Everybody knows it’s coming apart, 15

8 12 2014

Ironically, in seeking to curb the individual will to power in favor of equality, leftists invest their own subterranean desires for freedom-as-power in the activist state. In my view, the revival of the left depends on relinquishing this investment. We need to recognize that despite appearances the state is not our friend, that in the long run its erosion is an opportunity and a challenge, not a disaster. I don’t want to be misunderstood: I’m not suggesting that we stop supporting social security or national health insurance or public schools or antidiscrimination laws. If my immediate choices are the barbarism of unleashed capital or a state-funded public sector, the tyranny of uninhibited private bigotry or state-enforced civil rights, I choose the state. Or rather, I choose the social goods and civil liberties that are available under state auspices.The distinction is important, because the idea that the state gives us these benefits is a mystification. Basically [Charles] Murray is right: government does not cause social improvement. In actual historical fact, every economic and social right that we’ve achieved since the nineteenth century has been hard-won by organized, militant, and often radical social movements: the labor movement; the socialist, communist, and anarchist movements; the new left student movement; the black and feminist and gay liberation movements; the ecology movement. . . . The role of the state from the New Deal and the postwar compact till the start of its present no-more-Mr.-Nice-Guy phase was to manage potentially destabilizing social conflict by offering carefully limited concessions to the troublemakers.

. . . The government’s current rush to abandon any pretense of social responsibility ought to make this painfully clear: what the state supposedly giveth it promptly taketh away as soon as the balance of power shifts. In this case, of course, social power is shifting away from the national state itself; liberals and social democrats are still trying to board a train that’s already left the station.

In parallel fashion, the statism of the cultural left does not further equality so much as it reinforces law and order. . . . Insofar as the demand is to outlaw overt, provable discriminatory acts by employers, landlords, store, owners, and so on, it simply aims for public recognition that (pace [David] Boaz and Murray) discrimination is a coercive act as unacceptable as violence or theft. But the problem, from the social movements’ point of view, is that overt, deliberate discrimination is only the crudest expression of a deeply rooted culture of inequality. For many opponents of that culture, it has seemed a logical next step to invoke state power against patterns of behavior that reinforce white male dominance and exclude, marginalize, or intimidate vulnerable groups.

Actually, it’s a plunge into a dangerous illusion. The ingrained behavior and attitudes that support the dominant culture are by definition widespread, reflexive, and experienced as normal and reasonable by the people who uphold them. They are also often unconscious or ambiguous. A serious effort to crush racism and sexism with the blunt instrument of the law would be a project of totalitarian dimensions—and still it would fail. Transforming a culture and its consciousness requires a different kind of politics, a movement of people who consistently and publicly confront oppressive social patterns, explain what’s wrong with them, and refuse to live by them. . . .

It’s time for the left to become a movement again. That means, first of all, depending on no one’s power but our own. . . .

Ellen Willis, Their Libertarianism—and Ours, 1997

There is much which is provocative—in the best sense of the word—in Willis’s work, and much of her left-libertarianism with which I agree.

But she doesn’t confront the contradiction in her own essay: the gains of past movements, gains which she wouldn’t give up, were accomplished through the actions of that compromised, unfriendly, authoritarian state. She criticizes the right-libertarians for not recognizing the coercive power of the marketplace and warns leftists of the coercive power of the state, but merely criticizing parallel coercions does not in an of itself offer an escape from them.

Yes, by all means, we need a new, new-left movement (NL x.0?), a new vision of freedom and equality in which we live in “voluntary cooperation” with one another. But we can’t get their simply by dismissing either the state or the market as coercive—and not only because coercion (or, if you prefer, power) itself may be inescapable.

It’s nice to say we ought to rely on no one’s power but our own, but is that enough? And what if it isn’t? That is the dilemma, and the work.





I want a new drug

14 01 2014

I need a new conservative.

I’ve been reading Rod Dreher for years. He’s a “crunchy con”—localist, traditionalist, religious—and I’ve enjoyed him in about equal measure as he’s pissed me off.

Now, however, he just pisses me off (I’ll spare you the litany of why and how), so if I am not to retreat inside my leftist-commie-hippie-Brooklyn bubble, I need some fresh meat new columnist who with ideas and a viewpoint worth taking seriously.

