Boycotts and procotts are by now commonplace and predictable, the skirmishes involving a certain fast-food chain being only the latest prominent instance. This got me thinking about the boycotting impulse, particularly when it is aligned with social issues. It seems to reflect the breakdown of public reason. What I have in mind is the situation described by Alasdair MacIntyre in the opening of After Virtue. Unable to reasonably debate differences in a consequential manner because of the absence of a broadly shared narrative of what constitutes the good life, it would seem that we are left with acts of will. Of course, in a consumer society what other form could such action take than marketplace transactions. Perhaps we can describe it as the commodification of public debate. Like war, boycotting is politics by other means. It is weaponized consumption.
“I assert that in all the cities, everyone is unaware that the character of the games played is decisive for the establishment of the laws, since it determines whether or not the established laws will persist.”
This assertion was made by Plato in The Laws (book VII) and it suggests that the political culture of a society is bound up with the nature of its games. More specifically, Plato goes on to observe that the persistence of a society’s laws is bound up with the persistence of its games:
“Where this is arranged, and provided that the same persons always play at the same things, with the same things, and in the same way, and have their spirits gladdened by the same toys, there the serious customs are also allowed to remain undisturbed; but where the games change, and are always infested with innovation and other sorts of transformations … there is no greater ruin than this that can come to a city.”
We typically remember that Plato treated music with a great deal of seriousness in The Republic, we less often hear of the seriousness with which he treated sports and games, but there it is (courtesy of James Schall from whose essay, “The Seriousness of Sports,” these quotations are drawn).
There’s a good deal to think about here.
It is not insignificant that with regards to the two great civilizations of the classical period, Greece and Rome, we readily think of games which seem to characterize their societies: the Olympics and the gladiatorial games respectively. In Constantinople, that enduring but infrequently remembered enclave of classical civilization, the Blues and the Greens which functioned as part gangs and part political associations not infrequently contributing to riots and coups began and were sustained as fans of popular charioteering teams. More recently, in Egypt, one not insignificant block of participants in the current political turmoil are bound together primarily by their love of soccer.
On a related note, perhaps at the root of soccer’s inability to take in American culture there is more than a hint about the national character (insofar as we may legitimately speak of one).
Moreover, what might it mean that for a time baseball could legitimately be called America’s sport? And what, in turn, might it mean that while baseball remains popular, it’s place in American culture has been challenged if not replaced by basketball and football? Both of these, of course, have been around for some time and it could be argued that they too are distinctly American. So perhaps we may create a political taxonomy of sorts based on the three dominate sports of American society: baseball, football, and basketball. I wonder, has anyone studied whether a preference for one of these sports is a reliable predictor of political inclinations?
Two titles come to mind in connection with the theme of play and culture. The earlier one is historian John Huzinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Elements in Culture, the first Dutch edition of which appeared in 1938. Huzinga aimed at demonstrating the elements of play that variously manifest themselves in culture. The other is a more recent work, Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution, which similarly stresses the links between play and worship.
The link between religion and sports is frequently noted and perhaps there is more to it than we usually imagine, more than the surface similarities between the worship of the religious and the devotion of the fan.
In The Laws, Plato puts the following claim in the mouth of the Athenian:
“I assert that what is serious should be treated seriously, and what is not serious should not, and that by nature god is worthy of a complete, blessed seriousness, but that what is human … has been devised as a certain plaything of god, and that this is really the best thing about it. Every man and woman should spend life in this way, playing the noblest possible games, and thinking about them …”
This is all well and good, but it seems to describe less and less the reality of sports in America. Perhaps because sport has become an end to something other than itself. Schall also cites the following from Aristotle:
“Men have been known to make amusement an end in itself … for there is indeed a resemblance; the end is not pursued for the sake of anything that may accrue thereafter but always for its own sake.”
