Michael Lind has a piece on the Salon site. As he has taken to doing nowadays – perhaps his assorted positions dictate it – he has been trying to push the Last-Ten-Years approach: all the bad stuff is Bush-Cheney’s fault, and before that (i.e. before the Republicans got the White House) everything was pretty good indeed.
And I can’t let that go by. It’s not that I’m a ‘Republican’ – which I’m not. It’s not that I’m hoping to have a major impact on policy or forge some sort of politically workable ‘coalition’ – which I’m not.
It’s just that I can’t see it doing Us any good to continue laboring under large inaccuracies in Our assessment and knowledge of the huge mess We are now in.
Nor do I harbor any longings for a vanished golden political age, although I was hoping that after the obvious wrack of Vietnam and the wooziness of the nation’s position in the world, especially after Nixon took the dollar off the gold-standard in 1971 … well, I was hoping that such obvious calamities would impress upon the pols and press that there was some pretty heavy weather ahead and all available attention should be focused on honing Our maturity and gravitas and reality skills in order to best prepare for the coming challenges.
Hence my thoughts here.
Lind is worked up over a short piece by George Will in which Will characterizes liberals as sharing in Woodrow Wilson’s Progressive rejection of the limits upon Constitutional government.
This, claims Lind, is nothing less than a “rewriting of American history in order to demonize liberalism”.
I would have to say: Not Quite.
First of all, any bunch that adopted whole-hog the radical feminists’ recasting of all of human history as nothing more or less than the ‘patriarchy’s oppression and willful domination of women’ (or words to that effect) is in no position to be going around claiming that other people are rewriting history.
Second, I think that what Lind actually reveals here is the nightmarish awareness that the consequences of so much of what is (still so inaccurately) called ‘liberalism’ these days have now proven themselves so hellishly wrong and wrong-headed that ‘demons’ hits just the right Hellish note – but it’s not anybody else who’s injected that note; it’s the ‘liberals’ themselves. And whether they merely played the role of cocky Sorcerer's Apprentices or the much more diabolical role of purposeful and deliberate intent ... is an interesting question.
Will – in one of those script-writey ‘hook’ designs that usually simplifies too much – asserts that there are two approaches to the Constitution, one by each of two noted Princeton alums: James Madison (Class of 1771) and Woodrow Wilson (Class of 1879). (Was Will writing for a Princeton graduation audience or some such?)
But for Will the nub is that Madison saw the Founders as viewing government as a potential tyrant that needed to be limited (not to say ‘caged’) because of the weaknesses in the nature of human beings (“the desire for untrammeled power”) and that government’s job is to protect those “natural rights that pre-exist government” (and, presumably, let civil society and humanity deploy their energies and see where things go from there; the government as Referee, so to speak).
Whereas the trouble with Wilson and the Progressives is, in Will’s view, that they acknowledge no limits to what government can, should, and must do in (my terms here) actively and assertively and even aggressively Shaping society and culture and even the minds and hearts (!) of the Citizens. There is thus in Wilson and Progressivism a “lack of a limiting principle” (to use the phrase of the author whose book Will is reviewing).
Government, in this Wilson-Progressive view, is effectively un-limited. And it must be, in order to do what it ought, should, and must do for the Citizens. In fact, if you think about it, in this view any ‘limits’ on government are immoral since they obstruct government’s ‘good works’ (or good-intentioned works, anyway) on behalf of that Shaping and Helping of the Citizens.
I’d be nervous right there, frankly, and while I may not go along with everything George Will ever wrote, I’m certainly not about to call him a ‘demonizer’ … and I most certainly am ready to see ANY claim of no-limits as some form of highway to Hell: whether in the mind of an individual or a government, the sense that one is not bound by any limits is a recipe for bedlam: in the case of the individual (think Ahab chasing the White Whale) or in the case of a government (think Ahab chasing the White Whale and taking the ship and crew along, using and manipulating them for what he sees as his righteous purpose).
If it’s hard to tell a ship captain he’s gone barking mad, how do you tell your government?