Reihan Salam is probably worth a look, and maybe I’ll start reading First Things again. I already read Tyler Cowen regularly for the market-libertarian view (although I think Alex Tabarrok is an idiot), and stroll through Christianity Today a couple of times a week. I should probably add Front Porch Republic more regularly to the mix (tho’ those guys never use 10 words when 100 are available), and maybe there’s someone or two on Patheos who can expand my eyeballs.

What of conservative women who aren’t a) mere culture warriors or b) shills for the Republicans? Hm, anyone on Secular Right who’s particularly good?

I’m serious about all of this. I’m a leftist for all kinds of reasons, not least of which is that I think it’s the correct approach for understanding the world, but it ain’t the perfect approach, and I am liable to miss all kinds of things if I hold only to this view. I also don’t want to fall into mere warrior mode, and miss the fact that those who are conservative may also be funny and profound and share a taste in whisky, sci-fi, and assorted bad habits.

I had that with Dreher. I’ll keep reading him, as well as the other folks at American Conservative, but I am just. . . tired.

I need a new conservative.





God sometimes you just don’t come through

2 12 2013

Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.

So says Rod Dreher:

Turmarion says:

With each passing day, we come closer to Cardinal George’s prophecy being fulfilled. — RD

You mean that bishops will be imprisoned or executed? Do you really think that?

[NFR: Imprisoned, yes, I really believe that. — RD]

Dreher has long expressed concern about life in a “post-Christian culture”—defined as one in which the organizing principles of his version of Christianity (traditional, orthodox) are no long the central organizing principles of society—but this is the first time I can recall him stating so explicitly his belief that Christians will be hunted by the government.

Makes sense, in its own nonsensical way: If one believes that Christians must remain in charge in order not to be persecuted, then when they are no longer in charge, they will of course be put to the cross. So to speak.

I have my doubts about whether we in the US do, in fact, live in a post-Christian culture, or whether Europeans, with many fewer believers, are post-Christian, either. To put it another way, we are post-Christian in the way we are post-modern: not at all.

That’s another argument for another time, however. I want instead to focus on the profound bad faith of Dreher’s statement. I don’t doubt that he does, truly, believe this, but the statement itself betrays a cynicism about government, society, and human beings which sets off even my bitter little heart.

To repeat: Christians must be in charge or be persecuted. Let us consider what is contained in such a Manichaean axiom:

  1. Christians must be in charge, always.
  2. Non-Christians cannot be trusted not to persecute Christians.
  3. The only persecution which matters is that of Christians.

Most excellent, that belief, that people who do not share you views have it in for you.

We, the heretics and infidels and apostates and agnostics and atheists and Morally Therapeutic Deists (a favorite Trojan horse of Dreher’s) must by the very fact that we are not Certifiable Christians want to imprison the faithful, and are only prevented from doing so by the (benevolent) power of Christianity.

Once that power fades, we, the heretofore-necessarily-second-classed, shall be unleashed to lay waste to the land.

The persecution complex runs strong in American mythos—Puritans, anyone?—as is what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics“; the belief that bishops will be soon be hauled off to jail is simply another brick in the great wall of reaction.

Still pisses me off, though, that I am to trust, but cannot be trusted.





It’s another round in the losing fight, pt III

6 09 2013

Rounding out the reconsideration:

3. It’s not unfair when you lose. Yes, if the game is rigged or there are payoffs or some other kinds of undermining going on, that’s unfair. But loss in and of itself is not unfair, in sport, argument, or politics.

And loss in these areas is just loss, rarely anything more. It’s not evidence of conspiracy, of the evil of your fellow humans, or of the breakdown of civilization. It is not The End.

“Win some, lose some” (or, for the more ursine-inclined among you, “sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you”) is the point, here.

4. It’s only unfair to use your rules against you if the rules were unfair to begin with. Kinda a mouthful, I know, but it pretty much gets to the point: If you’re fine with the rules when you were winning, it’s gonna be tough to garner sympathy for THE INJUSTICE OF IT ALL!!! when you’re losing.

Relatedly, if it were fine for you to write the rules when you were in charge, then it’s just sour grapes to bitch about other people writing rules when they’re in charge.