Sports at their best, Schall notes, approach a form of contemplation:
“Here, in a way, we near what is best in ourselves, for we are spectators not for any selfish reason, not for anything we might get out of the game, money or exercise or glory, but just because the game is there and we lose ourselves in its playing, either as players or spectators. This not only should remind us that what is higher than we are, what is ultimately serious, is itself fascinating and joyful.”
It is these realizations that explain our collective fury and anger when sports is tainted with betting scandals or steroid controversies and even haggling over the distribution of dollars in the billions. In each case, the happy myth of sport played and watched for its own sake as a kind of end in itself channeling even higher realities is shattered. It is not that men and women have disappointed us –although this also is true — it is rather that the vessel of a certain secular grace has been broken and we are all the poorer for it.
I was not exactly a student of Christopher Hitchens’ work, but I often enjoyed his style, even when I didn’t quite agree with the point he was making. Fittingly, his passing occasioned not only sadness, but also beautiful prose. When your inner circle of friends consists of upper crust members of the English speaking world’s literary establishment, you’re at least assured of being remembered eloquently. And so he was. I found the reminiscences by Peter Hitchens, Ian McEwan, and Christopher Buckley particularly well penned and moving.
Christopher Buckley’s column reminded me of Hitchens’ classy obituary for William Buckley. And this in turn elicited the thought that I’d happily listen to Hitchens and Buckley go at each other indefinitely while I could hardly stomach two minutes of what we, facetiously one must hope, call a political debate.
To some, the problem with our current public and political discourse is fundamentally a lack of civility. Yet, this depends on what we might mean by civility. A friend recently suggested that the inverse is probably true. We are too civil to speak forthrightly and honestly, it is all obfuscation. In which case it is not civility that is the problem, but civility’s unseemly counterfeits — slimy flattery, ingratiation, or cowardice. In any case, compared with previous ages, our political discourse is remarkably tame.
More to the point, I would say, we have not so much a failure of civility as a failure of eloquence, made all the worse for the narcissism that frequently attends it. Few, I presume, would mind a little incivility so long as it was to the point and artfully delivered. Hitchens was the master of this sort of artfully acerbic incivility, and he deployed it to great effect. Nothing of the sort characterizes our political discourse. We are plagued instead with the shallow and inelegant shouting matches of cable news programs or that manner of speaking without saying anything mastered by politicians.
In his remembrance of William Buckley, Hitchens wrote the following:
“But on Buckley’s imperishable show, if you failed to make your best case it was your own damn fault. Once the signature Bach chords had died away, and once he’d opened with that curiously seductive intro (“I should like to begin . . . “), you were given every opportunity to develop and pursue your argument. And if you misspoke or said anything fatuous, it was unlikely to escape comment.”
Of what forum on contemporary television could this now be said? More likely if one failed to make their case, it was because they were shouted down by one of the other eight people on the “panel,” or by the “moderator.” And while some of have attributed the decline of public discourse to the entertainment values that drive television, the result has been anything but entertaining. It is all a great bore.
The problem it seems is that we have either a bland surface civility that trades in mere politeness and niceness at the expense of substantive debate and truth telling, or else we have an artless, narcissistic incivility that brings us no closer to substantive discussion. A little incivility by the former’s account in the service of an argument would be more than welcome if it was artful, but unfortunately we get only crass incivility masking the absence of argument and reason.
The better sort of civility depends on respect, humility, and courage.
Civility depends on a fundamental respect for the humanity and dignity of our interlocutors, independent, to some degree, of the opinions and ideas they may espouse. Perhaps the deeper issue here is the danger of constructing identity solely around political positions. We must be able to separate, to some degree, the person from the issue. If our identity has collapsed into our political persuasion in such a way that we cannot rationally argue about political issues without perceiving opposition as an attack on personal dignity, then meaningful argument becomes nearly impossible.
Humility is necessary to entertain the possibility of coming to think otherwise, and entertaining this possibility is indispensable to meaningful discourse. Dialogue is precluded by the belief that you alone are right or that you could not be wrong. If I were to believe that I see all things clearly were others see only partially and unclearly, then I need not listen at all.
