and debate, to remember the deep origins of the best of even the liberal political idea, to fight for “the preservation or the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word.” As Dreher puts it, “dissident Christians should see their Benedict Option projects as building a better future not only for themselves but for everyone around them” (93-94).

When we say that these groups can help us exercise our political natures, this must be understood as politics in the broadest sense: They can teach us once again to be social in a rational way; they can certainly sometimes be fora for considering properly-political questions, but also for organizing beneficial projects of all kinds.

Such groups, which can (at least in theory) include both left and right, both Christians and non-Christians, can be means of blessing to both the local and the national communities. They can be training grounds for civility and reasoned debate. And these groups, too, can be a kind of salt-and-yeast in the body politic– even a kind of apologetic. Because the very process of debate, of discussion, of life in the public sphere in the liberal tradition, is one which rests on assumptions that are not those of materialism.

Those are things like the fact of a common human nature, of might that should be in service to right rather than defining it, of the value of protecting the weak, of politics that goes beyond the definition of a tribal enemy, of the possibility of rational discussion and the need to convince each other rather than to force each other to believe or do things.

All these bits of the liberal tradition were undermined by the Rousseauian/progressivist idea of the general will, which allows people now to shut down debate with those who are “on the wrong side of history.”

They were undermined too by the rejection of the idea of human nature: If we do not have rational souls as those made in God’s image, and if we are not political animals who are prone to friendship, whose telos is to live in peace with each other, then the best of liberalism has no foundation. To those who value freedom of speech, for example, we must say: Think about what that means. Why is it important that we be able to speak freely? What is it about human beings that makes discussion rather than coercion a just way to go about political life?

To those who fear a resurgence of white supremacism under Trump, we must be able to say: That kind of tribalism is only possible if one denies the vision of the world and of human nature which many secular liberals (though not all) also deny. A thoroughgoing white supremacist or neo-fascist (though the two are not identical) worldview rests precisely on a denial of the good, of true human nature and the dignity of each person, and of the possibility of real human political friendship. It’s only with a robust sense of what we share with and owe to every other person made in God’s image that we are able to also love our particular tribe, our nation, or our family, in the right context– otherwise we become pagans, who worship only the gods of the tribe.

There’s more: more ways in which such groups, and the political discussion they entail, can become a kind of evangelism. Political discussion is inevitably the discussion of the common good; we direct each others’ attention to the good that we share, and that directing is a kind of contemplative delight–and the ultimate common good is God.

And these groups can be the source of not just discussion, but of action as well: If it’s true that we do still have responsibility for and to the polity in which we live, we’ve got to see the utter necessity of doing projects for the common good, whether properly speaking the political common good or not– i.e. of making things, from parks to policies, that are not just for you and your family, but which aim at a common benefit, and which cannot properly be enjoyed alone.

These projects call out of us the kind of exercise of practical wisdom that helps form us in virtue, and requires us to act with tact and graciousness; public life together can become a kind of dance, the exchange of gifts and reasons and honor and deference and command according to the good of the one commanded; obedience in recognition of just authority, and criticism where authority is exercised unjustly. If every level of being can, in some way, reflect the divine order of the cosmos, then our job is to reflect that order as best we can—we won’t do it well, really, but we can maybe improve—in the order of each nonprofit we start, each CSA, each theater company, each neighborhood association.

That sounds grandiose, but there’s really no other way to think about how to organize such things: one wants to be gracious and fair and kind and not exploit one’s employees or volunteers, one wants to make things that are worthwhile, to cultivate the eggplants in the CSA according to the nature of eggplants rather than according to the nature of kale, and basically to show up and do well and be decent. And if one is the head of such an organization, then taking a kind of architectonic care to make sure as best one can that all these things are carried out well– delegating as appropriate– well, that’s just being a good manager. This is how we live together and do projects together; it is purely normal, as normal as planning a dinner party.

