Tuesday, January 30, 2007

PROUD LIBERALISM

Jonathan Cohn at TNR Online has a piece on why liberalism should be proud of itself (“Proud Heritage”, http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=w070122&s=cohn012607). I’d like to agree, but … lemme explain.

A couple of days ago I came across a quote from JFK: “We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For, a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”

It hit me quietly - like a single rock in the stomach instead of like a ton of them on my head – just how much things have changed in this country since then. Can you imagine quoting that passage nowadays? Can you imagine standing up and saying this to a Congress (either House) that doesn’t want to say that the idea of the earth being only 6000 years old is kinda not a good basis on which to conduct the affairs of this Republic? That is willing to pass a unanimous resolution that to even mention in public that you can’t find actual scientific proof of the long-lasting and dire effects of sex with children merits Congressional denouncement? (And to prove just how different things are nowadays, let me say right here that I do not in any way approve of or advocate sex with such little lives).

Things have changed. And not for the better, I think. And it was the ‘liberals’ who wrought (wreaked?) this change. Cohn quotes FDR that liberals “recognized … the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization.” And, Cohn, goes on, FDR then adds: “We of the republic sensed the truth that democratic government has innate capacity to protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable, to solve problems once considered unsolvable.”

Well, FDR here demonstrates the American polity’s ongoing but subsurface search for the answer to the question: who should govern – the Quality or the Equality? The import being that you can be governed by those who know best (in the early Republic that would be the planters and the planter-statesmen and the college educated gentlemen) or by the mob of just about anybody – merchants, farmers, and – increasingly – urbanized and immigrant folks.

By the early 1900s Progressivism was asserting that those who could manage this increasingly complicated civilization, but of course managing it benevolently on behalf of the less capable masses who were either uneducated or too busy trying to keep a job … those “managerial Progressives” as Richard Slotkin describes them, would be not only the guides but the trail-bosses for the great wagon train of The People as it made its way across the wild West deserts of Time and History.

But of course, The People cannot have a ‘wagon-master’ or a ‘trail-boss’, because to do so corrupts each individual citizen’s ability to think things through and the common ability to deliberate together and reach a decision. As Emiliano Zapata said when that successful and patriotic leader mused upon governing Mexico: a Strong Man makes a weak people.

It was the Progressive conceit that the nation would remain healthy because the managerial Progressives would wisely shape and execute the best social policies. But that comforting imagined outcome did nothing to address the question of whether The People would remain healthy if their decision-making capacities and their individual thinking capacities and their common deliberative capacities were allowed to wither. And what might be the implications of such withering for The People, for the Republic, for the future of the nation?

The Progressives, manly and robust and bustling American pragmatists, did not allow themselves to be detained by such philosophical considerations: real men, real Americans, didn’t get “sentimental” like ‘wimmen’ or waste time on abstractions. In many ways they were mirror-images of the voracious Robber Barons: If it ‘works’, it’s true and good. “Sentimentalism” was as ineffective and downright dangerous in staying the final blow against the ‘savage Indian’ (and later the savage Filipino) as it was in staying the final blow of bracing economic competition against the obviously weak losers who could not keep afloat or alive in the eternal struggle that was unregulated capitalism. America would always be a Frontier of one sort or another, and on the Frontier you can’t afford to refuse or even delay the bold, decisive action that could save your life just because you’re squeamish about blood and feelings.

Even as the ranks of native-born Progressives were joined by newly educated and socially impassioned Jewish immigrant-children now in robust and eager youth, the unspoken conviction remained that society’s only defense against a Robber Baron elite of hyper-wealthy bosses was a dedicated and educated managerial elite who could operate the levers of public policy for the good of all. And on its good days, do battle with the already-advantaged forces of the Robber Barons, of ‘the interests’.

But whatever the intention – and in some ways the differences were certainly large – the Robber Barons and the Progressives were both constrained to shape themselves in response to the massive and monstrous flowering of economic wealth that increased exponentially in the decades between the Civil War and the Korean War. Complexity required experts to nurture it and to manage it; The People could not all be experts.

But that sensible and realistic observation was often followed – in time – by a far darker and not necessarily logical conclusion: that The People don’t ‘know’ and ‘can’t know’ enough to have an impact on American development(s), and that therefore The People no longer count as ‘players’. They are at best a wagon-train in need of a boss, at worst a herd of cattle needing cowboys to move them along in the right direction. Their future was no longer – indeed could no longer be left – in their own hands. The shape of their future, the shape and quality of their lives and their society – ditto.

