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Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Why Liberalism Failed (Deneen): Uniting Individualism And Statism (VII)

Deneen begins this chapter by giving us a basic rundown of where our notions of "liberal" and "conservative" originated. Even in its European context, it makes a certain sense, as two sides of two fairly fundamental human dispositions: one oriented toward equality, progress, and social and economic justice, while the other values a respect for authority, hierarchy, and nostalgia for the past. He gets around quickly to saying that while these two dispositions seem to be locked in intractable battle, that they are actually united more fundamentally at the philosophical level. They are united he says, in the fundamental assumption that the individual ought to be liberated from all that encumbers his absolutely free choice in every situation. The progressives, it goes without saying, quickly recognize today the harm in conceiving of the good life in individualist terms, frequently castigating both their erstwhile opponents and friends for perpetuating especially individualist alienation in economic terms. The progressive solution to the harmful effects of individualism he says, is an ever-expanding state, charged with redressing especially the harm of severe economic inequality. Observers will also note the expansion of the national government with respect to dissent from others' self-definition, especially with regard to sexual self-expression.

Deneen also says that conservatives have participated in the expansion of the state, mainly by advocating for an unfettered global free market, its main effect being the destruction of smaller associations, whether economic or familial. Provocatively, he argues that this alleged "free market" is not free at all, nor was it something that arose spontaneously, but it came about as a result of deliberate choices by the state itself. The marketplace in its present form could only exist he says, once the state had liberated the individual from all his unchosen and interlocking identities, which unite him to his place, and to his kin. Deneen carefully laments the fact that this older agrarianism is forever tainted with the white supremacy of the Confederacy in the Civil War. One historian in that particular Ken Burns documentary noted correctly that the United States and its people became comfortable saying, "The United States is…" after the war, whereas before, someone might say, "The United States are…" Deneen, for his part, suggests that the victory of the North accelerated technological progress--and without saying it--the move of the population into cities. He will go on to argue that the other element of liberalism's philosophical project is the liberation of man from the limits of nature, by the means of science and technology.

One aspect of the argument which needs justification is the use of the word, "statist". To me, this is a loaded term, suggesting a predetermined notion of the state's role. This is ironic in the present context, because Deneen is not an advocate for liberalism in any form. In its common usage--that is, its connotation--"statism" represents a disaster scenario of tyranny. If Deneen wants to use this word with its connotation, it would be more consistent for him to be an advocate of the conservative form of classical liberalism.

It seems to me that were Deneen falters is in the assumption that the "conservatives" intend for the state to expand. It is Deneen's prerogative to argue that the state must expand, to accommodate conservative demands for a "free market." He does seem to be going a bit further than simply saying that a global marketplace of some type is undermining other conservative commitments. Christian advocates for the conservative form of classical liberalism certainly do not intend for the marketplace to undermine their other commitments. If I wanted to argue in defense of classical liberalism, I would try to find an account of the state of nature which does not require absolute autonomy, nor the total liberation from unchosen obligations. Certainly, a counter-case could be made that the Founding Fathers did not intend to liberate the citizens from their religious and familial obligations. Their own piety or lack thereof notwithstanding, they were not in any respect hostile to religious piety, or its traditional commitments. One could argue that Jacksonian democracy was so popular here, because no one saw it as a threat to their more fundamental commitments.

Deneen finishes by stating that liberals have succeeded only in liberating man from the older sexual morality, while conservatives have only succeeded in making man a consumer, as opposed to a citizen.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Since I'm Not One To Mince Words

It seems to me that considering David Frum or Jennifer Rubin, or any number of other "Never Trump" Republicans "tiresome" depends entirely upon one's thinking about the presidency of Donald Trump. For those of us who were sad and outraged at his election--and have been vindicated by events--we do not tire of criticizing President Trump, or hearing or reading the criticism of others.

It is precisely because the character of Donald Trump has not changed that I refuse to accept him, or to consider the alleged "extremism" of his opponents as a reason to change my assessment. It's not a binary choice; I don't suddenly decide a baby is not a person, simply because I have decided that letting Joe Biden win is the best thing for the country, and at the very least, I won't be standing in the way. One can always find an enraged college professor, or a campus activist, or an actor, who will say something dumb. This has nothing to do with the moral calculus of interfering in the asylum process, or of treating immigrants of any kind as subhuman monsters, and speaking rhetorically to that effect.

The moral failures, both real and imagined, of Joe Biden have literally nothing to do with amplifying conspiracy theories, encouraging violence, and woefully mismanaging the government. I remember when George W. Bush was criticized for his handling of Hurricane Katrina. I remember when he stuck by his FEMA director. They said he valued loyalty over competence, that he was surrounded by a group of yes men and yes women. To even make the comparison now in the favor of the present incumbent is a scandal against the idea of truth itself.