Courage is perhaps the most multifaceted component of the equation. It allows for the possibility of speaking the unpopular and challenging the conventional. But while we often think of courage in terms of speaking, it is good to remember that it takes courage to listen as well. It takes courage to listen attentively to those with whom we disagree. It takes courage because most people do not want to be wrong about convictions that they hold dear, and the best way to ensure that you will never be proven wrong is to refuse to listen to those who disagree with you. This is why our “debates” very often amount to little more than sequential monologues.
On this account, the failure of our political class amounts to an inversion of the virtues necessary to civility; instead of respect, humility, and courage we more often than not have self-interest, arrogance, and cowardice.
I might also add humor to this list of needful virtues. That the most unserious of people appear to take themselves with such solemn seriousness is surely a symptom of our disordered society. In this environment, the only laughter to be heard is the scornful laughter of the cynic, or alternatively, the nervous laughter of a society realizing the joke is ultimately on them.
Perhaps all of this amounts to a validation of Aristotle’s view of friendship and politics. According to Aristotle, it was on friendship that the health of the city depended. Might we conclude that the failure of politics is a failure of friendship? Or better, that the failure of politics is symptomatic of the absence of friendship? We can at least conclude, tweaking Aristotle’s dictum, when people are friends they have no need of civility.
Happy Thanksgiving weekend everyone. I hope the past few days have been filled with good food, laughter, celebration, family and friends, and, of course, much gratitude. And here’s hoping that you all managed to stay clear of any Black Friday pepper-spray instances of “competitive shopping.”
We’ll start this week with a piece on cyber-security (is that still an acceptable use of “cyber-”?).
“Palantir, the War on Terror’s Secret Weapon” by Aslee Vance and Brad Stone in Business Week: Yes, Tolkien fans, you read that correctly. The highly-prized security software that had its start as PayPal’s anti-fraud program is named after the seeing-stones in The Lord of the Rings, and Palantir’s CEO unabashedly explains that the company’s mission is to “protect the Shire.” It’s an interesting company that seeks to keep its soul in what might be a seedy business. We hope they succeed, because as a friend and Tolkien enthusiast noted, “While the original Palantir were made by elves for the forces of good, they were eventually turned to evil ends. That may serve as a good allegory for those of us who get worried about Big Brother having infinite information about our lives.”
From the rather serious to a lighter piece.
“The Amazing History and the Strange Invention of the Bendy Straw” by Derek Thompson at The Atlantic: The history of technology — and yes, the bendy straw is a technology — is full of interesting and quirky stories like this which shows how much went into designing and making objects we take entirely for granted. It’s a quick read and you’ll have a great an interesting anecdote with which to
bore entertain people every time they pull out a bendy straw.
And now for a slightly whimsical take on a rather profound matter.
“The Umbrella Man” produced by Errol Morris at the NY Times: This is a great little documentary, it comes in at under seven minutes, based on the “umbrella man” that mysteriously stood on the route of JFK’s motorcade the decidedly sunny day he was shot in 1963. It finally makes a great point about our understanding and study of history.
Now, in case you were tempted to join the Black Friday madness, here is a little inoculation for you.
“Rabbi Lets Consumerism Have It Between the i’s” by Jonathan Wynne-jones and Martin Beckford in The Sydney Morning Herald. This is not a new message, but it is stated once more with some force by a prominent British Rabbi and member of the House of Lords, Jonathan Sacks. While not wanting to invoke too much self-loathing, I did find it interesting that, as the article noted, “Although religious leaders have recently used increasingly strong language to condemn banks and politicians over the financial crisis and the gap between rich and poor, few have directly criticised ordinary people for their materialism.” There is a lot of finger pointing going on these days, but seemingly very little by way of introspection. I’ll leave it at that.