The managerial mindset came a cropper sometime in LBJ’s Presidency. The war in Vietnam was not well-managed and nobody could ever feel Robert McNamara was benevolently working for the good of all; the Glorious ’65 had led to riots and – alarmingly – some new type of resurrected racial-obsessiveness called ‘affirmative racism’, and none of any of it sounded quite good. And then, in what Cohn aptly (if unwittingly) describes as “the next logical step”, a follow-on revolution was suddenly raised up, wound up, and sent crashing along the public way: feminism. And there were follow-on ‘logical steps’ as more and more nascent ‘identities’ created themselves and rushed the public space.

But ‘logical’ wasn’t the key here, and Cohn’s and the Progressives’ emphasis upon it reveals their managerial set of mind rather than any larger vision such as the political or the fundamentally democratic. “Doing good the most logical and efficient way” is the watchword of the managers, because getting things done efficiently is what managers know how to do. When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Ask the Pentagon managers.

Efficiency, as any good revolutionary knows, must brook no delays and no distractions. Intensity and concentration leading to the objective in the quickest possible time is the only allowable mode of proceeding. Nor can a revolution be questioned or doubted; its momentum, perhaps even its very validity, could be lost once the sustaining wave of the pressure of events is allowed to subside or pass by.

So the assorted revolutions went on, and nobody was allowed to speak about how fundamentally undemocratic a revolution on behalf of the people could be.

Can a revolution be ‘liberal’? No. Not in the sense of Liberalism as it was classically imagined in the 19th and previous centuries. Then, Liberalism was an antidote to monarchical or tyrannical authority, based on a respect for the individual human being and an Enlightenment faith in the power of human Reason, especially when platformed on a well-set and virtuous Character, to liberate among societies the energies latent in the ‘higher ranges’ of their members’ skills and gifts. Organized religion, to the extent that it discouraged a capacity for personal achievement and inquiry, was considered an active oppressor of persons; but there was always the ancient Christian conviction – even if in the Enlightenment it exerted only the illumination of afterglow – that there is indeed a Vertical dimension to the human self and a Beyond dimension to human existence, and that Answer would have to be made someday to that Beyond, and that – more happily – its assistance in the form of Grace might be implored for life ‘down here’.

Such individuals were worthy of and capable of thinking, coming together and conducting deliberation, and deciding. Such a Process, allowed to the remarkable human gifts so valued in the Liberal vision, would in the fullness of time yield worthwhile results to the community governed by such principles and by such a vision.

Revolutionaries share no such Liberal appreciation. People are sheep to be led by the illuminated vanguard, objectives are too important not to be ‘achieved’ in the quickest possible time, and nothing weak enough to be swept aside is worth keeping anyway. Nor can any obstruction or delay be tolerated. Revolution is a serious business, its seriousness being a result partly of its awareness of the pain it seeks to alleviate and partly a result of the primal bloodlust evoked by the awareness of the destruction it is about to inflict.

A ‘liberalism’ grounded in what has been for all practical purposes a revolutionary mindset and heart-set will be a very contorted liberalism indeed. And perhaps for that reason the Democrats turned to pandering, both to the Identities they had raised up and to the oligarchies of power and influence – “the interest” – that had quietly engorged while attention was focused elsewhere. In their deepest heart, the Democrats knew that the ‘new’ liberalism would undermine The People and the Republic; they saw no solution and into the vacuum of their ineffective power they poured the money and favors from those whose presence their difficulties had invited.

Mr. Cohn says, we should not be ashamed of the label “liberal”. But we should not be too quick to apply it (in its capital-L form) to ourselves or to those who would claim it. The present-day complex civilization poses powerful challenges to Liberalism. But small-l liberalism cannot answer those challenges; it can only appease them.

But that’s a once and future story.

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1 Comments:

Blogger Davidco said...

Exxon, the world's largest contributor to global warming, has spent $19 million since the Kyoto Protocols spinning faux science to convince Weda People that global warming is a figment of our imagination.

This is not including all the money it has given to Congressional campaigns to defeat anyone who is able to say the words 'global' and 'warming' in the same sentence.

Standing alone, without the support of government, the entire scientific establishment and all the assembled, unbiased regulatory technocrats have been unable to withstand the corrupting power of the global corporations who hold sway over the current administration.

I hope I'm not hearing an attack on any government not 'small enough to be drowned in a bathtub'.

We need 'strong' government to counter the multinationals. Only government can give managers the megaphone they need to put real choices before the people.

True election reform would go a long way toward cleaning up the current mess.

The role of management is to convene the experts and formulate complicated issues into alternative policies that the people can decide. There is nothing 'too complicated' for the people if issues are handled in this way.

The 'complicated' question of Empire can be resolved into the issue of whether Americans want to keep the American Way of Life at all costs including hundreds of thousands of innocent lives and, perhaps ultimately, use of 'preemptive' tactical nukes or scale back their lifestyle and drop the unjust demands for direct control over world petroleum resources at the point of a gun.

While this is admittedly a hard choice. It is hardly too complicated for the people to decide.

7:48 AM  

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