I’ve just finished reading Michael Sandel’s “Justice”. He is a philosopher at Harvard who has been putting a lot of thought into just what works and doesn’t work when it comes to defining Justice and putting some sort of national policy together.
It’s finally helped me – after 38 years; I’m no towering intellect – to get a grasp on what went wrong in the ‘liberal revolution(s)’ that burst upon the country in the early Seventies. (And please don’t assume that since I have put ‘liberal’ in quotation marks that I am a ‘conservative’: both of those terms have been largely undermined now, since both Parties have descended into the trough of a politically and humanly immature politics that has regressed and coarsened Our entire national discourse.)
A moment to recall the relevant history.
In the marvelous first-phase of the Civil Rights Movement (up to the first week of July, 1965) the country was engaged in the fulfillment of the Civil Rights promises made and paid for by the Civil War. Martin Luther King led a campaign in which all Americans (some die-hard Southrons excepted) could take heart, a renewal and fulfillment of the national commitment – morally and religiously as well as politically grounded – in the full political enfranchisement of the American Negro (the term in use at the time).
The federal government had to step in – in some cases with armed troops as well as battalions of Federal marshals – to enforce laws long-neglected and even subverted, stretching back to the end of Reconstruction in the mid 1870s.
Since the Jim Crow culture of the pre-1965 South was so thoroughly entwined around the ongoing political repression of the Negro, then the government wound up spearheading a profound cultural change – drastic and of necessity immediate – in the South. That had to be done; when a culture becomes deranged to the point where it flaunts the Constitutional guarantees, then the culture is going to have to change in order to conform to a genuine embrace of the Constitutional guarantees.
This was a huge and painful process, as it had to be.
It also set a verrrry dangerous example for follow-on ‘revolutions of liberation’ that were to come, but let me not get ahead of things here.
The whole country pretty much recognized (the Southrons to varying degrees excepted) that all this brouhaha was fundamentally only a belated correction of the derangement of the promises won by the Civil War that had ended almost a century before.
The Democrats, under LBJ, risked an awful lot. They had to accept the probable electoral loss of most of the South for at least a generation; in addition to die-hard out-and-out racists, there were many more Southrons who had grown up with ‘their’ culture and simply didn’t like to see it changed, especially (again) by armed federal forces and the power of the government in Washington.
But that grand week in July of 1965 came. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was capped by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Dems racked up a huge national achievement – but it promised to be an expensive one, politically.
Still, the indelible images of long lines of neatly dressed Negroes of all ages standing up against the worst that the South of that era could throw at them (supported by large numbers of white, Northern ‘freedom riders’) certainly made it all seem worthwhile (Americans love to see that third act where all the good folks finally come together and win – the classic Hollywood happy ending).
Alas, within 10 days of that July day in 1965, Watts erupted in a days-long orgy of rioting, burning, and looting which – thanks to TV news cameras – was also indelibly imprinted on the national consciousness.
The riots effectively gutted LBJ’s popular mandate – and his political ability to pursue a program of nurturing the huge gains just made.
And furthermore, I’m going to imagine, the Dems sat down there in Washington, did some calculations, and realized that the Negro constituted less than 10% of the national electorate. Which meant that even if all Negroes now voted Democratic, they still wouldn’t provide a safe electoral margin.
The Dems urgently (perhaps desperately) needed a lot more votes – in ‘demographic’ amounts – and they needed them fast.
Things got even worse as the second phase of the Civil Rights era suddenly erupted, in the Northern cities. But this second phase was hell-and-gone from the first. Angry urban ‘blacks’ – vividly represented by black activists who weren’t interested in help from ‘whitey’ and ‘honky’, who had read wayyyy too much Mao and ‘revolutionary’ theory, and who were more than willing to deploy violence against ‘the establishment’ – presented a much different picture from the orderly lines of freedom-marchers in the first phase.
It being the Sixties, revolution was in the air (Mao had instituted his own Cultural Revolution in 1966 and it seemed to be working wonders).