Speaking of which, if you place yourself right of center on the political spectrum, you may find these two pieces from prominent conservative writers instructive:
“A Caveman Won’t Beat a Salesman” by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal
“When Did the GOP Lose Touch with Reality” by David Frum in NY Magazine
If you are left of center, here is the companion piece to Frum’s:
“When Did Liberals Become So Unreasonable” by Jonathan Chait.
I’ll leave you to answer those two questions.
Moving from politics to a very political and technological issue: energy policy.
“The Myth of Renewable Energy” by Dawn Stover in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: I’m far from expert on these matters, but this struck me as a rather grim, but well reasoned piece. The key point is straightforward: all renewable energies seem to have hidden and unsustainable factors worked in.
Not wanting to leave you on a downer this weekend, here is another sharp post from the folks at Cyborgology.
“Hipster Rivivalism: Authentic Technologies of Days Gone Past” by David Strohecker: Strohecker takes a look at the hipster fascination with vintage technologies and the quest for authenticity. It’s an interesting cultural trend as I’ve noted before here, and, I suspect, a symptom of the human condition groping for expression.
It’s a messy world out there right now, and storm clouds seem perpetually to be gathering on the horizon. At the risk of sounding trite, such times, for all of the angst they induce, can also have the effect of clarifying and reordering our priorities. I trust you still found much to be thankful for this week and, having already mentioned Tolkien, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite lines from the Two Towers. At the bleakest moment, Aragorn nonetheless manages to affirm, “Yet, dawn is ever the hope of men.”
Early on in the life of this blog I wrote a couple of posts referencing George Kennan, the American diplomat and scholar who played a seminal role in the evolution of American foreign policy in the years following the close of the Second World War. Kennan’s “Long Telegram,” for example, is generally considered to be the ur-text of containment, even if Kennan later disavowed its application. Kennan’s influence later permeated the State Department under George C. Marshall. After the Truman administration, Kennan would serve from time to time in an advisory capacity but largely as an outsider — a status he keenly felt.
Kennan once set out to write a biography of Chekhov; as Beinart dryly observes, “Bush sent a man to run Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, who had never before been posted to the Arab world. To grasp the intellectual chasm between American foreign policy toward the U.S.S.R. in 1946 and American foreign policy toward Iraq in 2003, one need only try to envision Bremer writing a biography of an Iraqi writer, or, for that matter, being able to name one.”
Perhaps I may be forgiven for a certain nostalgic and perhaps romanticized longing for a foreign policy team that featured George C. Marshall and Dean Acheson along with George Kennan. Acheson, Kennan, and four other contemporaries feature in Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas’ The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. And Kennan is the subject of a new biography by John Lewis Gaddis, dean of Cold War studies, titled George F. Kennan: An American Life.
It’s doubtful that I’ll get a chance to read Gaddis’ book any time soon, so I am glad for two long reviews that have appeared to give a taste of the whole: Louis Menand’s review in the New Yorker and Henry Kissinger’s in the NY Times. Here is the conclusion of Menand’s review:
“Still, buried within Kennan’s realism there is a moral view: that in relations of power, which is what he thought international relations ultimately are, people can’t be trusted to do the right thing. They will do what the scorpion does to the frog—not because they choose to but because it’s their nature. They can’t help it. This is an easy doctrine to apply to other nations, as it is to apply to other people, since we can always see how professions of benevolence might be masks for self-interest. It’s a harder doctrine to apply to ourselves. And that was, all his life, Kennan’s great, overriding point. We need to be realists because we cannot trust ourselves to be moralists.
This was the danger that the United States faced after Europe had destroyed itself in the Second World War. We had power over other nations to a degree unprecedented in our history, possibly in the world’s history, and it was natural for us to conclude that we deserved it. “Power always thinks it has a great soul,” as another Adams, John, once said. Containment was intended as a continual reminder that we do not know what is best for others. It is a lesson to be ignored only with humility.”