5. That you lost or are unpopular doesn’t mean you’re oppressed. If you live in a political culture of strict majority-rule losing can lead to repression, but neither the politics nor the culture of the US is strict majority-rule. Almost no political win or loss is final (cf. “win-some-bears-get-you”), and even in those cases where the culture seems to have shifted decisively, as with same-sex marriage, those on the losing side can continue to fight as long as they have fight in them.

It’s true that those who oppose civil recognition and the normalization of same-sex relationships will likely have their arguments dismissed by those who already think such relationships normal, and may be called bigots and homophobes. Those opponents might feel they can no longer bring up their views at work or in public, and worry that there may come a time when they have to choose between their principles and their jobs or a friendship. Going along to get along can, in fact, feel pretty damned oppressive.

But here’s where #4 comes in. If it’s terrible that you no longer feel you can voice opinions which you once offered freely, was it terrible that those who disagreed with you felt they couldn’t voice their opinions? And if it’s terrible now, why wasn’t it terrible then? And why isn’t it terrible for other unpopular opinions? And, to sharpen the point, if you lose your job or a promotion because you hold political views contrary to those of your boss, is the problem the contrary views or an at-will employment system which does not protect political minorities?

I do have some sympathy for those who feel they can’t speak up, precisely because there have been times I’ve kept my mouth shut rather than make trouble. You don’t want to be That chick or have to explain why you would even consider holding the views you do over and over and over again. If you are out of step, it is easy to feel stepped on.

So, yes, JS Mill had a point about social conformity: it often is oppressive! To live among others is to conform, which means there’s no way to escape such oppression.

But that there are consequences for nonconformity doesn’t always mean one must conform: If you can, in fact, live with those consequences, then perhaps you are not oppressed—or, at least, not helplessly oppressed.

I, for example, don’t care much about money, and I live in a culture—and in a city, especially!—which prizes financial gain. That I haven’t sought to maximize my wealth marks me as a kind of loser, and when I visit family and friends who own houses and don’t make shelves out of wine boxes I think Jeez, I am doing life wrong.

Still, most of the time I am able to live with the consequences of my choices and priorities. It’s a pain in the ass that I have to think about money as much as I do, and think that if I made just a wee bit more I could happily minimize my cash anxieties, but I’ve managed to cobble together a life of which I at least have a shot of making sense.