Curiously – and perhaps suspiciously – Lind’s article turns into a battle of quotations as he tries to marshal pericopes from Wilson’s works that show what a sterling and honest Progressive the gentleman really was at heart (and FDR, a member of Woody’s wartime Administration, after him).
Two points come to me.
First, Walter Karp has made a devastating case for Wilson being not a Progressive at all but rather a glorious-achievement elitist who embraced only as much ‘Progressivism’ as was necessary to undermine his genuinely Progressive opponents for the Presidency, and who then led the nation into World War 1 (giving it the Federal Reserve in 1913 as a run-up, and the military-justice system world-wide authority in 1916 ditto).
In Karp's view Wilson did all that in order, among other things, to distract and defuse the genuinely Progressive national demands for social reform, labor reform, and a more just distribution of the nation’s wealth into the hands of those workers who actually did all the heavy-lifting and sweating (at that time the wealth had become concentrated into the hands of the children of Grant’s Gilded Age Robber-Barons and some robustly ruthless mega-corporations, with the connivance of a cash-indentured Congress).*
Of course, being an ‘elitist’ was part and parcel of being a Progressive in a way: there was among the idealistic and better-born a sense of being responsible for helping the poor and downtrodden in the urban industrial cities. In THAT sense, there was a line of communion with Lenin’s concept of the “vanguard elite”, those few Party cadres who ‘got it’ and were destined and required by History to impose their vision on the lumpish though bethumped masses who ‘just didn’t get it’ and probably never could get it.
But the Midwestern Progressives such as Fighting Bob LaFollette wanted to make a stand for the American farmers whose problem was the unfair rigging of railroad and market prices, and even the currency itself, by large Eastern banks and corporations.
And the labor-Progressives such as Gompers were working to get the actual workers a better deal for all their efforts in the factories.
Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois added the elements of racial justice. The American Negro of the era was doubly whammied: first by the failure to carry-through on the hard-won promises of the victory in the Civil War and the development instead of the frakkulent Jim Crow regime, and then second by the Gilded Age Robber Barons' exploitation of Work in order to amass Wealth.
Younger Progressives such as Fiorello LaGuardia sought a better deal for urban families who by the 1920s were not simply clueless new-immigrants stuffed into enclaves but rather members of actual functioning communities of assimilating Americans who deserved better than the slums of the great industrial cities at the mercy of the notional benevolence of their corporate employers.
Woodrow Wilson had damned little in common with any of them.
Indeed, as prime mover of the Espionage Act he had Eugene Debs imprisoned for years what that noted labor leader made a speech expressing his opinion that Americans should not be made factory-fodder and cannon-fodder for the enrichment of their ‘betters’, those of great Wealth.
Second, I think there’s a profound difference between the actual Progressivism of the era 1885-1935 and whatever tries to spin itself as ‘progressive’ today.
Back then the Progressives, whether Jane Addams at Hull House or LaFollette and Debs and LaGuardia and Gompers and DuBois, were all working for a goal about which there existed substantial consensus: economic exploitation that deprived workers of a decent wage at the hands of Profit-hungry wealth (abetted by ‘rented’ politicians). The age-old human story – especially in the Industrial West – was that of worker-vs-manager, and the worker, seeking to provide for his family, was seen as the weak party in the face of the organized political power of Wealth.
Today’s ‘progressives’ are merely the ideologically bankrupt and discredited ‘liberals’ of 1970-2000 trying to re-badge themselves in order to avoid being connected to their history of frakkery.
And they are pursuing agendas about which there exists far far less ‘consensus’. And not only because these artists-formerly-known-as-liberals had read too much Lenin, but also now because 40 years have proven how little national consensus there really is in regard to their visions of American Utopia, they now want the government to impose their views on everybody else regardless.