And this from Kissinger’s:
“In a turbulent era, Kennan’s consistent themes were balance and restraint. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he applied these convictions to his side of the debate as well. He testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee against the Vietnam War but on the limited ground that there was no strategic need for it. He emphasized that the threat posed by Hanoi was exaggerated and that the alleged unity of the Communist world was a myth. But he also warned elsewhere against ‘violent objection to what exists, unaccompanied by any constructive concept of what, ideally ought to exist in its place.’ He questioned the policy makers’ judgment but not their intent; he understood their dilemmas even as he both criticized and sought to join them.”
It is too easy to idealize historical figures after the more jagged edges of their performance on history’s stage have been smoothed over by the passage of time. But I cannot help but think that Kennan — and Acheson and Marshall — represented a seriousness that at times seems to be wholly absent from the present political scene.
Kennan had his contradictions and, being human, he was not without flaws and blind spots. And yet, we might safely conclude that he was no fool, and that, regrettably, seems to be more than we can say as we survey the population of our present political landscape. We are in the thrall of great frivolity and there is a disheartening lack of seriousness to our political discourse. And little wonder, we seem long ago to have lost the patience for intellectual rigor and nuance. That a diplomat would undertake the biography of a foreign literary figure is likely to strike us as a waste of resources.
The realities of lived, concrete experience demand a certain provisionality and openness, anchored by deep learning, that issues in practical wisdom. This wisdom coupled with moral courage is what the times demand. And, if I may be pardoned a moment of unseemly cynicism, it is precisely this package of virtues that our political discourse seems to forbid by the logic of the media ecosystem in which it plays out. In this environment our political options have calcified into grotesque parodies of themselves and it is at times hard to be hopeful.
In his 1994 memoir, Kennan wrote,
“… let us, acting on the principle that peoples tend, over the long run, to get the kind of government they deserve, leave the peoples of these ‘nondemocratic’ countries to be governed or misgoverned as habit and tradition may dictate …”
The principle that “peoples tend, over the long run, to get the kind of government they deserve” may not always be a fair historical assessment, but if there is even a grain of truth to it, as I suspect there is, then this does not bode well for us.
Before they started belting out ’80s power ballads, the band Chicago put out more, how shall we say … politically interesting music. Having recently heard David McCullough, Harry Truman had been on my mind, and today I remembered that Chicago released a song titled “Harry Truman” back in 1975.
In the wake of the Watergate scandal it’s easy to see why the song did so well on the charts, peaking at #13. Today it might race to #1.
by Robert Lamm
America needs you
Harry could you please come home
Things are looking bad
I know you would be mad
To see what kind of men
Prevail upon the land you love
How we got here
Harry all we get is lies
We’re gettin’ safer cars
Rocket ships to mars
From men who’d sell us out
To get themselves a piece of power
We’d love to hear you speak your mind
In plain and simple ways
Call a spade a spade
Like you did back in the day
You would play piano
Each morning walk a mile
Speak of what was going down
With honesty and style
Harry you know what to do
The world is turnin’ round and losin’ lots of ground
Oh Harry is there something we can do to save the land we love
A little bit of politics, religion, parenting, plagiarism … you know, all the stuff you’re not supposed to talk about at the dinner table. Plus one surprise for you at the end. Hope you have a lovely weekend.
“Pew’s Must See Picture of US Politics” by Rod Dreher at The American Conservative: Dreher provides an overview of the recently released Pew Center Political Typology Report, its first since 2005. Some interesting, counter-intuitive findings. Follow his link to the Pew page and you can take the survey to find out where you are in the Pew Typology.
“Varieties of irreligious experience” by Jonathan Rée in New Humanist: “The dividing lines between religiosity and secularism, or between belief and disenchantment, are not getting any clearer as time goes by, and if there has been a lot of traffic travelling from the camp of religion to the camp of disbelief in the past couple of centuries, it has followed many different paths, and is bound for many different destinations.” Well written piece in a Jamesian key on the subtleties of dis-belief in traditional religion.