Along came the radical feminists – who basically cast their programme as a long-deferred ‘Civil Rights’ struggle at least as important (if not more so) than the Negro-Black struggle. They based all that on some not-so-obvious and not-so-widely-accepted assumptions: ‘patriarchy’ had been doing to ‘women’ for millennia what Jim Crow had been doing to the Negro in the South for a (mere) century or three; ‘women’ had been as unjustly ‘oppressed’ as the ‘slaves’ and the Negroes of the Jim Crow era; consequently the ‘feminist revolution’ was nothing more than a replay of the Civil Rights movement.
Except for that part about the oppression of ‘women’. (I use the term in quotation marks because it was never – and has never – been established that the majority of females in the country agreed with these assumptions, or embraced their consequences.) There was nowhere near the broad and deep national consensus about this newly discovered ‘oppression of women’ that there was about the still-unfulfilled promises of political equality made to the Negro through the winning of the Civil War.
But ‘women’, any Democratic pol with even minimal computational abilities could see, constituted 51% of the population – and THAT was a ‘demographic’ that seemed heaven-sent to rescue the Party from the triple-whammy of the consequences flowing from the eradication of Jim Crow in the South, the Watts riots and the Northern second phase of the ‘black power revolution’, and the overall smallness of Negro-Black electoral strength.
Almost overnight, the certainly consideration-worthy but still somewhat dubious agenda of the feminist revolutionary agenda (spear-headed by the most radical proponents of the thing) suddenly became The Next Big Thing: in the run-up to the 1972 national election the Democrats burbled that they were now ‘The Party of Women’.
And, as at Santa Anita, they were off!
But there were two problems, at least.
First, the country was not so easily and largely convinced that the plight of ‘women’ required or justified another ‘revolution’. Especially with the Black Power revolution now assuming disturbing proportions, eroding public order and assaulting the entire American ‘white’ culture. Was this the time to have a second ‘revolution’ now assaulting not only the national culture, not only ‘white’ culture, but ‘male’ culture and ‘men’ generally? *
It quickly became clear – although it was now no longer Correct to notice it – that if the second phase (the Black Power) phase of the Civil Rights movement was taking a verrry rackety turn, then the feministical ‘revolution’ (spear-headed by those most radical of the feminists) was trying to overturn the entire basis of American society and culture and even Western (‘patriarchal, oppressive’) civilization … and large numbers of sober folks could be forgiven for wondering if that was a good idea, or even a workable one.
But the Dems knew enough not to look a gift-horse in the mouth. And, consequently, they put the full weight of the nation’s largest and most influential political party behind everything the feministicals pushed their way. And you know the rest.
The sober folks 'just didn't get it'.
Second, the whole ‘revolution’ thing – proceeding to change American culture and society by means of the method and image of ‘revolution’ – so profoundly assaulting the fundaments of American culture and civilization, had no philosophical grounding of its own. Indeed, the American political process was precisely designed to handle competing agendas through the channels of public deliberation and the voting process – it wasn’t necessarily a quick process, but it made for a lot of underlying deep support as enough voters were won over and persuaded.
But ‘deliberation’ by the Citizens who would then express their will through elections at all levels of government was ‘slow’ and it was an ‘emergency’ and there was so much ‘outrage’ and ‘pain’ … the established processes of democracy were too slow; as they would say nowadays, the democratic deliberational process was “quaint”. It was too slow, and at the end of the day there was no guarantee that the Citizenry would give the new ‘revolutions’ what they wanted.
In the fragile rowboat of human culture and human events, democratic deliberation wasn’t a bad way to proceed; in a rowboat full of folks, a lot of sudden and large movement, especially movements calculated to chop away offending pieces of the boat itself, did not strike many folks as the grown-up way to proceed.
But it was an ‘emergency’ – so knew the Dems looking at their electoral charts, and so loudly plainted the feministicals (joined in due time by other ‘revolutions’ looking to run the same play).
Along comes John Rawls, mid-level philosophy prof at Harvard, who in 1972 produced his theory of justice that pretty much justified everything that the Dems and their new protégés wanted to do.
Needless to say, it caught on like wildfire among the new ‘elites’, who were enjoying unprecedented access to the most powerful levers in Washington.