But in such ‘cultural’ yet profoundly vital matters as abortion (nobody’s business but the female’s), Family (shouldn’t exist because it limits the female’s ‘total choice freedom’ and is patriarchal and oppressive) and indeed Men (oppressive lumpish neo-nazi violent lumps destined for the dustbin of History) … in such matters there exists no such consensus that such assertions are actually true, let alone whether any of the demanded 'solutions' to the purported problems are workable by any government in the world or in human history.
Whereas in 1895 nobody was going to argue that Wealth was exploiting Work for its own advantage. There was, as there had for so long been, a great consensus about that problem.
And thus Work could see the value – and the need – for government to step up and exercise its authority on behalf of the Worker since Wealth and its corporations possessed such a deforming gravitational influence on the national polity’s affairs.
That level of near-automatic consensus does not exist in matters of Gender, Identity Politics, Multiculturalism, ‘diversity’ (whatever all those muzzy terms mean) nor in regard to the demands issued by the various ‘progressives’ of today.
And government-by-imposition … nope. Not something in the American tradition. Wilson learned that the hard way.
And a government that is dedicated to Deconstruction of Everything in order to Reconstruct it according to those muzzy words … also hasn’t garnered a lot of consensus, and would ignite a lot more opposition if folks hadn’t been told by media and elite opinion that all this is just ‘reform’ and/or it’s a matter of ‘constitutional rights’ so nothing is open to discussion anyway.
Lind claims that any effort to characterize modern ‘progressives’ (he tries to elide classical Progressives and the modern version as if they were the same kind of critter) as denying ‘pre-existing natural rights’ and to characterize ‘progressives’ as trying to put everyone ‘on the dole’ constitute “libels”.
How can he say this?
Martha Nussbaum, most recent feministical codifier of feminist law, is plumping precisely for the ideas that government, and not any pre-existing reality from Beyond, is the source of ‘rights’.
And how else can you erect a ‘post-industrial’ ‘knowledge and service’ society where the vast majority of folks are – willy nilly – going to be assigned the neo-Feudal role of short-order helots and peasants as anything else but ‘being on the dole’? They are all going to need a whole lotta government entitlements to make ends meet, and that includes scads of immigrants who are here not because of their advanced skills, and huge numbers of single-parent females trying to raise children and hold down whatever small job they can get.
The poster-puff stories and photos of – say – the Beverly Hills gay couple with an adopted or purchased Asian baby or the successful entrepreneurial lesbians in tasteful digs who have taken advantage of post-turkey-baster technology to have kids … these are hardly indicative of the awful situation of the vast numbers of people who are responsible for children – however acquired – in a nation where ‘jobs’ for ‘adults now mean ‘service’ jobs such as burger-flipping, leaf-blowing, grocery-bagging and the hardly sufficient openings in the nanny department. Oh, and nursing jobs and bed-pan jobs to take care of a country where most citizens are expected to be semi-permanently ill or worse.
And when such highly-puffed hook-ups 'of choice' lose their savor like sticks of gum that lose their sugar, what then for those kids?
No, I can’t say that Will or anybody who shares his take on things can be accurately characterized as ‘libelling’ ‘progressives’. Agree with them or not, they aren’t delusional in their take on things or in their profound anxieties for the common weal of the American polity.
In fact, if there is any ‘delusion’ in all this …
And of course, ‘progressives’ accept no Beyond or any Higher dimension to human existence (how could they? – any ‘religious’ or ‘traditional’ or even ‘common sense’ dimension to human experience would pretty much place significant obstructions to the rapid imposition of their own Vision).
Which means that ‘the government’ is not only a government, but the Sole Source of Meaning and Help … which might not have bothered Woodrow Wilson who – until it all came crashing down on him and turned to ashes in his mouth – pretty much felt that he was destined and capable of administering such a High Task and Destiny.
Yes, FDR was eager to make things even better for folks by expanding the concept of ‘rights’ (exemplified in his ‘Second Bill of Rights’ and his ‘Four Freedoms’); and Eleanor worked hard to get such a vision of human possibilities enshrined in the early UN documents. Well and good.