“The Evolution of Data Products” by Mike Loukides at O’Reilly Radar: Helpful piece on the evolution and future trajectory of data and data products. “Data products are striving for the same goal: consumers don’t want to, or need to, be aware that they are using data. When we achieve that, when data products have the richness of data without calling attention to themselves as data, we’ll be ready for the next revolution.”
“What if the Secret to Success is Failure” by Paul Tough at the NY Times Magazine: Longish piece on efforts to instill character education in schools. “This push on tests is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human.” “Our kids don’t put up with a lot of suffering. They don’t have a threshold for it. They’re protected against it quite a bit. And when they do get uncomfortable, we hear from their parents.”
“Uncreative Writing” by Kenneth Goldsmith at the The Chronicle of Higher Ed: Be warned, this piece may make you angry. Author argues the virtues of plagiarism claiming that writing must adjust to the conditions brought about by the computer, although there is a trajectory leading to this moment that pre-dates the computer. Some interesting points — it’s not a “crazy” piece — but my response is mixed.
And, last but not least, an impressive and surprising rendition of the national anthem from someone you wouldn’t have guessed could pull it off: watch it here.
I could understand if some found David B. Hart’s prose a bit overdone. I, however, am usually delighted by it. Here is particularly well-crafted paragraph from Hart’s recent musing at First Things:
Yet our system obliges us to elevate to office precisely those persons who have the ego-besotted effrontery to ask us to do so; it is rather like being compelled to cede the steering wheel to the drunkard in the back seat loudly proclaiming that he knows how to get us there in half the time. More to the point, since our perpetual electoral cycle is now largely a matter of product recognition, advertising, and marketing strategies, we must be content often to vote for persons willing to lie to us with some regularity or, if not that, at least to speak to us evasively and insincerely. In a better, purer world—the world that cannot be—ambition would be an absolute disqualification for political authority.
Of course, it’s not just the style that matters in that paragraph — Hart does have a significant point to make — but I am willing to bet you will never hear or read the phrase “ego-besotted effrontery” again. The whole essay, cast in Hart’s distinctive whimsical, world-weary tone, is worth taking a few minutes to peruse. In case it is one click too far, here is the closing paragraph and its good counsel:
. . . one can be grateful of the liberties one enjoys, and use one’s franchise to advance the work of trustworthier politicians (and perhaps there are more of those than I have granted to this point), and pursue the discrete moral causes in which one believes. But it is good also to imagine other, better, quite impossible worlds, so that one will be less inclined to mistake the process for the proper end of political life, or to become frantically consumed by what should be only a small part of life, or to fail to see the limits and defects of our systems of government. After all, one of the most crucial freedoms, upon which all other freedoms ultimately depend, is freedom from illusion.
In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, religious violence tore across Europe. The Wars of Religion, culminating with the Thirty Years’ War, left the continent scarred and exhausted. Out of ashes of war the secular nation state arose to establish a new political order which privatized religion and enshrined reason and tolerance as the currency of the public sphere ensuring an end to irrational violence.
That is one of the more familiar historical narratives that we tell ourselves. It is sweeping and elegant in its scope and compelling in its explanatory power. There’s only one problem according to William Cavanaugh: it’s not true. Cavanaugh lays out his case in his most recent book, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford UP, 2009). Needless to say, he has his work cut out for him. The narrative he seeks to deconstruct is deeply entrenched and we’ve staked a lot on it. His point, to be clear, is not that religion has never been implicated in violence. As he puts it elsewhere, “Given certain conditions, Christianity, Islam, and other faiths can and do contribute to violence.” Rather, he is contesting the particular historical narrative whereby the secular nation state arises in response to religious violence in order to secure peace for society by marginalizing religious practice and discourse.