Rawls basically said that if you simply imagined that you were alive as a Citizen but had no prior commitments or connections to anything, then from the vantage point of that ‘original position’ you would (he assumed) agree with him as to the shape of ‘justice’. And that consequently, the Dems quickly inferred, his way of going about things was the ‘right way and the only way’ to go – and to do All of it Right Now.
Sandel – getting back to his book – puts his finger on the key problem with this approach: no such human being exists, who has reached the stage of adult reason and maturity yet has absolutely no ‘commitments’ of any sort. Human life, Sandel reminds everyone, is a thick and dense and complex skein of commitments and an adult-without-commitments is a pure fantasy.
Rawls had basically undermined the whole concept of a human being having commitments, except those that he or she chooses consciously and deliberately. Any other ‘call’ on a person is unjustified and need not be honored.
(Acutely, Sandel notes that in Rawls’s scheme, ‘patriotism’ in any form cannot be justified, because no human being and no native-born citizen can ever be in the ‘original position’ of being able to choose or not-choose a ‘commitment’ to the country. Neatly, Sandel quotes Rawls himself, who when confronted with that very question, hemmed and hawed until in obscenely convoluted prose he finally allowed as how “it is not clear what is the requisite binding action or who has performed it”.**)
So Rawls asserted that no individual can be ‘held’ to a ‘commitment’ unless s/he purposely chose it.
This was the philosophical equivalent of manna from heaven to a feministical (not to say a genuinely feminist) agenda, in that golden age of Boomer-madness, that was demanding that every ‘woman’ be considered totally free of any obligations or even expectations generated by culture, tradition, reason, or even Nature (that thing about sex, babies – having and raising same).
Which of course justified a comprehensive ‘deconstruction’ (another bit of philosophy, imported from France where it had been yanked off the national stage when they realized that once you started ‘deconstructing’ any single element of a culture, the process could not be stopped until it dissolved the whole kit and caboodle). Which is precisely what it did when imported to these shores and turned loose (with the Dems’ approval and support): American culture, society, tradition, thinking … all unworthy of respect or credibility, and to be overturned ‘yesterday’ in order to liberate from ‘oppression’.
Thus each individual American was to be totally free of any commitments until s/he decided to accept same. And if not, not.
You wouldn’t need a Ph. D. in Anthropology or Political Science or the History of Civilization and Culture to see that any polity which adopted this philosophy would pretty much guarantee its own dissolution, under the acid processes of ‘deconstruction’ in the service of every individual’s total autonomy, liberation, and freedom of choice. It was a teenager’s damp-dream, and the Boomers were just about that age, and there were so many of them that they figured that they either were the new world-majority, or would be as soon as everybody ‘over 30’ died off. Ah, those were the days!***
The deep political upshot of Rawls’s fantasy was that the government would have to be morally and religiously ‘neutral’, since everybody would have his/her own conception of his/her binding obligations, and also would have that ‘total autonomy’ to make whatever choices they felt they wanted to.
There are a couple of problems with this. Really big and deep ones.
First – as Sandel asks – is it even possible for a government to formulate policies and laws that are really and truly ‘morally neutral’? He uses – not irrelevantly – the example of the pro-choice and anti-choice sides of the abortion matter (dating, you recall, from Roe v. Wade in the first weeks of January, 1973): the ‘pro-choice’ position is not describable as ‘neutral’ unless you first make the rather clear moral assessment that the fetus is not human. And if you have so assessed, then you have already lost your ‘neutrality’ in the very act of making that assessment.
But then, how can this abortion matter be approached ‘neutrally’ at all? At its irreducible core is the huge and profound moral conclusion that the fetus is or is not human. There is no way to move forward until you have made your decision about that.
(Still and all, it's a neat scam: if you are 'neutral' then a pro-choice choice will result in abortion. If you are pro-choice, then a pro-choice choice will result in abortion. And as the songster saith, "two outta three ain't bad".)
And what holds true for individuals then holds true for their government: the government must make that decision as well, in order to formulate law and policy in the matter. There’s no way around it, given the fact that in Our modern American reality there are those who hold – through an exercise of their autonomy – that the fetus is human and deserving of protections, and those who – through that same exercise of autonomy – hold that the fetus is not human and thus undeserving of protections.