But neither of them imagined – perhaps couldn’t imagine – an America Deconstructed in its primal societal and civilizational arrangements, nor an America ‘liberated’ from ‘particular religious beliefs’ or from any sense of a Beyond or a ‘God’ at all, nor a government committed to as intrusive and impositional and anti-democratic regime of implementing such agendas … as has evolved in the past 40 frakkulous years.
I doubt the canny politician FDR and the deeply-humanistic Eleanor would have contemplated a US government that simply undertook to re-Shape the very fundaments of the national culture. Not even if there existed a justification for seeing the need for change – because it’s not just what SHOULD be changed (if you can agree on that) but also how rapidly and profoundly you can bring about such change.
(If a person – a child, even – is in cardiac arrest, trying to drive the ambulance at 125mph on the streets to get there and ‘help’ isn’t going to work. And indeed may wind up harming – even killing – people.)
So when you quote FDR to the effect that the work of citizenship can’t well be done if the citizen has little or no economic security, I don’t think he or Eleanor envisioned (or would have approved of) a societal scheme where impoverished young females are having babies and then ‘need’ economic security to be provided by the government.
Nor for that matter do I think either of them would have agreed that the American Family was an instance of Auschwitz or Dachau for ‘women’. (And Eleanor, as strongly appears to be the case, was no ‘enemy’ of the Sapphic Sisterhood.)
And when you quote FDR that it’s perfectly within the American tradition to give to Americans “a wider freedom” and a larger economic and political freedom, I don’t think that you can claim that such a vision and benevolent intention automatically grounds the provision of government cash to anybody who cuts loose from everything to exercise some sort of total and un-Shaped ‘choice’ and ‘autnonomy’.
Even Lind, quoting FDR, quotes – without bothering to notice it – John Locke’s concern for and FDR’s use of the phrase “the deserving poor”. FDR wanted ‘public jobs’ for them, rather than cash hand-outs.
Two points here.
First, the government is no longer in a position to be providing public jobs since it is functionally insolvent and – if the Dollar is ‘deconstructed’ as the world’s reserve currency – will be quite obviously insolvent. There are no public monies left to fund either the entitlement society or any sort of government-employs-all society (even now, governments of states and cities are trying to lay off public-service unionized employees, and Obama’s latest ‘stimulus package’ is shrewdly designed to prevent that happening because it will both reveal the fragility of the government’s fiscal position and seriously dent re-election chances in a key constituency). The ‘knowledge-and-service’ society requires a whole lot of government cash that no longer exists.
Second, there is what used to be known as “moral hazard”, as even FDR realized: human nature being what it is, most folks aren’t going to take the need to work so seriously if they are ‘getting a check’.
(No, this is not a ‘class’ thing. As We have seen in the financial industry lately, most highly paid financial folk aren’t going to discipline themselves if the government regulators aren’t there to provide some ‘motivation’.)
Locke was truly worried that a scheme of ‘dole’ would be an occasion of sin, if you will: the government itself would encourage folks to yield to their own darker and lower tendencies to vegetate rather than get themselves up out of bed and develop, master, and share their Gifts and Energies with the rest of their community.
In ‘structuralist’ social thinking the only reason people are poor is because the structures of society make them poor – there is no consideration of the role of individual human effort. Let alone of any thought as to whether it is immoral for a government to put such temptation in the path of its people as a matter of policy.
I accept and agree with the insight of structuralism, that ‘structures’ of societal arrangement can frustrate and undermine the best efforts of people who are engaged in the arduous task of building a life for themselves and their children.
But I also know that Original Sin – as it used to be called – is a real and abiding a tendency or potential in human beings; humans are hugely susceptible to not-exerting themselves to higher levels of self-mastery of their higher potentials if given an easier way to get a meal. That reality is ignored only at lethal peril: the structuralist vision of humans is far too limited, to the point of being inadequate. And any policy based purely on structuralism will be equally as inadequate and inaccurately based.
