Politics Feed

Right Wing Paranoia

Today my latest Library of America volume was delivered--two books and some collected essays by historian Richard Hofstadter.  I decided to read a short essay entitled "The American Right Wing and the Paranoid Style."  The title seemed timely, despite having been written in 1959.  It was an illuminating read, both for what has remained similar and for what has changed.

Hofstadter points out that the right wing is "organized into an extraordinarily large number of fanatical groups of indeterminable size," which seems to be mostly the same.  He adds that they sometimes will unite despite their differences, usually around a personality, like Senator McCarthy.  He states that it is between 10 and 15 percent of the population.

Two ideas seemed to be shared by right wing groups of the 1950's--"isolationism in foreign policy" and "a dogmatic insistence on laissez-faire liberalism in economic policy."  He adds that these are generally followed by "ethnic prejudice" and "a fanatically intense anti-Communism."  But what he thinks distinguishes the extreme right wing from its more intellectual members (like Bill Buckley) is the style of thought or frame of mind he calls "the paranoid style."

Intriguing to see what remains the same and what has altered on this list.  I'm sure he would be surprised to find pro-Putin apologists in the contemporary right wing, for instance.

The paranoid style has a number of features.  First is " the tendency to dwell upon the failures of the past rather than to work on programmatic proposals for the future."  Check.

Prejudice, is the second feature.  He lists anti-Black and anti-Jewish prejudice, noting that anti-Catholic prejudice was far less than it once had been given the common cause against communism by fundamentalist Protestants and fundamentalist Catholics.  Update some of the prejudices,  and check.

The third feature is that its spokespeople are "indignants."  He writes, "Their capacity for indignation is very high in proportion to their capacity for understanding of what is going on."  Check.

Next is "an awareness of their own victimization."  Check.

But the most important feature of the paranoid style is an emphasis on conspiracies.  Check, check, check.  He writes, "The imaginative artists of the right wing, who work in the paranoid style, never feel themselves to be in the grip of history: they are always in the grip of wicked persons."

In his final paragraph he says that they haven't had much political success apart from "making life miserable for thousands of their favorite scapegoats" and impairing "freedom of thought in America by their pressures on teachers, writers, and librarians."  Check those continuing negative outcomes, except for the fact that they did finally have electoral successes in the 21st century.  

He also says they are not fascists because they lack "the fascist determination or capacity to seize power."  Wrong about that one Hofstadter.  

And so he concludes, "For while they are unlikely to vault into a position from which they can govern, they are frequently in a position to hinder those who do govern from doing so with the wisdom and restraint that the times demand."


Only Free Beings Can Love

Part Two of Timothy Gorringe's The World Made Otherwise is a discussion of the practices necessary to embody the values and virtues and achieve our ends of a flourishing human life together, in order to address the climate and other crises of our times.

First he considers the shape of politics and how we should be organized.  He resists the "idolatry of the state" but argues that we do need a social order.  He defends a "rights cosmopolitanism."  Freedom is essential to this practice, as "freedom is at the heart of life because only free beings can love, and love is the best one-word account of the meaning and purpose of life that we have yet come up with."  (That's a great sentence.)  Gorringe believes this politics is best embodied in "small, federated political units."  

I wasn't sure how this was to be achieved.  And can't imagine how (or why) one would want to break-up the USA for instance.  I don't think any such break-up would actually be an advance in problem-solving, and it would likely lead to millions seeing reductions in their freedoms.  

But, an emphasis on freedom, love, and rights cosmopolitanism within our existing polity seems like a good idea.

His next chapter defends the practice of democracy and the equality that it values:

The main objective of democracy, according to David Held, is "the transformation of private preferences via a process of deliberation into positions that can withstand public scrutiny and test."  Respectful participatory practices are what allow this to happen.  This presupposes in turn educational policies that foster critical and informed thinking and promote a culture of respectful debate.

I agree with Gorringe when he emphasizes subsidiarity--the idea that as much power and decision-making as can be is passed down to smaller and local units.  The strength of democracy arises from local institutions that people can participate in and can have influence and power (de Tocqueville admired this about early America, but we've lost it in the last half-century).  I have written before about how I learned democracy in my small town church business meetings.

The next chapters move on from the practice of politics to the practice of economics, which I'll explore in a separate post.

 


Music & Work: On Consolation Part 5

Gustav Mahler: Kindertotenlieder-Ruckert-Lieder; Christa Ludwig, Berlin  Philharmonic, Herbert Von Karajan, cond. - Music

"Music's importance as consolation has only grown in an age that medicates grief and treats sorrow as an illness.  In moments of grief and despair, there is something unsayable about the experience that only music seems to express." 

Chapter twelve of Michael Ignatieff's On Consolation grapples with consolation as modernity began to move beyond god and religion.  He discusses Nietzsche, Freud, and Wagner, but the focus of the chapter is Gustav Mahler and in particular his Kindertotenlieder (which I found interesting given that last year I read Martha Nussbaum's Upheavals of Thought which also spends a chapter on this music).

In essence, the music admits that there can be no consolation on the death of a child.  Instead the music attempts to "provide meaning for men and women living after the death of the gods."  It does so through providing "an experience of the transcendental and sublime."  Such music can be an emotional release.  Any consolation we find will be the work of a lifetime.

