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Friday, May 01, 2020

Why Liberalism Failed (Deneen) (VI): Unsustainable Liberalism

Deneen begins functionally his first chapter with the goal of defining liberalism as he is using it in this book, and then with the goal of affirming that which is good in liberalism--with the attendant recognition that liberalism in the political-philosophical sense is very popular. In his view, as stated earlier, liberalism stands unchallenged among competing ideologies in terms of not only its popularity, but its success in achieving its aims.

He says that no other ideology had proved as successful in upholding the liberty which is fundamental to human desire and dignity. Liberalism proved especially attractive, he says, to those who were accustomed to arbitrary rule, to extreme poverty, or to social isolation. Deneen will argue that liberalism has proved most insidious because it redefines terms like "liberty" but with different, less sound philosophical bases.

Deneen says that liberalism is distinctive in its rejection of older mores and traditions, which its advocates like John Locke and Francis Bacon, believed to be injurious to the absolute freedom at the heart of the liberal project. The Christian emphasis upon virtue, as inherited from the ancient Greeks, was said to be unrealistic, and only intermittently achieved in the lives of a few individuals, and therefore, not a proper basis for the foundation of a political philosophy. Deneen points out that Machiavelli also rejected the older emphasis on virtue for the same reasons, and we might say--with appreciation to the fictional character George Smiley--that "acquisitive instincts" are more evidently apparent in the human animal. Machiavelli therefore believed that the powerful should operate according to what they observed, and to play different groups of people in society against each other. He offers this advice in his most famous work of course, for the sake of helping his sovereign acquire power, but it testifies to an emerging consensus within the liberal thinkers that dividing people against each other was a safeguard against the possible tyranny of few or one acquiring the most power.

Beyond the rejection of the older virtue ethics, Deneen says that liberalism advocates a voluntarist conception of choice. I am no philosopher, but what I understand him to be saying in practical terms is that voluntarism affirms the individual in accepting only those obligations which he or she chooses. I spoke in another post about the binding nature of obligations which are not chosen. In fact, as we think about that, to reject absolute autonomy is to accept obligations which are not chosen. Deneen would seem to agree that this is a good definition, because he spends a lot of the chapter talking about the looser nature of agreements between people, even in matters of marriage and family. This concern will not be new to the readers of this blog, I trust. It is frankly provocative and worthy of consideration to reckon with the notion that family breakdown is at least partly driven by economic and political imperatives given to us by liberalism. I have a sense that we will return to this at a later point in these reflections.

Another fundamental aspect of liberalism's distinctness and danger according to Deneen is its advocacy of the human mastery over nature. It might be better to call this "against nature," and if it is true, that would place this tenet of liberalism in direct contradiction with the Thomistic concept that grace builds upon nature, but does not destroy it. There is a harmony in this part of the argument with Pope Francis's rejection of the so-called "technocratic paradigm," because that paradigm conceives of human beings as mere instruments. Moreover, it conceives of people themselves as separate from the created order, and not a part of it. The autonomous self for Francis Bacon could conquer nature, and bend it to his will, rather than submitting to his place within the created order and its natural hierarchy. For my part, it starts to make a lot of sense that epistemic skepticism would come along with the rise of liberalism, because the older tradition of epistemology essentially says that we discover the truth about the world, not creating it, or naming it ourselves. In that consideration, we can see the philosophical nominalism of Ockham, and the harmful separation between universals, and particular instances of things. I see the prevalence of "science" functioning as a metaphysics, precisely because Bacon has taught us that knowing and following the scientific method makes us supposed masters of the known universe. I digress. I want to be careful here, because "nature" in the Catholic philosophical sense is not identical to the natural world, as such. But given the rejection of pre-modern thought by the Enlightenment thinkers, the destruction of the natural world is implied by the rejection of the hierarchy in things, and the instrumentalization which follows.