And let’s add that in the past 40 years the whole concept of ‘deserving’ has been squelched. To call someone ‘un-deserving’ would be judgmental, and since nobody can say what is and is not ‘best’ for a human being, then nobody can say whether this or that person is acting in such a way, has made a ‘choice’ that renders the person ‘un-deserving’.
Well, if you can’t accept that there’s dog- poo on the sidewalk or you don’t want to be ‘judgmental’ or ‘rigid’, then you can’t identify the stuff ahead of you and and take appropriate action (don’t step in it), and then you’re not going to be able to avoid it – and your house and general living situation are going to be somewhat degraded in short order.
Folks have to look into their own lives to see if they’ve got some dog-poo lying around in their general approach to things, and then have to do something about it. That’s not ‘macho’ and not ‘oppressive’ and it’s not ‘judgmental’ – at least, not any more than the challenges of growing up and developing a competence in conducting a Self as well as a life are oppressive. Humans, after all, are born un-developed, and there’s a whole lot of work to be done just in growing up. It goes with the human territory.
And if you’re not going to ‘judge’ yourself (and if you’ve already been assured that there’s no God to judge you) then how are you going to select what attitudes or behaviors are or are-not contributing to a more competent and mature self and life? How, in short, do you then Shape a self and a life?
And in some of the most essential and basic tasks, ‘government’ is not going to be able to help. Not well, anyway. In fact, it might just get in the way of the progress that needs to be made by the individual.
Yes, this insight is “susceptible of easy abuse”, to use a phrase that Lind himself quotes from FDR. In 1936 FDR was defending corporations, saying that We shouldn’t get rid of them just because their concentrated social and political power is “susceptible of easy abuse”.
So since Lind brought it up, let me say this: We shouldn’t, and should never have, gotten rid of ‘responsibility’ just because the concept was “susceptible of easy abuse”, i.e. to ‘blame the victim’ – as the Seventies term put it.
Yes, Wealth loved to blame Work’s poverty on Work’s indolence and laziness . But it’s also true that every human being is responsible for developing his/her Gifts as best can be done; in fact, that’s an Attitude and a fixed purpose of will before it’s any specific level of achievement. It’s as true for a human in a prison-camp as for a human in an Ivy League college.
To give a human being the impression that nothing has to be done except to ‘be’, and that the government will then help by providing a check, isn’t going to help that individual achieve human competence let alone mastery.
Nor can you with any conceptual integrity simply wave-away the problem by saying that since nobody can say definitively what ‘human competence’ is then it doesn’t exist.
The ‘progressive’ baloney that since nobody has the right to say what Human Competence is, or to tell anyone else what it is, or to judge anybody on those terms, is just that – baloney. And most folks instinctively know it. Which is why the ‘progressives’ are now trying to get everything ‘imposed’ upon folks who clearly aren’t buying their Vision.
The fact that the legendary six blind men each reported their experience of the elephant in radically different ways doesn’t justify the conclusion that the elephant itself doesn’t exist.
Let’s face it: ‘moral hazard’ is no longer a concern in Beltway and ‘progressive’ circles because to suggest a ‘morality’ is to suggest a Beyond from which that morality receives its authority – including the authority to say what’s a good thing and not a good thing to do with such ‘choice’ and ‘autonomy’ as you might have.
No Beyond, no soul – and no Higher dimension inside or outside of the human being.
What a frakkulent Flattening THAT turns out ta be!
*See Walter Karp’s 1979 book “The Politics of War: 1890-1920”.
I have often intimated that the Beltway – under the original impetus of the Dems – embraced this whole mess 40-plus years ago due to a serious fit of vote-addled desperation about maintaining their electoral viability.
Is it possible, I am beginning to wonder, that the desperation was only a part of their motivation?
Let me propose another thread: suppose that back in those mid-late 1960s the Dems had become convinced that the Moment of postwar American dominance during which the American Worker enjoyed such remarkable employment and economic security was rapidly drawing to a close.
Suppose further that they decided not to avoid the heavy lifting of trying to preserve the security of the Worker (through preserving that Industrial-Manufacturing base).
