Sunday, February 26, 2017

Nationalize Facebook and Twitter

Ross Douthat has admirably announced that he will be outlining a set of ambitious policy proposals. As I remarked (in full seriousness) on Twitter, I hope Douthat's forthcoming series will include discussions of worker cooperatives (or at least profit sharing) and a full-throated defense of ludditry (burn the machine!)

Inspired by Douthat's example, I would like to outline a radical idea of my own: The federal government should take control of Facebook, Twitter, and (possibly) Google. I of course do not fully agree with that proposition. But it is worth serious consideration.

Social media companies have come to constitute the American public sphere. All political, moral, economic, and social debate in this country is now mediated through a handful of privately-run online platforms. It isn't just that Facebook and Twitter contribute to public discourse, they define it. Given that reality of contemporary mass society, it has become painfully clear that social media exerts disproportionate control over our politics. The power of Facebook and Twitter to ban certain voices and ideas and to promote others is tantamount to the power of adjudicating what views are and are not acceptable in American social life.

The more power these companies come to command, the more our first amendment right of free speech will be reduced to nothing more than a mere parchment guarantee. As social media platforms become not merely participants in social discourse, but the foundation of civil society itself, they will need to be made accountable to political oversight and control. Of course mass exit could undermine that monopolistic power. But the degree to which Facebook and Twitter have ingrained themselves in social life makes that possibility rather remote.

Following the Citizens United decision, much of the political Left in this country insisted that democracy as we knew it was dead. That hysterical reaction was, it seems to me, entirely overblown. But you need not believe that a corporation's ability to purchase a 30 second political commercial on TV constitutes an illicit form of corporate corruption to agree with me that the ability to control who may or may not speak in the nation's de facto public sphere is nothing short of totalitarian plutocracy.

As I said at the top, I am of course not entirely serious about this proposal. I'm not sure if it would be legally possible, and I worry it would be altogether unwise. I certainly do not put much faith in the federal government as a guarantor of free speech. But I put substantially less faith in the judgment of a cadre of barely post-pubescent, trans-humanist, "militantly open-minded," rootless, innovation-worshiping, technocratic tech junkies in Silicon Valley. (Some, I assume, are good people). Put another way, the federal government seems far less likely than Mark Zuckerberg to take teacher-of-princes Mark Tushnet's advice to heart.

Some degree of federal involvement and accountability, then, may be necessary. But I am open to other proposals. A former professor of mine, for example, has suggested that Facebook be democratized from within. Another possibility would be to regulate social media platforms as public utilities with respect to speech issues. There are difficulties with these views as well, but that the prescription may be imperfect does not mean that the malignancy isn't there.

So that's the second radical idea I have proposed on this blog. The first, I suppose, was banning usury. I take this one somewhat more seriously. A related soon-to-be mainstream view of mine is that aspiring tyrant Mark Zuckerberg should be immediately ostracized. But that's a topic for a later post.

Patriotism, Nationalism, and Loyalty

Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru's recent defense of nationalism in the cover story for National Review launched a bit of a debate among conservative commentators. Lowry and Ponnuru's qualified defense of nationalism was critiqued by Jonah Goldberg, who drew a line between nationalism--a cultural loyalty to one's tribe--and patriotism--a commitment to the political ideals of one's country.

It's not at all clear to me if Goldberg's conceptual distinctions here can apply outside of America. As Goldberg observes:

Our shrines are to patriots who upheld very specific American ideals. Our statues of soldiers commemorate heroes who died for something very different from what other warriors have fought and died for for millennia. Every one of them — immigrants included — took an oath to defend not just some soil but our Constitution and by extension the ideals of the Founding. Walk around any European hamlet or capital and you will find statues of men who fell in battle to protect their tribe from another tribe.
But does this distinction mean, therefore, that Europeans are incapable of exercising patriotism? Or does it mean that the only true European patriots are those who honor the new European constitution? Perhaps that's what Goldberg means. But patriotism is not a new word or a new concept. And the fine distinctions Goldberg tries to draw here don't strike me as all that impressive. Of course the American project is distinguished by its creedal character. Only a fool could deny that. But faith in the Declaration of Independence or an appreciation of James Madison's genius clearly does not a patriot make. Our founding documents are admired by Belgians and Bengalis. And quite a few American patriots (including me every once in a while) have little patience for the extravagant liberalism of "America the Idea."

