The Idiots in
Dec 21st, 2009
I believe that there is an increasing divide between the work done in academia and the broader public. This is problematic for both domains, in my view. Many academics have become increasingly specialized, and not only unable, but uninterested in connecting their work to concerns of the broader public. The public increasingly regards academics as irrelevant and somewhat silly (not without justification). At the same time, a great deal of sloppy and short-term thinking dominates our air-waves, and public opinion is decreasingly informed by thoughtful and long-term viewpoints. It is an unhealthy situation.
I thought that I could use some of the newer media in ways that they are not always used – that is, not to emote or tell people my lunch plans, but to strive to connect some of my work and knowledge from the academic sphere as they connect to contemporary affairs for a wider reading public. My goal has been (I hope) in particular to deepen some of our political understanding and vocabulary, to make visible to more readers some of the deepest presuppositions of modern politics and even the deeper philosophical ideas that inform discrete political issues. By enlarging the view and elongating the perspective, I also hoped that some other overlooked possibilities might be entertained – particularly beyond the worn and largely unproductive contemporary political positions adopted by the Right and the Left.
As for “success” – I am gratified that I have attracted more readers than I could have justifiably thought interested in my “unorthodox” ideas, but I don’t for a moment overestimate my chances for “success.” I think I, and others like me, understand that we are engaged in a long-term project of attempting to restore or create a different culture that will take many many years, and whose success is anything but guaranteed.
As you commented in your post “What I Saw in Europe,” conservatism does not stick to conventional American labels. “Communitarianism” exists with leftish labels as well, probably just as misleading. Is genuine conservatism incompatible with global capitalism?
I think a genuine conservatism is incompatible with global capitalism – and, moreover, other than the historical happenstance of “strange bedfellows” being forged by the Cold War, support for global capitalism would never have been confused with conservatism. Historically, arguments for globalism, “cosmopolitanism,” commerce and the breakdown of borders has been defended by liberals. This was, among other things, the great project of the Enlightenment. Conservatives historically opposed these ambitions, understanding that at base there lie a hostility to culture and tradition. In most European political systems, the position that we sometimes call “conservative” (or, at times, “Libertarian”) is called by its proper name – Liberal. Conservatism is better understood (and historically originates) with a defense of the local, the customary, the traditional; moreover, as a set of beliefs that stress the ancient and Christian virtues, it is at best uncomfortable, and probably more often needs to be critical, of the greed and concupiscence that underlies the unbridled capitalist system.
You end your book Democratic Faith with a discussion of Abraham Lincoln, who stated his idea of democracy was “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master,” which you relate to an admission of human imperfection necessary for democracy and often absent from more recent advocates of democracy, like Rorty. However, is your strong statement in favor of human equality on the basis of our common lack of knowledge compatible with traditional structures such as Kirkian conservatism and the hierarchy of the Catholic church? If so, how can they be synthesized?
My main ambition in that book was to show that many, even most, contemporary proponents of “democracy” (by which they mean a moral and cultural way of life, rather than a more narrowly conceived set of political institutions) are only able to generate sufficient support for such an ideal of democracy premised upon the idea of a transformed humanity – particularly one that has overcome the narrow confines of egotism and self-interest. This is a gussied-up version of the longstanding Marxist and progressivist dream, in effect.
At the same time, democracy is also widely defined as a way of life that permits nearly unlimited freedom – autonomy and individual fulfillment. There is a contradiction at the heart of much modern democratic theory, which simultaneously believes that it is possible to achieve autonomy and a form of self-abnegation. I think one sees this contradiction in the work of John Rawls, and has its deepest roots in the thought of Kant (and Rousseau).
I want to defend a different, “realist” conception of democracy, one that begins by forefronting the notions of human fallibility, limitation and even the propensity for sin. Such a democracy also, by necessity, requires high degrees of cultivation in virtue, above all, self-government. It is premised upon Aristotle’s understanding of citizenship as “ruling and being ruled in turn.” Such a democracy requires fairly small-scale and local ways of life, the best cradles for the cultivation of virtue and a proper sense of limits. Such a democracy premises its equality above all on our shared insufficiency and even ignorance (in contrast to “equal opportunity” or an abstract set of rights).
This view has two interesting consequences. First, there is a strong sense of shared governance in appropriate spheres of life (we might say that it accords well with the Catholic principle of subsidiarity – deference to the most competent and most local authority on appropriate issues). Second, it allows for a certain “inequality” in the form of acknowledgement of the diversity and dispersion of gifts, while requiring of us to understand that our respective gifts are for the benefit of the common weal. The best articulation of this view is I Corinthians 12, in which Paul lays out the relative relationship of parts and whole, of body and the individuals that constitute it. And, as Paul lays out there, it is a conception of human organization based upon love, not interest; but also imperfection, as we always “see through a glass darkly.”