It is also in sharp contrast to the liberal vision of social life, which is inherently combative: men are not by nature political animals, in liberalism, but are naturally solitary and must be brought into relationship only by the loss of their freedom and by an artificial social contract. This loss might be worth it, but it constrains people; it’s another kind of fall. But that’s not the case: the constraint on us that enables us to live together is the constraint of the natural law, played out in particular and in many cases varied circumstances.

Political life is not possible if men do not share a common rational human nature. If we are non-rational animals, we may be subject to conditioning; if we are machines, we may be programmed; either way, with such things no political discussion and no communal life is possible.The fact that it manifestly is possible– that it happens every day– that we see it in the city around us and in our workplaces and in our friend groups and, yes, in the thick Christian communities that Dreher profiles in the book– is a strong apologetic argument in favor of a traditional Christian (and classical) anthropology. It is not only Christians, after all, who are by nature political animals, and the road to the truth of the Gospel can run through a reflection on and participation in political life of one kind or another, in seeking the good of a polity that in its own way points towards the true complete community that is the New Jerusalem.

There’s a lot to think about in the essay, and I don’t necessarily agree with everything in it. But it was worth reading.

How liberalism can destroy itself

Jake Meador recently responded to critics of Rod Dreher and similar cultural critics by arguing that they are continuing in the line of twentieth-century critics that were remarkably prescient. Here is one of the selections that he provides from T.S. Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society:

That liberalism may be a tendency towards something very different from itself, is a possibility in its nature. For it is something which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax, rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite. Our point of departure is more real to us than our destination; and the destination is likely to present a very different picture when arrived at, from the vaguer image formed in imagination.

By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.

Expressive individualism: 19th-century abolitionists and 20th-century New Leftists

In 2012, Michael Kazin analyzed Students for a Democratic Society’s Port Huron Statement for its fiftieth anniversary. He made a connection between the radicals of the 1960s and 19th-century abolitionists:

The statement managed to fuse two types of ideological advocacy that are often viewed as antagonists: first, the romantic desire for achieving an authentic self through crusading for individual rights and, second, the yearning for a democratic socialist order that would favor the collective good over freedom of the self. This fusion was wrapped in language whose utopian tone resembled that articulated by other messianic movements in American history—from the abolitionists and Owenite socialists to the Wobblies and Debsian Socialists to such radical feminists as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Emma Goldman.

The similarity to the language of the abolitionists was particularly strong. Consider this bold assertion from the Values section of the statement: “The goal of man and society should be human independence: a concern not with . . . popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic. . . .This kind of independence does not mean egotistic individualism—the object is not to have one’s way so much as it is to have a way that is one’s own.” Compare it to the late-life reflection by the anti-slavery crusader Theodore Weld: “The starting point and power of every great reform must be the reformer’s self,“ declared Weld. “He must first set himself apart its sacred devotee, baptized into its spirit, consecrated to its service, feeling its profound necessity, its constraining motives, impelling causes, and all [the] reasons why.” Devout Christians were a distinct minority at the conference; evangelical Protestants were entirely absent. But the SDSers were expressing the same ultra-romantic idea that a free society can be built only by individuals who define that freedom for themselves that had inspired fervently Protestant abolitionists more than a century before.

In this sense, Port Huron demonstrated how the new, young Left—in its rebellion against a managed society and its hunger for an authentic one—was beginning to turn back, if unintentionally, to similar impulses that had inspired Weld and such fellow crusaders as his wife, Angelina Grimke, as well as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and David Walker. Both groups insisted that one had to live one’s politics as well as preach them. Both took delight in smashing taboos about interracial sex, about the proper roles of men and women, and even about dress and diet. Both experimented with styles of communal living they believed would allow individuals to realize their “true” nature and to find happiness in doing so.