Yuval Levin's contribution to the debate (which generously referenced my own musings on this topic) is far more balanced:

The ideas aren’t what matters most. The people are. And forgetting that, as we on the Right sometimes do, is a very great failing. An overly abstract idealistic Americanism has contributed a lot to the failure of our politics in recent years. You can see it in particular in the immigration debates, and more generally in the unrequited desire for solidarity that drives a lot of the populism we now see. I’ve taken up that point around here before in recent years, most recently after the Brexit vote.   
But the ideas and ideals are nonetheless also crucial to what makes American nationalism a force for good. And they are also what unites American nationalism with American exceptionalism. We cannot truly respect ourselves as a people without a story rooted in what has made us distinct. Ross Douthat wrote insightfully about this challenge this past weekend.
Reading through these exchanges, I was reminded of a challenging lecture Alasdair MacIntyre delivered on the topic of patriotism some years ago. MacIntyre is never easy to interpret, but he in part seems to agree with Goldberg's conceptual account of nationalism, while rejecting Goldberg's normative conclusion. Patriotism for MacIntyre is either a pre-liberal loyalty to one's fellows or it is nothing at all. Corrupting that loyalty with Levin's "ideals" only serves to corrupt the virtue.

MacIntyre's challenge is an important one. But it must be observed that there is something radically modern about his stringent dichotomy. Pericles Funeral Oration is one of our tradition's quintessential statements of love of patria. But it is of course a celebration of an Athens dedicated to a set of propositions. Are we to insist that Pericles is guilty of a creeping proto-liberalism? Perhaps we could, but that does not strike me as all too productive a use of our time.

There are important tensions that the American conservative must grapple with in understanding his patriotism. After all, this creedal country's practice has often been at odds with (and at times far better than) her ideals. For the conservative, then, nationalism and patriotism (for I draw no distinction between the two) are born from a loyalty to and gratitude for our political inheritance, but are perfected when we build on and celebrate the best of our tradition. Loyalty commits us not only to love that which is our own, but to treasure the good we find in it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Civic Nationalism and President Trump's Inaugural Address

There wasn’t much to be excited about in President Trump’s inaugural address last week. The speech’s language itself was, of course, more demotic and crude than that of any inaugural in American history. And there is no doubt Trump neglected to provide the invocations of our national civic religion one expects at such occasions. These developments aren’t necessarily all bad. While the decline of oratory is lamentable, Trump’s plain-spokenness really just makes stark the rhetorical emptiness that has characterized American political speeches for decades. And while our civic religion does periodically need reinvigoration, perhaps it is appropriate to take a break from tired (and increasingly implausible) paeans to this great land of opportunity.

Yet while certainly a disappointment, many of the conservative critiques of the speech (exemplified by this Bill Kristol tweet) proved rather helpful in making me see the bright side of Trump’s rhetorical pivot. After all, it is a very good thing indeed that our President has retired the utopian clichés of late-stage neoconservatism. President Bush’s Second Inaugural gave us enough of those shibboleths to last several lifetimes

In fact, I am thrilled to see a rhetorical and philosophical transition toward a civic nationalist conservatism. But I remain worried that Trump’s nationalism won’t really move beyond the dogmas of the recent past. As someone pointed out to me over lunch a couple days ago, in many ways Trump is simply assembling all the nation’s worst clichés, left and right, since World War II. The GOP’s new civic nationalism accordingly threatens to combine the very worst of social democratic statism with the very worst of Reaganite supply-side economics, adding a new contribution of caesarist, rule-by-command.

Trump’s rhetoric of national greatness in many respects recalls the progressive “New Nationalism” of Teddy Roosevelt. Fixated with an illusory “national community,” such nationalism demands war against corrupt elites (the swamp Trump so desperately wishes to drain) to advance the public good. In Roosevelt’s words:
The American people are right in demanding that New Nationalism, without which we cannot hope to deal with new problems. The New Nationalism puts the national need before sectional or personal advantage. It is impatient of the utter confusion that results from local legislatures attempting to treat national issues as local issues. It is still more impatient of the impotence which springs from overdivision of governmental powers, the impotence which makes it possible for local selfishness or for legal cunning, hired by wealthy special interests, to bring national activities to a deadlock. This New Nationalism regards the executive power as the steward of the public welfare.
I certainly agree that many of our elites represent a grave threat to the health of our national culture and civic institutions. But I fear that Trump’s authoritarian pragmatic impulse may well be a cure as deadly as our disease. Calvin Coolidge wisely observed that when any man “begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions.” And if there is anything at all we can be sure Trump actually believes, it is that he is the indispensable man.