Am I oppressed? I don’t think so. Out of step in some important ways, yes, but as long as I am able to step out, to live my own absurd life, well, I can live with that.

~~~

And yes, there will be a caveats-to-the-caveats post.





Don’t want to be a richer man, pt II

29 08 2013

Back to unpacking that hastily stuffed post:

2. Losing status is not an injustice. It’s not fun, and it may feel unfair, but the loss of status in and of itself is not unfair.

Status can be earned or unearned, related to deeds, to relationships, to kinship, something taken or something granted. It almost certainly is culturally dependent—what earns you status in one culture may earn you contempt in another—and, depending upon that culture, may be related to justice or not. In cultures in which people think they deserve their status, they are likely more likely to believe that changes in the culture which lead to changes (loss) in status are unfair.

This could be seen as the aims of the civil rights movement in the US were absorbed into society and instantiated in governmental and corporate policy. As a result, those who had formerly only to compete with one another for position were instead forced to compete with those who had been kept out of the game.

To switch up the metaphor: white men could no longer count on always being first in line for jobs, promotions, college admissions, and sundry other social goods. They lost status.

That they did so, however, was not unjust. American society was formed out of the ungainly mess of egalitarianism, white supremacy, patriarchy, justice, toleration, conformity, segregation, integration, settlement, escapism, hard work, and luck, and as the polity shifted away from over supremacism in terms of both race and sex, the sense of “who was best (for the position, say)” shifted.

The liberationist in me would say Not damned nearly enough, but I do recognize the shift has occurred, and in a direction which has benefitted me and, I would argue, society as a whole: I think it is better to live in a society in which the placement of one’s reproductive organs  does not determine one’s prospects in that society, or where  people”will not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character.”

(I know that’s an overused phrase and not even his best one, but on the 50th anniversary of the speech, it seemed apropos.)

Now, I admit that I’m overloading “status” somewhat, leaving “justice” untouched. No, I don’t think justice exists outside of culture, but one of the enduring fictions of American culture is that, supremacism notwithstanding, justice bears some relationship to deeds, and that everyone deserves a fair shot at a decent life. The definition of justice didn’t change so much as did the “everyone” who deserved the fair shot: the pool of who were to be considered in matters of justice got a whole lot more crowded.

With the expansion of “everyone” to include almost every citizen, the status which had accrued to white male citizens simply for being white male citizens was necessarily lessened—not because status was taken away in an absolute sense, but, because it was granted to so many other people, meant relatively less.

To bring in yet another analogy: it’s not that white men got kicked out of the pool but that they had to share it. And yeah, if you’re used to having the joint to yourself, having to share it is a loss.

But it is not unjust.





As they try to change their worlds, pt I

25 08 2013

I may have been a bit brusque in stating “nobody cares about you”.

I did add the qualifier that “nobody” means “those who don’t know you”, but even with that dilution, it was too strong a statement: there are people who do genuinely care about strangers, and that there may exist a widespread (if minimal) sympathy amongst the members of our species suggests that, yes, many of us do care—however minimally—about one another.

The real problem with that statement, however, was that it bundled together too many dynamics, not all of which go together. So, to haul out that nifty word-tool of my grad school years, let’s unpack those bundled dynamics, shall we?

1. Changes are not conspiracies. I’d guessed that “the fear of incipient repression could be found among any group which sees its superior status threatened”—that is, that changes in society which are meant to benefit an out-group can be seen by some in the in-group as primarily an attack on the in-group. Thus, those in favor of queer rights and same-sex marriage are seen as less interested in preserving themselves than in destroying others.

I read the blogs at The American Conservative (Rod Dreher regularly and others semi-regularly) and pop over to Christianity Today a couple of times a week, and it is common for some bloggers and commenters alike to see legal and cultural changes as either harbingers of complete societal collapse and/or portents of a future in which all “true” Christians are targeted for oppression; some see the extension of anti-discrimination laws (e.g., no business may refuse to serve a same-sex couple simply because they are gay) or the enforcement of laws of general applicability (e.g., secular businesses run by religious people are not exempt from the contraception provisions of the Affordable Care Act) as evidence of anti-Christian oppression today.

Someone like me sees changes in the structure of the law and shifts in cultural perceptions of minorities (of whatever sort) as part of a by-no-means-straightforward amalgam of overt and organized political action, artistic presentations, elite intellectual debates, media representations, everyday experiences, and, of course, material conditions and economic forces. As such, while changes can have intensely personal meanings, they are not personal per se, but are instead changes in the rules which affect everyone.

Consider the 1965 Supreme Court ruling, Griswold v. Connecticut, which overturned a state law prohibiting contraceptive use for married couple. State attacks on contraception went back decades, although by the time the pill was developed (in the 1950s), contraception was not only legal but embraced in many states. Griswold (and later, Eisenstadt v. Baird), simply toppled an opposition which had long since dwindled. Contraceptive use became the norm.

Were Griswold and Eisenstadt an attack on Catholicism? Anti-Catholic sentiment, however much it had dwindled since the 19th century, was still prevalent in this country, and that the Catholic Church was officially against contraception was known; to strike down bans on contraception could be seen as evidence of contempt for Catholicism—as, indeed some have seen and continue to see it today.

The Court rulings, however, depended upon a (still-contested) finding of a right to privacy in the Constitution. There was nothing which required the Church to change its own doctrine; these cases simply took away a series of state-sponsored supports* for that doctrine. The Church would be free to inveigh against barrier and chemical  methods of birth control, but they could no longer rely on state law to help them to enforce their opposition.

(*That a state happened to have anti-contraception laws didn’t mean that they passed them to support Catholicism; regardless of intent, however, they had the effect of doing so.)

Due to these rulings as well as to other cultural changes, the Church clearly lost, not only authority but also status. Catholics were not prevented from believing that artificial birth control was bad nor were they required to use it, but their anti-contraceptive position was taken to apply only to Catholics themselves (and not all of them accepted the official position) and was otherwise accorded no greater weight than any other position on the matter. The ground shifted, and in a way which put Catholics authorities on the same level as any other authority: they no longer had special status.

To those who lose such status, the loss is almost certainly personally felt, but that one feels it personally does not mean it was meant personally. The ground underneath everyone’s feet shifted, not just those officials and members of the Catholic Church. and that the Church was unhappy with the quake does not mean the quake was directed at them.