Is it fair to describe democracy as currently conceived as an object of often extreme and irrational faith as simply another aspect of focus on technology at the expense of humanity, coupled by the fantastic technological advance of the past couple centuries? Perhaps this will conclude with the concept of democracy breaking up into two parts, those who are concerned primarily with whether or not people are pulling levers on the proper day and those whose primary allegiance is to a Toquevillean concept of democratic culture.
To continue in line with my previous answer, many modern proponents of democracy believe that true democracy will only be achieved when we have overcome all “particularity.” The root of the contradiction of modern democratic theory is the idea that there are only two justifiable and desirable conditions of humankind – the radically individuated monad and the globalized world community. Any intermediate grouping or belonging is seen as arbitrary and the locus of limitations – hence, unjust. The idea is that we can only achieve love for humankind when we have overcome all of our particular loves – family, community, culture, Church, nation, etc. Those particular loves are obstacles to the achievement of the love of mankind – what Auguste Comte called “the Religion of Humanity.”
Technology is of particular assistance here (including the “technology” of modern economics). Technology aids and abets the modern project of eviscerating attachments to local places and cultures. Not long ago, thinkers like Emerson and Dewey praised the liberating and transformative potential of the railroads and telegraph; today, it is the internet and Facebook.
We need to see that longstanding critiques and attacks upon particularity (e.g., the family) have their basis in this basic underlying belief. I have to say, in this regard, that “conservatives” (qua liberals) have been complicit in this regard, particularly by advancing a globalized form of economics. There are very few defenders of “particularity,” or mediation. Tocqueville was certainly one.
Along these lines, what thinkers, theorists and artists should our readers, especially American readers, be aware of that they might not otherwise be?
Obviously, Tocqueville is the preeminent thinker who foresaw these trajectories. He at once saw our future was one of extreme individualism and a kind of religious pantheism. These two conditions are at the heart of the moder democratic contradiction.
Other thinkers who saw this include one you’ve mentioned – Russell Kirk – as well as Robert Nisbet, who saw this very clearly. Christopher Lasch was well aware of this dynamic. While not an American author, an author whom Americans should read in this regard is Pierre Manent. I would also add another Frenchman who spent a good amount of time in the U.S. – Bertrand de Jouvenel. One of the most significant
thinkers of the 20th century, and grossly overlooked in my view. Lastly, I’d point to the writings of my teacher, Wilson Carey McWilliams. He is not as well known as he should be, but I hope to remedy that in part with the publication of several book collections of his many fine essays.
You are big on peak oil, but seem to see it as a moral chastisement of our greed. You almost seem to welcome it, as the death knell of liberalism. Come now, even if it is true, nuclear is not much more expensive than oil in the long run, and the world has huge amounts of coal. Aren’t the arguments against oil more environmental and strategic – and against liberalism, sociological? Isn’t “peak oil” too easy a solution?
I have at times adopted a tone of Jeremiad about “peak oil,” in part because – like the prophets of old – it seems that only fear will move people to change their ways (and it hasn’t worked that well, I’ll admit, just as it was always temporary with the ancient Jews as well). I think there is great systemic danger in the not-distant future due to a coming (or already arrived) energy crisis. This will be a traumatic experience for a civilization that has been built around the assumption of permanently cheap energy. I would submit that our economic crisis, our debt crisis, and our moral crisis are all pieces of this larger energy crisis. Because our way of thinking treats problems as separate and discrete, we tend not to see their deeper connections. I would be happy to elaborate on this, but won’t presume to take up the space to lay this out in this venue. The thinker who has best articulated the contemporary tendency to treat all problems as “parts” while ignoring the whole is Wendell Berry.
Our deeper crisis is our inability to live within our means. Our current use of energy is based upon the presumed ownership (and destruction) of geologic energy. The energy we are using to power our civilization is not “current use” (i.e., the daily and annual input from the sun and its related sources), but the accumulation of millenia of stored sunlight. We are basically running our civilization by exploiting energy that is not “ours” – it is a gift (and perhaps curse) from the past. We are like the prodigal son, spending our inheritance without thought for tomorrow. Our energy crisis is not just supply – it’s an accompanying philosophy of profligacy.