To begin with, Cavanaugh demonstrates that the very concept of religion is problematic and thus renders any neat parsing of violence into either religious or secular categories tenuous at best. Moreover, the nation state precedes the so called wars of religion and is best seen as a contributing cause, not an effect of the wars. The historical realities of the wars resist the simplistic “Wars of Religion” schema anyway. For example, during the Thirty Years’ War, Catholics were at times fighting other Catholics and sometimes in league with Protestants. The Thirty Years’ War as it turns out was a scramble by competing dynasties and rising national governments to fill the power vacuum created by the collapse of the medieval political order. Furthermore, Cavanaugh suggests that the state co-opted and assumed for itself many of the qualities of the church creating, as one reviewer put it, “its own sacred space, with its own rituals, hymns, and theology, and its own universal mission.” In the end, the secular nation state, particularly in its 20th century totalitarian apotheosis, hardly appears as the champion of reason, peace, and tolerance. The nation state secured its status by monopolizing the use of coercive force. In doing so, however, it clearly did not put an end to violence.
Cavanaugh presents a counter-intuitive thesis and he takes care to make his case. It is a case he has been working out since 1995 when, as a graduate student, he published “‘A fire strong enough to consume the house:’ The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the Nation State.” In the intervening years he has honed and strengthened his argument which finds mature expression in the The Myth of Religious Violence.
Whether one ultimately agrees with Cavanaugh’s thesis or not, his work highlights two important considerations regarding historical narratives. First, historical reality is usually more complex than the stories we tell, and the complexity matters. We are living through a cultural moment when historical awareness is a rare commodity, so perhaps we shouldn’t complain too much about shallow historical knowledge when the alternative may be no historical knowledge. But that said, much of what does pass for historical knowledge too frequently is filtered through Hollywood, the entertainment industry, or the talk-show circuit, and for all these subtlety must necessarily be sacrificed to the demands of the medium. The big picture sometimes is painted at the expense of important details, so much so that the big picture is rendered misleading.
Perhaps most days of the week, this is not a terribly important consideration. But it can become very significant under certain circumstances. When a historical narrative is hotly contested and passionately defended it is usually because the real battle is over the present. Consider heated debates about the Christian or secular origins of the American constitutional order, or arguments over the causes of the American Civil War and Southern identity. Leaving the terrain of American history, consider the Armenian genocide, the Japanese atrocities at Nanking, or the the tangled history of the Balkans. In each case the real issue is clearly not the accuracy of our historical memory so much as it is the perceived implications for the present. In other words, we fight for our vision for the present on the battlefield of the past. This raises a host of other questions related to the status of arguments from history, philosophies of history, and historiography. These sorts of questions, however, are rarely raised at rallies or on television — it would be hard to fit them on a placard or in a 10 second sound bite.
A debate about the origins of the modern nation state is likewise about more than historical accuracy. Critics of religion and the place of religion in public life, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris for example, have made the historical narrative we began with a key component of their case — religion kills, the secular state saves. Cavanaugh has offered the compelling rejoinder.
Either way it appears Faulkner was right: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
You can listen to a lecture and link to a number of essays by Cavanaugh here.
Glenn Beck drew a crowd and a good deal of commentary from across the political and religious spectrum. I wasn’t at Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally this past weekend and I haven’t spoken to any one who was, but I did come across a number of articles, editorials, and blog posts that offered their take on what was going on. Needless to say, it wasn’t all positive. But, as if to demonstrate that people remain more complex than our tendency to reduce the world into binary oppositions suggests, the most scathing review I read came from conservative, Southern Baptist seminary professor Russell Moore, and one of the more self-consciously open-minded pieces came from the LGBT Editor of Religion Dispatches, Alex McNeill. Ross Douthat, who was at the rally, offered his take on the political implications of the “apolitical” rally in his NY Times editorial and a follow-up blog post.
There is not much that I would care to add. I’m basically in agreement with Moore, but rather preferred the sensibility to the actual people at the rally demonstrated by McNeil. But thinking about the rally put me in mind to comment on a couple of other pieces I’d read within the last few days. Beck (along with Limbaugh, Hannity, and company) tends to symbolize for many people the marriage of free market economics with cultural conservatism that came to dominate the political right from the late ’70′s through the present. Essentially it is the Reagan coalition. But what if that marriage was an inherently unstable mixture?