The authentic inherent liberty of a human being as a free creature has been hijacked, according to Deneen, to be redefined as a complete absence of external constraint, except as modified by the state with whom the individual negotiates his or her rights. If Deneen is correct, then the very concept of "religious liberty" is a chimera, a concession to religious practice the state allows for the sake of peace, but which in reality it only allows to the extent which it is able to control. That particular idea, it seems to me, has not been articulated by Deneen in its full force in this book. However, it seems to be the correct implication of the philosophy of John Rawls. We are living in Rawls's philosophy; the only question for Deneen's argument is whether this philosophy is the endpoint of liberalism's principles.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Rejecting Nationalism And Its Word Games

There's a slur going around: "globalist". I guess it means that some secret cabal of radically liberal bankers or power brokers is controlling the world, and encouraging mass immigration, along with other disasters real and imagined. It absolutely blows me away that the American administration eventually embraced the term "nationalist". I know we're 75 years on from the end of World War II, but you would think we could at least learn the basic lesson of the war: that nationalism, as a reckless patriotism that uses the love of country against people in other lands--in domination, violence, and murder--should be avoided.

I don't even have a strong opinion about unchecked immigration. Frankly, we still have a lot of open space over here. We're not full, as it were. As soon as you say anything to the effect that crossing the southern border of the United States isn't in itself a grave crime, someone replies, "Don't you believe in borders?" As if I want the United States to disappear, simply by keeping things in perspective. We're full of lies concerning immigration, and many surrounding issues which involve visitors to the United States, either invited, or uninvited. We believe wrongly that illegal immigrants take jobs from us. They don't. We believe that corporations and other businesses end up depressing the wages of American workers here, because they pay illegal immigrants less than they could legally get away with paying a citizen. I must confess, I don't follow the logic here. I don't know that many middle-aged white American guys that are rushing out to pick strawberries in the California sun. The moral difficulty is in the fact that someone is paying anyone less than a just wage, rather than who it is, and where they came from. I'm happy to be called naïve for saying that the basic contours of my immigration policy are written on the Statue of Liberty. Even for us to say that we ought to prefer high skilled workers, and highly educated workers, doesn't make sense to me. A human being that does what he or she needs to do in order to live in any place contributes the benefit of simply being a human being. There could be a legitimate argument that we don't want to take in the poor, tired, huddled masses, and put them all on welfare. Fine. But our welfare policies aren't that generous anyway; we ought to do better by our own people in this regard. Welfare is a drop in the bucket, and we act like our whole economy would collapse, if we had a few million beleaguered Mexicans or Guatemalans on the rolls. I don't take this seriously. And I live in Missouri. I see support for immigration restrictionism in Missouri. Even if we assume that every single person who opposes more visitors to the United States has no racist thoughts whatsoever, there are no giant hordes of people pouring into Missouri with guns and spears to destroy our way of life. I'm exaggerating here, because I think we need to get to what's actually underneath the polite phrases and euphemisms that people use. Some people think that if they use multisyllabic words about immigration, their position is sensible, compassionate, and high-minded. Actually no, a position must actually be sensible, compassionate, and high-minded.

Moreover, every time I look with any detail about what we actually do with respect to immigration, I am horrified. The United States of America has quotas for each country, and they are shockingly low, in every case. This new nationalism tries to make a big moral mountain out of the illegality of crossing the border in an irregular fashion, while the actual process to properly become a US citizen is itself a crime against humanity. And then once someone is in an irregular status by doing the normal human thing of trying to live and survive in a better place, we don't make it very easy to get on the right side of the law. If you trap someone in the state of being a lawbreaker and provide no remedy, and no way of restitution, you are the monster. You are the criminal. This is to say nothing about acts of inhumanity directly committed toward immigrants themselves. In a world where Joe Arpaio holds his head high as a free man, I am flatly ashamed to be an American. I hope I offend someone with that sentence, because you need to be offended, and then you need to repent before God.

Don't even bother to send me news stories about illegal immigrants who kill people; again, the relevant fact of an illegal immigrant killer is that he or she is a killer. The security apparatus of a free state is by definition reactive. A people who claim to believe in some notion of freedom and liberty does not put up a wall to keep people out; they don't live in fear. The nation that is synonymous with the generosity embodied in the words, "Ellis Island" ought not to be turning inward, and turning selfish. Communists put up a wall in Germany; remember that? It was a point of American pride when our president went to Berlin, and told Mr. Gorbachev to tear it down. I think I was nine years old when it came down. I knew what it meant even then. Every patriotic American does. Today, we forget our own proud history, in order to pretend to be someone else. Some days, it makes me so angry that I don't even like to look at our flag. I hope you're offended, and then, you should repent before God.