In the next chapter he discusses Max Weber, who experienced "catastrophic depression."  Ignatieff argues that Weber was the first to critique the "disenchanted spiritual emptiness of capitalist modernity."  I'd not thought of Weber this way, so that was interesting.  Weber was critical of how work had come to be the thing that people focused on to give them meaning, after other forms of meaning-making had failed.  This idea was rooted in Luther's theological concepts of vocation and calling, but had become a secular, disenchanted notion.  He argued that work had largely become "remorseleness duty without purpose."  Instead, what humans needed was to live in truth and "To live in truth was to live without any consolation at all."

Weber was also deeply critical of many of the political developments early in the twentieth century, as people sought for meaning in politics and latched onto dangerous ideologies.  He thought we should put aside our "longing for salvation" and instead "assume responsibility" for creating our own future.  We were responsible for our own call.  Ignatieff concludes "the times themselves called him to inspire the next generation to embrace responsibility instead of taking flight in hatred or refuge in illusion."


The Racial Contract

The Racial ContractThe Racial Contract by Charles W. Mills
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Excellent, concise critique of mainstream political philosophy. In the burst of anti-racist volumes in the last couple of years, it is a shame this thirty year old book wasn't a best-seller, as it deserves to be. With Mills' death this year and it being the anniversary of John Rawls' A Theory of Justice, which also draws attention to Rawls's respondents, I assume this book is getting increased attention--that's why I read it. And I regret not having read it long ago.

View all my reviews

The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World

The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided WorldThe Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World by Michael Ignatieff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wish I could rush into an ethics classroom and teach this book. It is excellent. I devoured it quickly.

Ignatieff, both an academic and political leader, explores the impact that human rights have had upon the globe, shaping the moral order. A key idea of the book is that over the last fifty years we have improved morally as a species, with the advances in human rights, humanitarian responses to suffering, and environmentalism.

He sets out to various global hotspots to explore the current global moral order--Queens, LA, Rio, Bosnia, Myanmar, Fukushima, and South Africa. In these places he dialogues with poor women living in shanties and prominent public officials. He is a sympathetic and compassionate listener who draws keen philosophical insights from what he observes. A brilliant model for how to do academic work in our time.

What he discovers is that there are a few key aspects of ordinary virtue that humans seem to share. Trust, tolerance, and resilience are among them. And key to promoting these virtues are well run public institutions and civil society. Ordinary virtue becomes almost impossible in a broken, violent, corrupt society. He writes, "The whole point of a liberal society is to create laws and institutions that make virtue ordinary."

The most brilliant chapter is that on Fukushima, and I would recommend it as reading right now in our moment of global pandemic. He writes that the triple disaster in Japan--earthquake, tsunami, meltdown--was the unimaginable and that we moderns are not well prepared for the unimaginable to happen. Yet, the unimaginable has consistently been occurring the last twenty years eroding our trust in our institutions which keep failing us and eroding our ability to plan for and hope for our futures. He writes, "Instead of embracing the future, imagining radiant tomorrows, we now think of the future in the language of harm reduction, target hardening, and risk management." This breakdown has made humans more individualistic in their resilience strategies.

Here is the final paragraph of that brilliant chapter, where he discusses hope:

The hope I am talking about is an ordinary virtue: it is free of hubris, and so it takes for granted, that we will not always be able to avoid the worst. At the same time, it is not misanthropic: it prepares for the worst but does not think the worst of human beings. It is anti-utopian: while it believes that over time we get better at learning from our mistakes, it does not have any faith that we can fundamentally change; it is rationalist but questions that History, with a capital H, is knowable. It draws faith from the past, from the memory of the samurai, but it also knows that sometimes all you can do is to keep moving, keep going toward the future, no matter how uncertain the destination. But resilience has an unshakeable, physical element of faith. It affirms that we do learn and that we are not condemned to endless repetition of our folly. This complex hope is, I believe, what underpins human resilience, more than an attitude of responsibility toward others. It is also a metaphysical commitment, deep inside, usually left unspoken, to the future continuity of human life itself, no matter what, a commitment best expressed by the belief that we will not only survive but prevail.

View all my reviews

Climate Justice

Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable FutureClimate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future by Mary Robinson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Robinson shares some of the struggles to get to and to implement the Paris Accords and also the stories of various climate activists from around the global with an emphasis of how climate action intersects with human rights and inequality work. I was hoping for some more intellectual substance, but the stories are good.

View all my reviews

The City and Man

The City and ManThe City and Man by Leo Strauss
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A congregant who was a retired political science professor died last year and because he and I had engaged in various philosophical discussions over the years, I was able to select some books from his library. He was a student of Strauss, so there were a handful of Strauss' books to choose from.

This volume is made up of three long essays--one on Aristotle's Politics, one on Plato's Republic, and one on Thucydides' Peloponnesian War. In each essay there are some interesting insights, but overall I found Strauss to be a most infelicitous writer. The final essay was by far the best and the most interesting, making me want to read Thucydides in full (I've only ever read excerpts).

An overarching theme seems to be doing what is practical and realistic in politics.

View all my reviews