I had hoped then for an inaugural less charged with the impulse to remake America anew, and more dedicated to providing a philosophical statement of the meaning of citizenship. In this regard, Teddy Roosevelt is not a bad act to follow. Our politics today is threatened by seemingly intractable cultural divisions, fueled unrelentingly by the academy’s fixation with identity politics. What is needed in response is a restatement of American citizenship without hyphens:
There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all. This is just as true of the man who puts “native” before the hyphen as of the man who puts German or Irish or English or French before the hyphen. Americanism is a matter of the spirit and of the soul…. 
The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality, each at heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality, than with the other citizens of the American Republic.
I was glad to hear in Trump’s inaugural one or two references to a pan-ethnic American solidarity. But the speech did little to provide a clear statement of the meaning of American citizenship. To be a citizen is to be given the real opportunity to lead a decent, flourishing, American life. It entails a thick commitment not only to our people’s material prosperity, but to their ability to assimilate into the cultural mainstream. 

This is the argument from solidarity civic nationalists should advance in favor of immigration restrictionism, for example. Solidarity cannot be sustained in a nation that lacks the ability to integrate immigrants and their children. Our primary priority today should be extending opportunity and social dignity to the millions of Americans who have been forgotten, including, of course, our black racial underclass. But with a foreign-born share of the population at historic highs, and with assimilation rates slowing to a crawl, continued mass migration threatens to further ossify an existing racial caste system.

The nationalist, "America First" philosophy of immigration demands taking in relatively few immigrants, but affording those we do take in a real chance at cultural and economic integration. At the same time, it calls us to prioritize expanding opportunities to the most disadvantaged of our fellow citizens before maximizing global utility and welfare.

Such a renewed ethos of solidarity should be the core of a civic nationalist conservatism. I can't say I am optimistic that this is what President Trump’s promise of “America First” will deliver, but I can say I remain hopeful.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Stanley Hauerwas on the Dangers of Community

I recently came across this excellent interview with Stanley Hauerwas on the limits of the idea of community. The distinction he draws here between two types of community has some useful parallels with an early blog post I wrote on "two concepts of nationalism."
First, community for community’s sake is not a good idea. Sartre is right: hell is other people! Community by itself cannot overwhelm the loneliness of our lives. I think we are a culture that produces extreme loneliness. Loneliness creates a hunger – and hunger is the right word, indicating as it does the physical character of the desire and need to touch another human being.

But such desperate loneliness is very dangerous. Look at NFL football. Suddenly you’re in a stadium with a hundred thousand people and they are jumping up and down. Their bodies are painted red, like the bodies that surround them. They now think their loneliness has been overcome. I used to give a lecture in my basic Christian Ethics class that I called “The Fascism of College Basketball.” You take alienated upper-middle-class kids who are extremely unsure of who they are – and suddenly they are Duke Basketball. I call it Duke Basketball Fascism because fascism has a deep commitment to turning the modern nation-state into a community. But to make the modern state into a kind of community – for the state to become the primary source of identity through loose talk about community – is very dangerous. It is not community for its own sake that we seek. Rather, we should try to be a definite kind of community.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Book Review of Samuel Bowles' The Moral Economy

I recently published a review of Samuel Bowles' fine new book, The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives are No Substitute for Good Citizens. You can read the entire review at The New Rambler. Below is a slightly revised excerpt from the end of the piece:

Carrots and sticks must be part of a moralized judgment, not independent of competing conceptions of the good. In the words of the Victorian jurist, James Fitzjames Stephen, “the law is to the moral sentiments of the public … what a seal is to hot wax. It converts into a permanent judgment what might otherwise be a transient sentiment.” Incentives can’t be an alternative to social scripts for a life well lived; they must strengthen them.

Samuel Bowles formulates a critique of contemporary liberalism that is in many respects largely familiar. Richard Titmuss’ 1977 book, The Gift Relationship, sparked a fierce debate among economists and philosophers in arguing that altruism was far superior to markets in promoting blood donations. Kenneth Arrow replied with an influential critique, leveling two major objections: Titmuss failed to adequately theorize how market incentives crowd out moral motivations, and Titmuss failed to bring adequate evidence to bear in defense of the theoretical claim. Bowles’ contribution in this book is in many respects his response to both objections. The mechanisms of situation-dependent social cues and endogenous preference formation provide the theoretical account Titmuss lacked, and the major advances in experimental economics and game theory provide compelling evidence for the phenomenon’s empirical validity.