BUT INSTEAD, AND DELIBERATELY, embraced the demands of Big Money that corporations be allowed to ‘outsource’ in order to do an end-run around the expensive American labor base.
WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY allowing themselves be seduced by the ‘theorizing’ of the radical-feminist advocacies and their follow-ons and their assorted camp-followers in ‘science’ and ‘academia’.
The seduction would have been comprised of the assorted theories to the effect that a) the Industrial Working Class Male culture was not only a) doomed by evolving world conditions but was also b) oppressive, patriarchal, and ‘male’ and that c) the ‘women’s vote’ could be secured in perpetuity if the Dems now shifted their allegiance – so to speak – to the radical-feminist Deconstructionist agenda (on top of the ‘outsourcing’ agenda of Big Money). And further that d) that old Industrial (and largelyWhite) Male Working Class culture and ‘demographic’ could easily be replaced by a kindler, gentler, more sensitive and more educated (so Academia would benefit from all this) ‘knowledge and service’ culture because e) such a knowledge-and-service scheme would create just as successful an economic base for the national economy.
The Dems (and they soon got the Republicans to go along ‘bipartisanly’) could keep Big Money and Big Pain happy; both the corporations and the radical-feminist Revolution would be happy. Academia would be on board because it would play such an important (and lucrative) role.
And the ‘women’s demographic’ would be happy. (Although this would have to be a benny shared with the Republicans … so in best ‘bipartisan’ sharing of the swag, ANY pol who went along would be rewarded with re-election not only as a ‘reward’ but also because once both Big Money and Big Pain had come to ‘own’ a pol, they wouldn’t want to see that pol leave office, which would require wooing and buying his/her successor. And thus We have the curious double-phenomenon: that you can hardly tell one Party from the other and that very few incumbents get ‘dis-elected’.
Then Multiculturalism provided a Big Theory as to why the White, Male, Working Class Industrial Culture was baaaad because ANY ‘majority’ culture is a bad thing and there should be a rainbow-diversity of ‘cultures’ instead. And thus many fresh immigrants were essential to achieve the ‘diversity’ that would water down the ‘majority’ culture.
And then, in a neat dove-tail, Deconstruction (nothing more than a French literary theory) was erected into a nationally-supported stance: it simultaneously ‘deconstructed’ the authority of not only the Beyond and of any Virtues or Excellence but also undermined the expectation that Adulthood and Maturity were of any legitimate value at all, thereby clearing the path of any objections based on life-experience or appeals to tradition or ‘common sense’ and greasing the skids for a major nation being run by ‘Youth’ (soooo Boomer a dampdream!).
And thus: the Dems didn’t just fritter away the American Moment and its strengths ‘in a fit of absence of mind’. No, they willfully and deliberately (and treacherously) chose to Deconstruct it all, including all those Workers (and male-identified wives) and the Culture and Industry that supported the country.
AND NOW it turns out that the promises that the Dems accepted as prophecies of the glorious Future (the knowledge-and-service society and its rich, vibrant, robust ‘economy’) were pipedreams: the knowledge-and-service vision doesn’t work unless you already have a stupendously wealthy government to keep it going.
So I’m suggesting that an awful synergy took place, one that spiraled into ever hotter levels of intensity as one element fueled developments in other elements and results (or consequences) began to intensify cumulatively.
And as the public was cowed into thinking that all of this was both ‘the new normal’ and a great liberation into even more glorious ‘autonomy’ (the ‘prosperity’, witlessly, was presumed to be eternal for America), and as cohorts of kids were indoctrinated into the Correct thinking or distracted from doing any critical thinking at all (how many Great Ideas can be discussed in texts and tweets?) … as all that progressed, then like Titanic, the process of sinking became accelerated as well as cumulatively more lethal.
…. That’s a frightening and sobering and enraging take on things. I’m still mulling it over myself. But it’s hardly impossible.
And – alas – its consequences are hardly unavoidable.
We’ll be lucky if they’re even repairable.