It’s another question entirely whether any government in its right mind would not only open up this profound crevice in the national life but would actually seek to impose its own (politically motivated) answer upon the entire citizenry.
Because, Sandel says, as members of a national polity We all reside together in a “community of character”. (And if that statement seems a bit odd then you can gauge just how far deranged the national – or at least public – consciousness has become in the past 4 decades.)
But of course, can it be said any longer that We as Americans all inhabit a single “community of character”, whereby We all hold – to use a stock phrase – “certain truths to be self-evident”? That We have all accepted an obligation to live according to the morality flowing from those ‘truths’? (No wonder, perhaps, American moral behavior of late has demonstrated some serious flaws here and around the world; not only the Constitution but ‘morality’ and ‘truth’ have been considered “quaint” if not worse in some circles for quite some time.)
Indeed, Identity Politics would build on the deconstruction of American culture and society by asserting that Citizens’ primary allegiance is to their ‘Identity’ (race, gender, orientation, or whatever) and not to ‘being American’. (Although, I have always wondered, the Identities themselves presume that anybody born into their Identity may be counted for political purposes as a member of the Identity – whether they have officially and freely chosen to be so or not; a neat trick rather very similar to the old Southern gambit of considering their slaves to be less-than-human, but yet each slave would count as three-fifths of a human for census purposes.)
Sandel points out that Rawls’s system must be acknowledged as raising the most profound questions about the “nature of human freedom”. I’d go Sandel one better: you can’t talk about the “nature of human freedom” until you’ve got a grasp on “the nature of being a human”.
Are humans born as utterly and totally independent and Shapeless, ‘blank slates’ waiting like child’s clay to be Shaped into whatever forms the individual human chooses? Whenever in life s/he gets around to it? I don’t think this corresponds to reality at all.
I think humans are more like ships: they are launched – as it were – with a certain shape, and from the beginning must answer to the fundamental dynamic principles of the medium (in the ships’ case, wind-wave-weather) in which they will operate. A ship isn’t going to work on land; it would incompetent to try to drive one up onto a landmass, and if one were responsible for other lives, or one’s own even, then it would be immoral to try.
Human beings share a human nature. That ‘nature’ alone imposes certain dignities and ‘prior obligations’ from birth (or, as above-noted, perhaps even before birth).****
You can certainly have extended discussion as to just what that human nature consists of, and the consequences flowing from its dignity (or lack of it, if you choose to argue that side).
But people can’t – and surely a government can’t – simply try to sidestep the issue in order to pander to a preferred agenda demanded by a politically important constituency. Especially when that agenda demands that everybody else’s beliefs and traditions are “quaint” and even “oppressive” and unworthy of respect.
And surely no democratic government can risk such a hugely dangerous exercise.
But then, a Democratic one did. And succeeded to the point where it got the other Party to go along, sort of.
Thus the ‘liberal’ (only to use this term as it used nowadays) ideal of a ‘morally neutral government’ is a) impossible in theory and b) unable to justifiably impose its (impossible) ‘neutrality’ on all of its Citizens.
What We have had for the past decades is a government trying to govern a nation of human beings, although unable and even unwilling to come to any solid consensus about what it means to have a ‘human nature’ or whether there is any human nature at all.
Except that humans should always have as much ‘autonomy’ as possible.
But the very Shape of the ship limits your ‘autonomy’, even when you enjoy the full authority of the captain to command the vessel.
Embodiment – even the very fact of being a material being – imposes certain limitations from the get-go: as a human being you can’t pass through walls, you can’t fly unaided (unless you’re from Krypton), you can’t live in an airless vacuum (ditto) … And all of this comes before the question of whether, in your authority as captain, you can try to take the ship up onto the coast highway for a spin.
If you want total and perfect and pure autonomy, you pretty much have to get rid of the Matter and become pure unembodied spirit … but then you wouldn’t be a human being (you might qualify as an angel, but they too seem to have certain famous limitations on their autonomy – and there are consequences for trying to go beyond them). Or you might be a ghost – but not a living human being.