More importantly still, Bowles has demonstrated how Titmussian critiques of market economics apply just as powerfully to the philosophical doctrine of liberal neutrality. Perhaps not entirely comfortable with some of his conservative bedfellows on this latter point, Bowles is reluctant to appeal explicitly to the language of “soulcraft,” as George Will put it decades ago. He is happier lamenting the loss of altruism and other-oriented moral motivation. Yet his argument may prove more than he would like. For if it is true that political and economic institutions can’t help but shape our deepest assumptions about the world, Aristotelian Legislators can’t limit themselves merely to the cultivation of “social preferences.” They must recognize instead that sound policymaking requires a fairly thick underlying vision of the human good.

The Moral Economy
appeals to an ancient truth. Incentives and self-interest are no substitute for moral motivation and altruism. The state cannot rudely impose laws on society with the alchemical hope that the right institutions, the right prices, and the right political form can successfully shape any people, any preferences, and any political matter. As Aristotle understood well, and which political economy has only recently recognized, the coercive power of the state depends on and is inextricably bound up with the character and culture of the community.

The entire piece can be read here.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Martha Nussbaum on Anger and Retribution

It is never good news to find yourself disagreeing with Martha Nussbaum. And yet her newest book, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice, while full of her characteristic philosophical breadth and eloquence, just screams out for refutation. I do not attempt to provide such a refutation here. Nussbaum’s is an impressive contribution to a longstanding debate, and a short blog post in no way affords her work the respect it is owed. But I will try to identify and briefly explicate my three principal objections

1. Nussbaum misreads the Oresteia

I have noted that it is always unnerving to find yourself disagreeing with Martha Nussbaum. This is especially the case in matters of classics exegesis. But no matter.

Nussbaum opens the book with an intriguing re-interpretation of the Oresteia. At the end of the cycle, the carnal, animalistic impulses of the Furies somehow morph into the gentle, judicious judgments of the Eumenides. The transition from Furies into “blessed ones” is representative of the evolution of justice from blood vengeance to the rule of law. Yet Nussbaum goes one step beyond this traditional reading, arguing that the Furies aren’t just forced to accept the constraints of law imposed by the civilized state around them. More than that, the Furies have fundamentally transformed their very nature. They no longer embody the primal impulse for retributive justice. They are now reason-giving and impartial, motivated not by anger, but by benevolence. As she puts it: “Aeschylus suggests that political justice does not just put a cage around anger, it fundamentally transforms it, from something hardly human, obsessive, bloodthirsty, to something human, accepting of reasons, calm, deliberate, and measured.”

This seems to me to go too far. It is true that Athena ends the cycle of blood-vengeance by institutionalizing a permanent body to dispense a new, procedural justice. Yet unlike Apollo, who scorns the ancient past, Athena seeks reconciliation with it. She knows that the Furies remain “the court of last appeal, the final blood avengers,” and she recognizes that their ancient passions cannot be excised; they must be built into the foundation of political justice. After initial resistance, the Furies agree to make their new home both within and beneath the city of Athens themselves. They become the Eumenides on Athena’s promise that they will continue to dispense their ancient justice, only now through the proper procedure.

It seems to me that the Furies, then, have not undergone a transformation in their fundamental essence. It remains their responsibility to oversee the people of Athens, and when man defies their justice, “their crushing hatred hits him, their implacable rage grinds him down to dust.” Vengeance and anger still constitute the most basic foundation of justice. While the new court of Athens is composed of wise and judicial citizens, Athena has literally built this system on top of the ancient structure of blood-vengeance. Athena’s new civic justice remains nourished and legitimized by the primal passions of an older age.

I think there is wisdom in Aeschylus’ teaching (as I have interpreted it). On my reading it is impossible to do away with the anger and retribution of ancient justice. Those impulses aren’t vices to be tamed, they remain the very foundation of our thinking about justice and desert.

2. Nussbaum’s emphasis on the “payback wish” misrepresents the strongest case for retributivism

Nussbaum’s critique of retributivism is grounded largely on her dismissal of the “payback wish.” By this, Nussbaum understands retributivism to be motivated primarily by an incoherent, futile belief that punishment will somehow restore cosmic balance to the universe. But of course, sophisticated retributivist theories never place too much value in a kind of schadenfreude—the sentiment conjured up by Nussbaum's “road of payback.”

Nor should retributivists be particularly troubled by Nussbaum’s insistence that such payback is “futile.” By this, Nussbaum means that the executors of retributive justice will never “get back” what they lost. The crime against them has been committed, and no punishment will restore what has been taken. That is all certainly the case. But it is also irrelevant. Sophisticated accounts don’t treat retribution as merely restorative. The original crime of course cannot be undone. But that’s not the point. Retributive anger is essentially other-regarding, not self-regarding. Retribution tracks deserved treatment; it has nothing to do with the fanciful wish to get something back. Retribution is not, as Nussbaum would have it, a futile exercise in self-satisfaction, it is a resonant principle of other-oriented justice.