The profligate use of energy allows us to live in many ways without thinking about the consequences of our actions – to a significant extent, because we have spare energy to deal with the problems that our profligacy generates. This is where I think we are reaching a point of diminishing returns (or, at least a conservative mindset would be wary of this prospect). More and more of our energy (and energy-related value, such as money) is being spent dealing with the problems that our high-energy way of life has generated. This is in keeping with basic principles of thermodynamics – we are constantly generating increasing levels of entropy through the dissolution of gargantuan amounts of energy, requiring more energy to deal with the entropic outputs (i.e., “waste” and dissipation. It’s interesting to note that “dissipation” has both a physical and moral meaning, and I don’t think this is a coincidence). Because our way of thinking and life does not connect the input and use of energy with the entropic waste and dissipation we are producing, we don’t recognize that our “energy crisis” is far more than a problem of supply. It’s more fundamentally a problem of waste, dissipation and diminishing returns. And because we aren’t making that connection, we think the solution to our problem lies in digging up MORE energy for our use, rather than recognizing that so many problems are generated by our profligacy and unjustified generational theft of the world for current use.
What, in your view, underlies the recent political alliance between “social conservatives” and “economic conservatives” in the U.S. Republican Party? To what extent is there an inherent logic to that alliance, and to what extent is it an historical contingency? Has it served social conservatives well? Insofar as it has not, what realistic political alternatives exist, or, if none exist, how might some be created? If none exist or can be created, can social conservatives preserve and strengthen their own subculture without isolating themselves from the ambient culture? Or is the best that they can hope for to persist as a self-isolated “remnant,” a bit like the Amish?
I attended a recent conference that gathered together many conservatives seeking to repair our culture and reclaim our legacy. Interspersed with laments about the decline of our culture was an ongoing insistence that we also needed to support policies that advanced economic growth and prosperity. There was little evidence of any reflection on the ways that economic growth and prosperity – certainly as pursued in our globalized market economy – might be a major, maybe THE major, agent in undermining the health of culture that was being lamented from the other side of their mouths. This remains a legacy of the Cold War, but more: I suspect that there is a willful resistance on the part of many conservatives to resist raising this sort of discomfiting question, because it is easy and self-flattering for us to claim that there is no tension or even contradiction between economic prosperity (and the kind of ethic required for its attainment) – and a healthy culture. Thus, there is the effort to blame sources other than the very success of our economic system for the decline of our culture. One culprit frequently fingered for leading to our cultural demise is “government.” But, in the same breath, government is accused of doing nothing well. How can it be the case that government does nothing well, but has been exceedingly good at corrupting modern culture? I do wonder.
I don’t know whether the twenty years that now separates us from the end of the Cold War are sufficient to allow us space to begin to ask these questions. There are many powerful interests marshaled to keep interests the way they are currently aligned. Dissenting voices are disorganized and don’t fall easily into either reigning political camp (nor are they powerfully financed with corporate money and supported with think tanks). Part of the reason I joined the efforts at “Front Porch Republic
” is with a view to try to forge a different kind of political (and intellectual) alliance.
In a 1995 interview titled Salt of the Earth, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope), said:
““Perhaps the time has come to say farewell to the idea of traditionally Catholic cultures. Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world — that let God in. … The Church of tomorrow will be a Church of minority. … If society in its totality is no longer a Christian environment, just as it was not in the first four or five centuries, the Church herself must form cells in which mutual support and a common journey, and thus the great vital milieu of the church in miniature, can be experienced and put into practice.”
How might people of faith form such “cells” in a society where self-segregation is largely illegal? Religiously defined compacts such as those that first settled New England, and generated diverse 19th-century religious Utopian experiments, are now illegal in the U.S. For example, an effort to create a religiously homogeneous workplace workplace community (even to the extent of limiting employment to people of any Judeo-Christian faith) is federally criminalized as religious discrimiantion in the workplace. Should post-Christendom Christians, like Jews after the fall of Jerusalem, “fence the Torah” ?If so, how can they if self-segregation is forbidden by the state? The Romans posed many challenges to Judaism, but this was not among them; they did not forbid self-segregation from the ambient culture.
I’m hardly someone to gainsay the wisdom of this extraordinary Pope. I do think that the Church will increasingly need to be populated by “creative minorities” who see themselves in opposition to, rather than the guiding spirit of, the culture. This is a difficult challenge for a religion that once WAS the culture. And, a high degree of circumspection is also needed, including this very hard question: if once the Church WAS the culture, how was it so completely swamped and overturned? Again, the easy path is to blame the external contagion, whether Protestantism, the Enlightenment, secularism, etc. But perhaps the Church as also complicit, and I’d be willing to argue that there are ways that it was – including the maintenance of its earthly power. The critiques of Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank need to be taken very seriously by Catholics – in particular, the consequences of “Constantinianism” need to be seriously pondered. The strong intermingling of Church and State ultimately has proven destructive of the Church, not the State (we see this especially in Europe, where that relationship was stronger than in the U.S.), and this may be further reason for a kind of “withdrawal” of communities of witnesses. Still, it could also say that without some feet in the world, there would have been no Catholic culture and no Christendom. So, a forthright and honest assessment needs to be undertaken.
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