So you see the problems with a) seeking ‘total autonomy’ b) with no unwanted or unchosen ‘obligations’ and c) claiming that it’s possible for either humans or human governments to be ‘morally neutral’ with no functioning obligations.
If it might be proposed that the Great Britain lost her empire “in a fit of absence of mind”, what can be said about the United States, that lost its national unity and consensus in a fit of sustained deconstruction in the service of a ‘dream’ that was not only ‘impossible’ to achieve, but so phantasmagoric that it did not correspond to the reality of the human situation in the first place?
The ‘dream’ was impossible, alright: impossible in the sense that it had more in common with the Easter Bunny and tooth-fairies than with any serious effort by a politically mature government responsible to a politically mature People.
It is more accurately characterized as a 'daydream' or a 'dampdream' than to be dignified with the term 'dream' - let alone 'Dream'.
I think that future historians are going to laugh – or at least shake their heads in disbelief – at the project of ‘morally neutral’ government these past Biblical 40 years.
This is the kicker. It’s not best seen as a ‘secular’ problem – that casts it into the culture-war ‘religion’ mode, where the Republicans – whose political maturity is now as debauched as the Dems – have raised up the whackjob Fundamentalists as the representatives of ‘religion’. Rather, it’s the more philosophical ‘moral neutrality’ problem that should be Our focus of concern.
It seems to me that the Framers could construct so limited a government as the American Constitutional one precisely because they realized that the Citizens were being Shaped by a culture and civilization that preceded the government itself by long centuries. All that the American Constitution needed to do was guarantee that the government did not get in the way of those Shaped Citizens’ “community of character” and shared culture.
It was only when the government decided that it needed to ‘deconstruct’ that “community of character”, and all its traditions and assumptions and beliefs and practices, that the whole marvelous machine went off its rocker – literally, like a Ferris wheel breaking loose from its struts.
Thus the government now has not only weakened (‘reformed’, the Beltway elites like to think) the structure of the Constitution itself, but has greatly eroded the ground under the structure, the cultural unity of the People.***** AND the government has placed the Citizenry in the impossible position of maintaining their moral and religious beliefs yet not deploying them in the service of Citizenship and political activity.
Because if it’s impossible to conduct a ‘morally neutral’ government, it’s also impossible for the individual Citizens and the Citizenry as a whole to pretend (‘prescind from’ is the old formal philosophical term) that they don’t have any politically relevant moral beliefs and values.
In other words, the ‘Citizen in the original position’ – dreamed up by Rawls as a slick philosophical way of sweeping away any obstruction to the new demands and agendas – is just that: a mind-game, a ‘dream’, a ‘fantasy’, and an impossible one at that. We come into this world already burdened with claims and expectations made by the human community into which We are born, with limits imposed by Nature itself – and any theory that insists on ignoring that must have its tires most vigorously kicked.
Rawls's theory caught on quickly - it seemed to far too many to be so 'simple' that they took it as a proof of just how dumb Western civilization had been that it had not 'gotten it' earlier, that it had not seen such a clear and simple solution.
Of course, Rawls's solution was 'simple' in the same way that Hitler's plan to invade England might have been made simple: by imagining that the English Channel didn't exist - that those 20 miles of open water were only 20 miles of rolling fields - then a German invasion of England would have seemed simple indeed. And anybody harboring reservations would be derided as somebody who 'just didn't get it'. Yah.
And any government that gives itself over to imposing such a lethal pipedream on the society and culture for which and to which it is responsible must be held strictly to account for its witlessness or its treachery.
Which gives Teddy Kennedy’s “Dream” bit a whole new level of meaning. And now We have to figure out how to re-deploy Our communal national energies currently ‘dreaming the impossible dream’ – that afore-mentioned saccharine song from the 1960s Broadway hit “Man of La Mancha”; We’d best get serious and realize just what the elites have spent the last four decades trying to do with this country.
And let’s not forget that the government itself seems to have developed the delusion that it too has ‘total autonomy’ – which seems too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence.