This realization leads us to a much deeper problem with Nussbaum’s analysis. On her view, the central problem with anger and retribution is that they are “backward-looking.” True justice requires a transition from that backward-orientation toward the future. But what exactly is wrong with the kind of backward-lookingness she associates with retributivism? To see the limits of the view, let’s consider cases of deserved good-treatment. Acts of kindness or generosity trigger in the recipients certain reciprocal moral obligations. Those obligations aren’t grounded in a kind of abstract consideration of what will make the future go best. They are instead sensitive to real, morally significant acts taken in the past. The duties of gratitude, for example, are moral obligations that guide future conduct rooted in a consideration of what came before. This has nothing to do with producing cosmic harmony, as Nussbaum suggests. It is instead a simple recognition that moral desert can be rooted in the past and can nonetheless shape future-oriented obligations.

To take another example, consider the moral pull of the call for reparations for the descendants of American slaves. This particular issue is itself quite complex and deserving of a fuller treatment. But the case for such reparations is not most plausibly rooted in some general belief that greater redistribution will ex ante make things go best. Instead, the policy is attractive precisely because of the historic wrong it tracks, and because of the demands of deserved treatment those historic wrongs evoke.

Many more difficulties remain with Nussbaum’s critique of retributivism that can be adequately addressed here. I remain convinced that retribution is the basis of just punishment in large part because all the other alternatives seem to justify far more than is acceptable. For instance, if punishment is to be justified entirely on some account of what makes the future go best, it is difficult to understand the wrongness of punishing the innocent. Nussbaum does have some things to say on this point, but none that prove particularly compelling to me. But this broader point of dispute demands a more systematic treatment than I can provide here.

3. Nussbaum’s discussion of incarceration and the justice system is wholly inadequate

Perhaps the least satisfying section of Nussbaum’s book is her brief discussion of the American criminal justice system. America’s mass incarceration, on her view, stems directly from our incoherent retributivist impulses. She appends to this diagnosis an almost obligatory invocation of racism as a significant motivation in shaping America’s legal structure. I do not wish to argue that Nussbaum is wrong in this diagnosis of the American incarceral state. I wish merely to point out that her discussion is inadequate.

No serious, good-faith effort is made to engage with the suggestion that incarceration has substantially reduced crime and has produced significant improvements to social welfare. The tone of Nussbaum’s discussion here implies that such an empirical hypothesis is so absurd as to merit no serious consideration.

Nussbaum points us to the important work of James Heckman, and rightly insists that social science research has produced a broad range of encouraging interventions that might reduce crime without increasing incarceration. This is important research that I too hope to see more jurisdictions experiment with. But the extraordinary confidence Nussbaum exudes in these correctives seems misplaced. Her citation of Heckman’s work on the Perry Preschool program, for instance, simply fails to grapple with a wide range of scholarly criticisms of the efficacy preschool as a social investment. Preschool still of course has serious, scholarly champions. But the literature is mixed, and Nussbaum acts irresponsibly to suggest otherwise. She acts especially irresponsibly to suggest that opposition to universal preschool stems in large part from racism.

Philosophers like Nussbaum have much to contribute to ongoing debate over issues like incarceration and criminal justice. But just as social scientific positivists delegitimize themselves by refusing to engage seriously with normative questions, so too do moral philosophers delegitimize themselves by refusing to engage seriously with empirical research.


There is much to be admired about Martha Nussbaum’s important contribution to the debate over the moral basis of punishment. I have outlined a few objections which I take to be rather damaging of her overall argument. But any fair-minded reader should appreciate the book’s extraordinary philosophical depth and literary elegance. All things considered, however, Nussbaum’s critique of retributive justice and anger remains thoroughly unconvincing. Anger is not some unfortunate evolutionary relic to be done away with. While, as with all emotions, it must be balanced against other moral sentiments, anger remains an invaluable part of our moral vocabulary and thinking. As a professor of mine likes to remark, anger always entails an implicit claim about justice. The project of moral philosophy should be to excavate that claim, not to excise the emotion that produced it.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Richard Hofstadter on Immigrants and the Progressive Movement

I had always assumed that immigrants fit reasonably well into the progressive coalition of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Of course populist racism posed a major challenge to integrating newly-arrived immigrants into the working class. But I always imagined this challenge was rather easily overcome by the shared economic interests of immigrants and the native working class.