"Chain migration" is a word people use in a pejorative sense. Do you know what chain migration is? It's families reuniting. That's what it is. I would like to know what sane person with a conscience is against that. No one should be against good order, and I support that. Make it easier for the outsiders to come, and if they did it the wrong way, make it easier to get it right.

I'll leave you alone now, because I'll be answering all day objections to things I never actually said. Such is life in public today. I want to be able to look into the eyes of people I meet, and into the eyes of people I already love, and to know that at least I tried to do right by people who were struggling. That's what any good Christian or American would want to be able to say.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Rejecting The Cult Of Fake Outrage

One of the things that I started to notice in the back-and-forth of partisan politics was that since the goal is to persuade people that you are right and the other side is wrong, and we've lacked virtue in that effort for a long time, there became an incentive to score cheap outrage points against one's enemies.

I remember when Michelle Obama was talking about the election of her husband to the presidency. She said concerning it, "For the first time in my adult life, I was proud of America," or something to that effect. The outrage was swift and predictable; how could any self-respecting American say that they never been proud of our country before that? Well, a black American, that's who. I knew what she meant, and for as much as a frank statement like that might hurt me as a patriot, Michelle Obama is going to get some wide latitude, and so is her husband. I owe every American of color that, and especially black Americans--descendants of transatlantic slaves--even though I am not personally guilty of those crimes. It seemed like the very idea of reminding us that we haven't exactly expressed the proper solidarity and dignity with our black American neighbors was a personal offense against every Republican. I reasoned that either these outraged people are simply narcissistic and callous, or it was a move to score cheap points against Obama in the political arena. Either way, I didn't want any part of it.

I spent a lot of the Obama years being angry at him. Some of it was legitimate, and some of it wasn't. One thing that I was certain of was that any of my disagreements and frustrations had literally nothing to do with the fact that he was black. After all, I voted for the guy. I didn't expect him to talk and think like a white person, or to completely ignore his own feelings, or the misfortunes of black Americans. That's why I didn't really get mad about Jeremiah Wright. I know why Jeremiah Wright could say the things he said. I listened to maybe 10 of those sermons. Whether or not I believe any of it was a faithful exposition of God's word is beside the point. I could see the world through Wright's eyes.

People got really mad at Obama when Prof. Gates got pulled over by that white cop, and then he invited Prof. Gates and the officer to share a beer at the White House. Apparently, a respected member of America's professoriate is not allowed to be outraged about the police overstepping their bounds, while he stands on the porch of his own house. I won't ever say that any citizen is not responsible for their own actions, but I don't personally blame black Americans for being sick and tired of it all. A lot of people didn't see a professor, a man, and a citizen defending his rights; if you will pardon me, they saw an uppity Negro, and it was time to put him in his place.

To be honest, I started to see a lot more veiled and not so veiled racism under the surface of a lot of rhetoric and discussion. In short, I don't need any more fake outrage, or racist outrage, or sexist outrage, as opposed to arguments. My profound disagreements with Democrats along the lines of abortion, family, and sexual identity remain, though what was a sort of visceral rage that cause me to dislike them as people has gone away. I think a lot of partisan politics simply works via this visceral outrage, a sort of in-group disgust for "them". If I had ever consciously and thoughtfully believed anything, it was not because I disliked Barack Obama, or Nancy Pelosi, or Chuck Schumer. They can still be wrong; I don't have to hate them.

I raised my voice at a party recently. It was after everyone else had left, and I was talking to a guy I know. He's a guy I like actually. And as I started to lay out my views about all sorts of things, he got agitated, and so did I. And I punctuated the discussion with, "Do you know what the problem is with talk radio? They tell you what to think, and who to hate, and why!" I went on to say that if "conservatism" consists in simply this, I want no part of it. Even though I spent the better part of my 20s uncritically being a Republican, and furtively speaking as though I would oppose any "establishment" figure, that Bush family, with their sensible milquetoast tendency to be hopelessly mainstream, started to look more appealing. I no longer recognized "movement" conservatism to be a healthy force in American life. It seemed at one point in the past, I could afford to support the antiestablishment candidate, foolishly believing that bomb throwing aside, we all agreed on what was acceptable, and what was not. This was a foolish presumption.