*It also didn’t completely escape the public’s notice that the postwar economy – the source of American primacy in the postwar world , whose robust hegemony was presumed to be eternal from 1945 into infinity – was starting to behave oddly: in 1971 Nixon had abrogated the Bretton Woods arrangement of 1946; the dollar was no longer backed by gold (in Fort Knox – google it if you have to); there were sudden shortages of beef and sugar; and some powerhouse American corporations were starting to open up plants in other countries and to close plants here. Some nuts were even starting to predict that the price of a gallon of gas would go up to 50 cents or more. And, of course, the military that had won World War Two was having a hell of a bad time in a relatively small backwater in Southeast Asia. Was this really a good time to be declaring a domestic war on ‘men’ in general? Or to be agreeing that the whole national culture – Western civilization even – was nothing but a hollow excuse for ‘oppression’?
**I think that even more profoundly than being considered ‘soft on defense’, the Dems must have been terrified of being accused of being ‘against patriotism’ – yet their anointed court philosopher had no room for it in his scheme. Fortunately for them (though not for anybody else) the media did not pick up on it, since ‘philosophical’ questions aren’t ‘real’ enough to report about. Yah. But their consequences are real, verrry real indeed.
***The lyrics to Mary Wells’s 1968 or 1969 song “Those Were the Days” say it all: “Those were the days, my friend; we thought they’d never end, we’d sing and dance forever and a day! We’d live the life we choose, we’d fight and never lose, those were the days, oh yes those were the days.” Cast as a middle-aged person’s thoughts, standing on a sidewalk and seeing his/her reflection in the window of a bar where much youthful carousing had gone on a lifetime before, the lyrics – intentionally or unconsciously – issued a warning to the besotted Boomers that there’s a reason why Time and History come with capital letters.
****Just a quickie here on this matter of ‘human nature’. It goes back at least to Plato. He figured that while there are many types of ‘cup’, say, yet there is something that makes you quickly identify any genuine ‘cup’ as a ‘cup’ – regardless of its shape, size, color, the number and placement of handles, the amount it can hold, and so forth (although when does a ‘cup’ become a ‘pail’ because of the amount it can hold?).
And you can tell the difference between a ‘cup’ – no matter how unfamiliar its style or shape – and, say, a ‘helmet’ that for the moment is being used as a cup.
So he figured: there’s some ‘cupness’ that is a key archetypal Form in which all existing cups participate; all the cups have the quality of the Cup.
Now that’s kind of interesting and certainly not nonsensical. Although a ‘realist’ might say: I have seen lots of cups in my life, but I have never seen a (or the) Cup – so it doesn’t exist. To which Plato would respond that there must be some dimension where all these Ideal Forms exist, because everything in existence must have an Ideal Form.
Now then, when you apply this approach to human beings, then you start asking yourself: what is the Human-ness that makes a human being a human being? Such that you can discern it in the many different shapes and forms that it takes in this dimension.
What makes humans Human? What are the essential qualities, capabilities, characteristics of the Human and thus of all actual human beings?
You can go a long way down this road – and you wouldn’t be wasting your time.
*****And with the population’s sense of national identity and cultural unity dissolved and ‘deconstructed’, then the only source of identity and unity and civic order would have to be the government itself; and so the Regulatory-Preventive Nanny State State – what I call the reincarnation of the old Enlightenment illusion (‘dream’?) of Benevolent Despotism as ‘Sensitive Despotism’ – becomes necessary to instill civic ‘character’ and enforce civic order – to essentially Shape the Citizenry – even as the National Security State provides the war and ‘fear of enemies’ which become the only comprehensive common motivation left to the country. This is a recipe for catastrophe as a polity.
And for that matter, I wonder if things aren't so far gone now (the Beltway elites so debauched by their decades of political pandering to their 'bases' and their indenture to corporate PAC money) that the Beltway resembles nothing so much as the Soviet nomenklatura elites in the 1970s: they knew the whole thing was a failure and probably wrong from the get-go and now all they wanted to do was stick around long enough to make their bundle, retire, and get out of town to their dacha on the Black Sea.
And if that's the case, then to those who wonder if Obama has 'betrayed' his promise, I propose the example of the decent Gorbachev: he couldn't clean up the Augean Stable ... he couldn't and didn't 'reform' the Soviet Union, he had to shut it down.
Go thou and have a cuppa joe over that.