I recently came across a fascinating passage in Richard Hofstadter's 1955 The Age of Reform that made me realize this analysis was far too simplistic, and that there was much more antagonism between immigrant communities and the progressive movement than I previously thought.

I quote some of the most provocative passages at length, with the most striking bits in bold:

In politics, then, the immigrant was usually at odds with the reform aspirations of the American Progressive. Together with the native conservative and the politically indifferent, the immigrants formed a potent mass that limited the range and the achievements of Progressivism. The loyalty of immigrant voters to the bosses was one of the signal reasons why the local reform victories were so short-lived. It would be hard to imagine types of political culture more alien to each other than those of the Yankee reformer and the peasant immigrant. The Yankee’s idea of political action assumed a popular democracy with widespread participation and eager civic interest. To him politics was the business, the responsibility, the duty of all men. It was an arena for the realization of moral principles of broad application—and even, as the case of temperance and vice crusades—for the correction of private habits. The immigrant, by contrast, coming as a rule from a peasant environment and from aristocratic societies with strong feudal survivals, was totally unaccustomed to the active citizen’s role. He expected to be acted on by government, but not to be a political agent himself. To him government meant restrictions on personal movement, the arbitrary regulation of life, the inaccessibility of the law, and the conscription of the able-bodied. To him, government was the instrument of the ruling classes, characteristically acting in their interests, which were indifferent or opposed to his own. Nor was government in his eyes an affair of abstract principles and rules of law: it was the actions of particular men with particular powers. Political relations were not governed by abstract principles; they were profoundly personal.[3]
Not being reared on the idea of mass-participation, the immigrant was not especially eager to exercise his vote immediately upon naturalization. Nor was he interested in such reforms as the initiative, referendum, and recall, which were intelligible only from the standpoint of the Anglo-American ethos of popular political action. When he finally did assume his civic role, it was either in response to Old World loyalties (which became a problem only during and after the first World War) or to immediate needs arising out of his struggle for life in the American city—to his need for a job or charity or protection from the law or for a street vendor’s license. The necessities of American cities—their need for construction workers, street-cleaners, police and firemen, service workers of all kinds—often provided him with his livelihood, as it provided the boss with the necessary patronage. The immigrant, in short, looked to politics not for the realization of high principles but for concrete and personal gains, and he sought these gains through personal relationships. And here the boss, particularly the Irish boss, who could see things from the immigrant’s angle but could also manipulate the American environment, became a specialist in personal relations and personal loyalties. The boss himself encouraged the immigrant to think of politics as a field in which one could legitimately pursue one’s interests. … Where reformers identified patriotism with knowledgeable civic action and self-denial, the bosses were satisfied to confine it to party regularity, and they were not embarrassed by a body of literature purporting to show that to trade one’s vote for personal services was a form of civic iniquity.”

That passage includes the following fascinating footnote:

[3]“C.f. Henry Cabot Lodge’s complaint that the idea of patriotism—devotion to one’s country—was Roman, while the idea of devotion to the emperor as the head of state was Byzantine. It was the Byzantine inheritance, he said, that the Eastern immigrants were bringing in. Henry Cabot Lodge...  
The boss’s code of personal loyalty and the reformer’s code of loyalty to civic ideas could not easily be accommodated, with the consequence that when the two had dealings with each other there were irreparable misunderstandings.”

I don't know enough about the Progressive Era to assess Hofstadter's account. And I don't what (if any) lessons Hofstadter's analysis has for our political present. But as I see things, today's progressive coalition is split between identitarianism on one side and Scandinavian-style social democracy on the other. I go back and forth thinking whether these bedfellows are fundamentally compatible with one another. If Hofstadter's history is correct, and if the general principles apply in our own time, perhaps that gives us a reason to think the two aren't so compatible.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Two Concepts of Nationalism

A terrific conversation over lunch a couple weeks ago got me thinking about an important distinction between two concepts of nationalism. (To be clear, anything of intellectual merit in what follows is the fruit of my far superior interlocutor in that conversation).

The first concept is the nationalism of national greatness. It is a nationalism of building high and travelling far, of lasting glory and heroic accomplishment, of emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen. This is the sort of nationalism underlying that common lament: “We just don’t do big things anymore.”

The second concept is the nationalism of cultural particularism. It is a nationalism that builds out from tangible life and which identifies the nation as an embodiment of a distinctive culture and set of mores. This is the sort of nationalism that can be described as properly traditionalist, clinging to parochialism and prejudice (words I do not hurl as terms of abuse).