There were grave errors, and we shouldn't sugarcoat those. I don't know how much blame the president should have taken for the abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison; I do know that a pervasive situation ethics had taken hold, and that abuses in the service of subjugating America's enemies would be tolerated. They lied about whether they had water-boarded terrorists or suspected terrorists. I should have been more circumspect about this. The war itself doesn't pass muster with respect to just war. There were also numerous problems related to conduct in war, which made this overall decision less justifiable, and morally acceptable. Committed Democrats and commentators were not always fair to George W. Bush as a human being, trying to make tough decisions. But as Dr. Cross would no doubt point out, the difficulty of the decision does not change the nature of the thing as it is; that is, the object of any moral action.

My intellectual "friend" Christopher Hitchens convinced me with an essay in Vanity Fair that waterboarding was torture, and that it should not be happening for any reason. It was within a few days after that that I decided to vote for Barack Obama. Granted, it was an emotional decision, but it was not only an emotional decision. Sadly, Obama used a similar type of situation ethics in his decisions regarding the use of force, but I still believe--especially in regard to supranational organizations like the UN--that he was a better choice. I know that I was too harsh with McCain, but I also know that the honorable man spent most of his energy beating back the bizarre conspiracy theories which were already beginning to take root among his own voters.

My own ability to give a fair accounting of Democratic positions on economic issues at this time was still fairly compromised. I was apt, like anyone else with my partisan affiliation, to call Obama a socialist, and a destroyer of everything good in America. I was angry--and rightly so--about the Health and Human Services mandate within the Affordable Care Act, which subjects people of good conscience to unacceptable decisions regarding their own participation in the government's provision of reproductive health services. It was later revealed that the mandate was specifically tailored to trip up Catholics in matters of conscience.

I ended up being very happy to vote for Mitt Romney; I admired him in many respects, and I still do. Republicans today have decided that the only meaningful criterion of a person's character is whether or not he or she wins the election. Great numbers of people have decided that McCain lost, and Romney lost, and the first Bush lost, because they were too nice. First of all, the Bushes as a group are partisan knife-fighters, if anyone ever was. The elder Bush lost because the nativist wing of his party went for the independent candidate, Ross Perot. In the end, it's probably for the best. Pat Buchanan may be orders of magnitude more polite than Donald Trump, but his own nationalism is no more acceptable than that of Trump. His own racism is no more acceptable than that of Trump. Bill Clinton is a gifted politician, whose own legend has only grown since that victory. Consider however, that if Perot wasn't in the race, Clinton never becomes president. There would have been a nativist reckoning for both of these parties, but maybe it could have gone better than it has, kicked off with a second term for George H. W. Bush. What would the Democrats have learned, had they lost four presidential elections in a row? I do think that the Democrats are better equipped to handle white resentment than the Republicans are. I believe this because I know that Republicans are gifted in self-deception. The GOP does not attract large numbers of minorities or recent immigrants into its coalition, nor have they for a long time. It is much easier to convince oneself, "well of course, I am not a racist! I'm a good person" when you don't have that many opportunities to be challenged by someone on your own "team" about these matters. The GOP is now older and whiter than it was when I became a voter in 1998. Some segment of this rage must be due to the fact that barely 60% of the voting public is white. If Reagan ran today, he'd get trounced. When Reagan ran in 1980, nearly 90% of the voting public was white. As problematic as it might be for the Democrats to have a perceived inability to win white voters--and especially white males--it is even more frightening to consider and to reckon with the possibility that in many minds, white interests are only represented by the Republican Party.

No one will be able to convince me that Donald Trump has not intentionally stoked these racial resentments, so even if my account of the Republican Party as being at best racially insensitive and clueless is overstated, it still remains true that Trump has made it worse. Why would I want to be a part of something seething in racial resentment? Why would I want to be a part of something that essentially tells all minorities that they are imagining things? More importantly, even as a matter of pragmatism, why is the GOP inability to win large numbers of nonwhite voters the fault of those voters? I do not have a "wokeness" membership card and decoder ring; I do not believe that any person is defined by any system, no matter how broken or biased. But neither do I believe that it is fundamental to any sort of "conservatism" to tell everyone who doesn't look like me to "get over it."

Perhaps this is my way of saying in the end that robust participation in the political process is unwise. Partisan membership and political activity potentially involves me in denying what I see right in front of me. If I am on a "team" I am seemingly forced to pretend that my team is good, and the other team is bad.

As for being pro-life, I am not going to vote "pro-life," because voting pro-life right now means supporting Trump, or supporting Trump's rubber stamps, also known as the Republicans in Congress. You're lucky I don't outright vote for Joe Biden, and you're darned skippy, I'd offer my help if they called, and asked for it.

I don't know what you do with your conscience, but mine still works.