Whether pious or secular, radicals before the Civil War and their counterparts during the Cold War both struggled fiercely to free their minds and bodies from an evil society and to fill the world with individuals who aspired to perfection. The passion for self-improvement in the cause of social transformation could be found nearly everywhere on the young left in the 1960s and 1970s. “I had to find out who I am and what kind of man I should be, and what I could do to become the best of which I was capable,” confessed Eldridge Cleaver, in a neglected passage of Soul on Ice. In 1970, in his Politics of Authenticity, Marshall Berman observed, “the New Left’s complaint against democratic capitalism was not that it was too individualistic, but rather that it wasn’t individualistic enough.” In 1977, the black lesbians in the Combahee River Collective asserted, “Our politics . . . sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s but because of our need as human persons for autonomy.” So the final American Left of the industrial age gestured back, in spirit, to the first.

In addition, Jeff Greenfield’s reflections on Tom Hayden’s death connected Hayden with the young Hillary Clinton:

“The goal of man and society,” Hayden wrote, “should be human independence: a concern not with . . . popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic. . . .This kind of independence does not mean egotistic individualism—the object is not to have one’s way so much as it is to have a way that is one’s own.” (You can gauge the power of this idea by seeing its echo years later in Hillary Rodham’s famous commencement speech at Wellesley in 1969, when she said: “our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us. We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.”).

A thoughtful conservative vision for 21st-century America

The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of IndividualismThe Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism by Yuval Levin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Levin analyzes 21st-century America from a compelling perspective, seeing the widespread nostalgia for a more unified post-WWII America as one of the major political difficulties that we face. Both liberals and conservatives often have this sense of nostalgia, even if they remember different aspects of the postwar period fondly. Yet he also shows that this was a unique period proceeded by the consolidating trends of progressivism, the Depression, World War II, and the beginning of the Cold War, and that economic and cultural centralization has been giving way to individualism to a greater or lesser degree since the 1950s. As a conservative, Levin wants both liberals and especially conservatives to craft their policies in light of these trends so that institutions like family, work, and religious communities can recover their constructive roles after decades of weakening by political centralization and cultural individualism.

Levin’s interpretation of American history from roughly 1900 to the present had much to recommend it (roughly the first 100 pages of the book), and is really worth reading. The solutions that he proposes in the second half of the book are provocative as well. By the end, it seemed that Levin had reiterated his principles more than enough without the additional specific examples justify the repetition, but the principles are important enough to make that stylistic complaint unimportant.

Levin’s fits quite well with Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option“, which Levin references favorably.

View all my reviews

An evaluation of John Rawls’ political philosophy

Writing in The American Conservative in 2008, David Gordon of the Ludwig von Mises Institute gave what I thought was a helpful overview of Rawls’ strengths and weaknesses. A couple of snippets:

Biography affecting philosophy:

As Thomas Pogge has noted in his recent biography John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice, Rawls was especially sensitive to issues of luck because of a sad occurrence in his own life. Two of his brothers died in childhood because they had contracted fatal illnesses from him. Pogge calls the loss of the brothers the “most important events in Jack’s childhood.” In 1928, the 7-year-old Rawls contracted diphtheria. His brother Bobby, younger by 20 months, visited him in his room and was fatally infected. The next winter, Rawls contracted pneumonia. Another younger brother, Tommy, caught the illness from him and died.

Something that I’ve wondered about when reading A Theory of Justice:

There are other aspects to Rawls’s thought, however, that should give libertarians, and certainly conservatives, pause. Rawls never abandoned the principal tenets of his theory of justice, but in his 1993 work Political Liberalism, he changed course in one respect. He began emphasizing that in modern constitutional democracies like the United States, disagreements over fundamental values and issues such as abortion can threaten the stability of society. Given the degrees of disharmony, what are we to do?