Both concepts of nationalism are united in their hostility to globalism, in their rejection of a cosmopolitan worldview that admits of no relevant distinctions or differences across peoples or cultures. Similarly, the two concepts are united against the derisive anti-nationalism of a certain strand of the radical left, which castigates the nation (and in particular our nation) as a continued source of grave mischief and injustice. But that thin unity produces frequent political commonality, making it harder to see just how radically opposed these two conceptions of nationalism are.

The nationalism of greatness is, of course, given its most powerful statement today by Donald Trump. But it would be a mistake to read that guiding vision of nationalism as merely an extreme, populist explosion. To the contrary, restoring national greatness has been a central conviction of most of our recent, significant political figures and thinkers. Bill Kristol and David Brooks for example, two staunch members of the #NeverTrump movement, vigorously lamented in 1997 the loss of a great American spirit. In their words, “What’s missing from today’s American conservatism is the appeal to American greatness.”

The nationalism of greatness finds expression too in our progressive politics. It is reflected in a collective yearning to fully draw out the dialectic of American liberty, in a conviction to fundamentally transform the nation in alignment with our guiding ideology. No clearer statement of that progressive vision of American greatness exists than President Obama’s 2012 inaugural address. There President Obama placed the state of our political present in the context of a great unfolding narrative, a constant struggle to make more real the founding ideological purpose of our nation:
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone: to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth.
In this regard, both conservative and progressive nationalisms of greatness share common ground. The right of course cannot insist that American conservatism bears much in common with the blood and soil, throne and altar conservatism of the Old World. Instead, the great project our nation has undertaken is an essentially creedal one. Our nation’s greatness is a function of her loyalty to our ideological mission. As a result, the nationalism of greatness finds itself utterly incompatible with the nationalism of the particular. For if the nation’s greatness is to be assessed by its collective strivings, little time can be spent on the little platoons of social life, on the complexities of parochial communal life.

Likewise, the nationalism of the particular is skeptical of the grand abstraction of “national greatness.” Such a modern construction forces contrived unity where none exists and tramples genuine commonality when it organically springs forth. The worship of national greatness leads inexorably to the vulgarity and atomization of mass society the particularist detests. To the particularist, “America” as an idea is far too big a thing to love. She loves her family, her school, and her neighbors. She loves the small rituals that give meaning and dignity to the pedestrian. But it's more than just that litany of communitarian goods; she values the norms that structure her society, the shared cultural expectations of how things ought to run. Her patriotism, so far as it exists, is an abstraction of a sort, but an abstraction that coheres the concrete, tangible sources of value. She does not begin from America’s ideological purpose and work her way down, but rather begins from the communities of meaning that surround her and builds up. The American flag does not represent Liberty, it represents the way of life she has inherited.

The difference between these two concepts of nationalism is the difference between gigantism and localism. A partisan of national greatness would be quite comfortable equating patriotic citizenship with voting every few years and paying taxes. Indeed, as a friend notes, this is precisely the account David Brooks recently espoused. Citizenship to the localist, on the other hand, has virtually nothing to do with participation in a distant government—what Tocqueville denounced as the “administrative centralization” wholly divorced from true patriotism. It builds instead from the simple duties and reciprocities of ordinary life.

An example might help here to fix some intuitions. Consider loyalty to one’s alma mater. I root for Yale over Harvard every November not because Yale better expresses my ideological worldview, not because Yale is a greater institution or even a better one. Frankly, I have little interest at all in Yale as such. I root for Yale because of the friends and professors and clubs I found as an undergraduate. Those personal, intimate loyalties I built up at Yale are affecting for all sorts of different reasons. Some friendships were forged over academic argument, others through decidedly non-academic shared personal difficulties. When I root for Yale, I don’t intend to honor her administrators or her institutional worldview. I intend merely to honor a constellation of personal loyalties that mean a great deal to me. That’s the sort of thing I mean by a nationalism grounded in the particular.