Sometime ago I was struck by a particular formulation offered by historian Eric Miller of Christopher Lasch’s critique of the both ends of the political spectrum. According to Lasch, both ends harbored a fatal tension. The Left called for socially conscious and active individuals while promoting a vision of the self that was atomized and unencumbered. The Right called for the preservation of moral tradition and community while promoting an economic order that undermined those very institutions. This remains, to my mind, a very apt summation of our current political situation.
In two recent essays, Philip Blond and Jonny Thakkar call for what they have respectively termed Red Toryism and Left Conservatism. Neither Blond nor Thakkar cite Lasch, but they each channel Lasch’s analysis of the inner tension within modern conservatism’s attachment to free market ideology.
In “Shattered Society,” Blond, a London based academic turned political activist, laments the loss of mediating institutions which sheltered individuals from the power of the state and the market.
The loss of our culture is best understood as the disappearance of civil society. Only two powers remain: the state and the market. We no longer have, in any effective independent way, local government, churches, trade unions, cooperative societies, or civic organizations that operate on the basis of more than single issues. In the past, these institutions were a means for ordinary people to exercise power. Now mutual communities have been replaced with passive, fragmented individuals.
And according to Blond, “Neither Left nor Right can offer an answer because both ideologies have collapsed as both have become the same.” The left lives by an “agenda of cultural libertarianism” while the right espouses an agenda of “economic libertarianism,” and there is, in Blond’s view, little or no difference between them. They have both contributed to a shattered society. “A vast body of citizens,” Blond argues, “has been stripped of its culture by the Left and its capital by the Right, and in such nakedness they enter the trading floor of life with only their labor to sell.”
In the provocatively titled, “Why Conservatives Should Read Marx,” Thakkar argues that there is no compelling reason for conservatives to wed themselves to free market ideology. He cites Samuel Huntington who described conservatism as a “‘situational’ ideology which necessarily varies from place to place and time to time …” “The essence of conservatism,” Huntington believed, “is the passionate affirmation of the values of existing institutions.”
Following anthropologist Arnold Gehlen, Thakkar assumes that habits and routines and the cultural institutions that support them are necessary for human flourishing. These culturally inculcated habits and routines function as instincts do for other animals. Apart from them we would be “prone to unbearable cognitive overload.” A predicament that is all the more palpable at present than when Gehlen wrote in the middle of the last century.
But following Marx, Thakkar believes that it is in the nature of capitalism to undermine existing social and cultural institutions. The reason is simple. Competition necessarily drives technological innovation (not necessarily a bad thing of course!), and technological innovation in the realm of economic production elicits social change as well. “To the degree that technological change is built into capitalism,” Thakkar summarizes, “so must institutional change be. In every single generation certain institutions will become obsolete, and with them their attendant practices and values.”
Whatever one may think about the merits of this process, it certainly isn’t inherently conservative. As Thakkar writes further on, “In theory it is possible to be an economic libertarian and a social conservative; in practice the two are irreconcilable.”
You can read both pieces to get the whole of their respective arguments as well as their proposals for moving forward. Neither Thakkar nor Blond claim to be against the free market, but they are both in favor of re-prioritizing the health of society, particularly its mediating institutions. In Blond’s view, this can lead to a “popular capitalism” that entails “a market economy of widely disbursed property, of multiple centers of innovation, of the decentralization of capital, wealth, and power.”
For Thakkar, this means pursuing a “commitment to think each case through on its own merits: if something is harmful or unjust, we should try to change it; but if something valuable is being destroyed, we should try to conserve it,” rather than blindly submitting to the demands of the growth economy.
Whether we agree with the details of their policy suggestions or not, it seems to me that both Thakkar and Blond, like Lasch before them, have perceptively diagnosed the inner tensions of the political right (and left) and the cultural consequences of those tensions.