His answer recalls the original position of TJ. Individuals should, once more, put aside their own conceptions of the good. But this time, in deliberating on these divisive issues, people must rely only on “public reason.” This consists of principles that everyone, regardless of his conception of the good, will have cause to accept. By an odd coincidence, if public reason is used properly, we will arrive at exactly the same principles as those set forward in TJ. It is difficult not to wonder whether Rawls’s enterprise is merely an attempt to find arguments in support of the political opinions of professors of his social class.

An example will show how public reason works. If your religion forbids abortion, you cannot appeal to this fact in political discussions, since religious views do not form part of public reason. Later, Rawls modified this rigid view. His final position was that you could mention your private views as long as you also had an argument from public reason to support your stand. Rawls’s introduction to the 2005 paperback edition of Political Liberalism states, “Certainly Catholics may, in line with public reason, continue to argue against the right of abortion. That the Church’s nonpublic reason requires its members to follow its doctrine is perfectly consistent with their following public reason.”

Clarence Thomas vs. the New Deal

Walter Russell Mead recently pointed to Jeffrey Toobin’s article on Clarence Thomas and his wife, Virginia. Toobin profiles Thomas’ orginalist interpretation of the Constitution and shows that Thomas is probably the most intellectually rigorous conservative justice on the Supreme Court. Toobin points out that Thomas’ thought helped to blaze a trail for the Tea Party movement. Mead writes that the recent revival of the Second Amendment as a protection for individuals’ right to own guns could possibly mean that the Tenth Amendment could eventually come into play again, which would curtail federal authority. I don’t wish to make any predictions, and I hardly have a fully thought out philosophy of constitutional law, so I’ll just leave you to read the articles if you’re interested.

Walter Russell Mead on “The Crisis of the Great Society”

In a perceptive essay, Mead discusses the rise of urban “flash mobs” and the racial tensions that they point to. While he believes (and I agree) that race relations are better now than in the past, he argues that both white and black people have a reduced connection with and trust in the elites. He points to three potential problems that our society is facing:

  1. “The unaffordable nature of the entitlement structure that has emerged from the Great Society and been much added to (and don’t forget the GOP role in the prescription drug benefit) is at the bottom of the bitter budget battles we’ve seen.”
  2. An unpopular immigration policy that will increasingly attract anger: “Our current immigration policy is a prescription for social change of vast proportions.  Since the 1960s, the US has tried an unprecedented and little discussed experiment in social engineering.  In stages over the last fifty years we have combined three bold policies.  First, a race-blind immigration policy with a visa lottery as a kind of affirmative action — so to speak — for people from countries which historically had not sent many immigrants to the US has dramatically changed the mix of people coming to the US as immigrants and over time will shift the ethnic and cultural composition of the population.  Second, the “immigration holiday” under the tight quota system from 1923 (when public concern over unrestricted immigration led to a sharp decrease) through the 1960s was ended, and the number of legal immigrants increased.  Today the US has levels of legal immigration not seen since the World War One era.  Third, for many years immigration laws have been laxly or irregularly enforced leading to the presence of something like 11 million illegal workers and residents in the country.”
  3. A sharp divide in the way that whites and blacks evaluate the impact of racial policies: “The races are very far apart today; many whites believe that by electing a Black president the country has demonstrated its commitment to post racial politics and they expect Blacks to stop complaining about the past and start thriving in the glorious, racism-free paradise of America today.  Many whites look at this Black success, and they think it is time to take down the affirmative action scaffolding that assisted the Black rise.  Why, they ask, should the children of presidents and cabinet officers — to say nothing of celebrity offspring — benefit from racial preference in hiring and admissions?

    “For Blacks, especially those who haven’t made it into the elite, unemployment and the staggering losses in Black wealth during the Great Recession are far more consequential than the success of the Black upper crust.  Much of White America thinks it has done all anyone could reasonably expect by opening the White House doors to a Black politician; much of Black America thinks little has changed.  Many whites think Blacks have effectively used politics to win themselves jobs and preferences; many Blacks think that Black poverty in the age of Obama reveals how pitiful the results of political action really are.”