I conclude with a passage from Alasdair Macintyre’s After Virtue:
Patriotism cannot be what it was because we lack in the fullest sense a patria. The point I am making might be confused with the commonplace liberal rejection of patriotism. Liberals have often—not always—taken a negative or even hostile attitude towards patriotism, partly because their allegiance is to values which they take to be universal and not local and particular, and partly because of a well-justified suspicion that in the modern world, patriotism is often a façade behind which chauvinism and imperialism are fostered. But my present point is not that patriotism is good or bad as a sentiment, but that the practice of patriotism as a virtue is in advanced societies no longer possible in the way it once was. In any society where government does not express or represent the moral community of the citizens, but is instead a set of institutional arrangements for imposing a bureaucratized unity on a society which lacks genuine moral consensus, the nature of political obligation becomes systematically unclear. Patriotism is or was a virtue founded on attachment primarily to a political and moral community and only secondarily to the government of that community. … When however the relationship of government to the moral community is put in question both by the changed nature of government and the lack of moral consensus in the society, it becomes difficult any longer to have any clear, simple and teachable conception of patriotism. Loyalty to my country, to my community—which remains unalterably a central virtue—becomes detached from obedience to the government which happens to rule me.
Though his point is somewhat orthogonal to mine, Macintyre's dichotomy between a patria that embodies the moral community and a state as brute, institutional bureaucracy is a close cousin to the dichotomy between the nationalism of greatness and the nationalism of the particular.

Monday, October 3, 2016

John Schaar on Equal Opportunity

John Schaar condemns equal opportunity as wickedly conservative in a classic 1967 paper. It's a shame this line of thinking hasn't gotten much attention.
No policy formula is better designed to fortify the dominant institutions, values, and ends of the American social order than the formula of equality of opportunity, for it offers *everyone* a fair and equal chance to find a place within that order...The facile formula of equal opportunity...opens more and more opportunities for more and more people to contribute more and more energies toward the realization of a mass, bureaucratic, technological, privatized, militaristic, bored, and thrill-seeking, consumption-oriented society--a society of well-fed, congenial, and sybaritic monkeys surrounded by gadgets and pleasure-toys.a

Sunday, September 25, 2016

G.K. Chesterton on the Wisdom of Fables and Fairy Tales

I recently stumbled across a very fine C.K. Chesterton introduction to a 1912 edition of Aesop’s Fables. With all his characteristic insight, Chesterton brings out the distinction between the wisdom of fables and the wisdom of fairy tales. Fables need animals to embody human types, strengths, and weaknesses. These animals and the roles they play are perfectly predictable. They cannot overcome their type, as it inheres in the very essence of what they are. Fairy tales, on the other hand, require not animals but humans. The characters there demonstrate not the littleness and predictability of a tragically limited human, but rather the heroic potential of human possibility.

Neither depiction of human nature is complete. Yet nor is some synthesis between the two necessarily desirable. Full of familiar contradiction, the two genres reflect the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of human character.
Aesop, or Babrius (or whatever his name was), understood that, for a fable, all the persons must be impersonal. They must be like abstractions in algebra, or like pieces in chess. The lion must always be stronger than the wolf, just as four is always double of two. The fox in a fable must move crooked, as the knight in chess must move crooked. The sheep in a fable must march on, as the pawn in chess must march on. The fable must not allow for the crooked captures of the pawn; it must not allow for what Balzac called "the revolt of a sheep" The fairy tale, on the other hand, absolutely revolves on the pivot of human personality. If no hero were there to fight the dragons, we should not even know that they were dragons. If no adventurer were cast on the undiscovered island—it would remain undiscovered. If the miller's third son does not find the enchanted garden where the seven princesses stand white and frozen—why, then, they will remain white and frozen and enchanted. If there is no personal prince to find the Sleeping Beauty she will simply sleep. Fables repose upon quite the opposite idea; that everything is itself, and will in any case speak for itself. The wolf will be always wolfish; the fox will be always foxy. Something of the same sort may have been meant by the animal worship, in which Egyptian and Indian and many other great peoples have combined. Men do not, I think, love beetles or cats or crocodiles with a wholly personal love; they salute them as expressions of that abstract and anonymous energy in nature which to any one is awful, and to an atheist must be frightful. So in all the fables that are or are not Aesop's all the animal forces drive like inanimate forces, like great rivers or growing trees. It is the limit and the loss of all such things that they cannot be anything but themselves: it is their tragedy that they could not lose their souls. 
This is the immortal justification of the Fable: that we could not teach the plainest truths so simply without turning men into chessmen. We cannot talk of such simple things without using animals that do not talk at all. Suppose, for a moment, that you turn the wolf into a wolfish baron, or the fox into a foxy diplomatist. You will at once remember that even barons are human, you will be unable to forget that even diplomatists are men. You will always be looking for that accidental good-humour that should go with the brutality of any brutal man; for that allowance for all delicate things, including virtue, that should exist in any good diplomatist. Once put a thing on two legs instead of four and pluck it of feathers and you cannot help asking for a human being, either heroic, as in the fairy tales, or un-heroic, as in the modern novels.