And here we are. I don't even call myself a conservative anymore, although my most fundamental views have not changed at all.

The trite bromides that I used to mock as sentiment about disagreeing without being disagreeable, now sound like the most important and needed things. I will never hate Joe Biden; he was the opponent, back when I took goodness and propriety for granted, when I thought I could afford to be stupid. I never thought that any of them at bottom were a threat to my very existence, although with abortion of course, its advocates are a threat to someone's existence.

Let me bring it back to my title. Today, if I say I'm angry about something, you can bet that I really am. I don't take on the posture of anger for some political goal, and if I sense someone doing this, I really hate it. The current state of "politics" is such that it encourages us to be dishonest about what we think, and about what we want, for partisan gain. Before I am tempted to inveigh against classical liberalism, I'll just stop right there.

I reject tribalism, as a thoughtless, gut reaction, as it were, before actual thinking takes place. I'm not using the right words that Dr. Cross would use, but I think my meaning here is plain enough. I don't automatically know what I think about fuel efficiency standards for instance, simply because "the other side" has stated their views. I have no enemies in this arena anymore; if I'm a little looser in my allegiance, it is in the service to the truth, and in the service to the good of us all. I am sure to be imperfect in striving for this goal, but I earnestly strive nonetheless.

Monday, April 27, 2020

The Wages Of Sin Is Death

I had a special insight into this verse a couple of months ago in prayer. The fairly readily apparent meaning is that sin causes spiritual death, and can lead to Hell, which among other things, is the complete absence of love. Yet it seems to me, and presumably to the Holy Spirit, that there is another meaning.

As the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes points out in several memorable turns of phrase, the good and the bad alike all die here. What's the point, if we're going to live, and then we're going to die? But we know that most people are neither all good, or all bad. Most people can find someone somewhere to say something good about them and how they lived when they die.

But if death is not changed or transcended in some way, life is rather pointless, or so it seems. At the best, a life of sin is a pointless life. At worst, it is much worse, because the supernatural judgment where the sentence is a complete lack of love or consolation is almost unimaginably bad.

That's why the people who routinely do acts of love and kindness are those that stick out to us. We know on some level that if the idea of sin actually exists, it involves serving ourselves, rather than serving God and others.

I suppose that after we realize we can do nothing apart from God's grace, the advice we can give ourselves is not to act as if our soul is mortal, as our bodies are mortal. It's a mistake made ultimately only once.

I suppose it is encouraging and intellectually coherent to realize that resurrected and glorified bodies are the logical endpoint of beings with immortal souls that spend most of their time being united to a mortal body.

A Meditation For A Wretch

Lord, you have stripped away all pretense of strength. All hope of acquired virtue has been dashed upon the rocks of the fact of my finitude. If I did not hope in you, I would have surrendered everything out of sheer discouragement.

Yet you are here. Your blood flows as freely as it did the day you made the bloody sacrifice on the hill of Calvary. It flows for me. I know it as fact, not consolation. I do not feel your tenderness, nor would I deserve it if I did.

Hear me as one who seeks your friendship, not as one who speaks fearful pleas for mercy, hoping you will answer. Speak to me as a friend to a friend, as if I had never broken faith with you. Restore me for your own name's sake, because I do not love you as you love me.

My desire for you is my only gift, meager as it is. If you were pleased by a lowly widow who put in all she had, perhaps you will show mercy to me, because I bring even less.

You see all things. You see in the moments I would like to forget. In those moments, some part of my heart must remain unpersuaded of your love. If I were persuaded of your love, those moments would not exist. I have often said that you are the God who forgives and forgets. May you preach it to me as I have preached it to others. May it prove true, for your name's sake, and for my good.

Holy Spirit, you inspire all prayer. You sent the prophet Nathan to confront the King. And now, by your own power, there need not be a Nathan for me, for you speak in the prophet, and in those who comfort afterward.

May you alone be my joy which comes in the morning. Amen.