~~~

There’s more than this, of course, but let’s take it slow: haste did me in, last time.





On the tv and the media

29 06 2013

I’m no good at personal confrontation.

I know, I know, y’all are thinking But absurdbeats, you can be such a bitch!  And it’s true! I can be! But as comfortable as I am tearing into an argument, I am no good at tearing into a person—so much so that I cringe at witnessing a person getting chewed out.

That said, my discomfort transformed into awe over the course of this video:

Maybe because this guy wasn’t some poor schmoe but a CEO, maybe because Congresswoman Duckworth was so righteous, maybe because he was so. goddamned. shameless, but I actually enjoyed this, uh, little exchange.

Commenters on other sites have pointed out that the problem may lie less with Mr. Owie-I-Turned-My-Ankle-Once than with a system that allows him to claim a veteran’s disability for an injury sustained in prep school, and I don’t disagree.

But: a shitty system does not excuse shitty behavior.

Systems matter. The ancients pointed out that the type of society in which one lives affects one’s behavior, and over the millenia thinkers have exhausted a lotta brain cells trying to figure out how, exactly, culture may shore up or degrade virtue. Aristotle wondered whether one could be good in a bad polis, Diogenes wandered about searching for that one honest man, and today those of very different political persuasions bewail the corruption of our culture and the doom which awaits us all.

So, okay, culture matters.

But so, too, does conscience. I don’t know the exact relationship between culture and conscience, what resources any one individual needs to reflect on this relationship, nor what one needs to choose conscience over an interest which culture may promote, but I doubt that conscience is always and everywhere collapsible into culture.

There’s something called ‘virtue ethics‘ which focuses on conscience and character. I am dubious of its efficacy on its own—it’s too easy to slide from virtue as a goal to virtue as an excuse—but as part of a comprehensive set of standards, it’s can help to check oneself. If you want to think of yourself as a good person, then you need to consider what are the actions of a good person, and how do my actions compare.

This is where the whole conscience-culture nexus gets tangled (as least for us epistemological nihilists): If culture decides what is ‘good’, and I want to be ‘good’, then how can I go against culture?

That’s a tough one, and in its abstract form I can only offer multiple, partial answers.

The case of Mr. Owie-Ankle, happily, is not so abstract, and thus more amenable to judgement.

Braulio Castillo clearly cares about goodness. He’s a man who contributes to charity and gives back to his community.  Given that he publicizes these good works, one can safely say that Castillo has at least thought about what is good.

As such, it is telling that he both highlights his “military service” and obscures the details by which he came to claim veteran’s disability based on that “service”. On his company’s website it is noted that he

attended the United States Military Academy (West Point) Preparatory School. Braulio was honorably discharged from the United States Army and received a service connected, disability rating from the Department of Veterans Affairs for his active duty service as an enlisted soldier in the US Army.

Did you catch that? He attended not West Point, but West Point Prep, doesn’t detail the injury (injured his foot in an exercise), and calls his time spent at that prep school “active duty service as an enlisted soldier in the US Army.”

It was not.

If he thought that he did nothing wrong in claiming a 30-percent disability for an injury sustained prior to an active college-football career, then why not publicize the details?

It’s entirely possible that he thinks that doing good here makes good whatever he does there (another skew in virtue ethics), so why bother with such petty matters as, um, fudging the facts?

It is also entirely possible that he may have been suffering from a malady Upton Sinclair identified long ago: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”  And perhaps he could point to the particular business culture in which he operated—in which not understanding something is SOP—and say B-b-b-but everyone’s doing it! and claim that if his acts aren’t, y’know, good-good, they are at least par for the course.

(Of that last possibility, I would be unshocked.)

But that he called himself an “enlisted soldier in the US Navy Army” on “active duty service” when he was neither tells me he knew he was fucking with the facts, and was fucking with those facts for money.

That’s not good, Mr. Castillo, not good at all. You richly deserved that shredding.

And because of that, I richly enjoyed that dessert.








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