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A Thousand Small Sanities

A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of LiberalismA Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism by Adam Gopnik
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gopnik offers a robust defense of the liberal worldview as the great human moral adventure. He writes, "Whenever we look at how the big problems got solved, it was rarely a big idea that solved them. It was the intercession of a thousand small sanities. A thousand small sanities are usually wiser than one big idea."

Liberalism he defines as "an evolving political practice that makes the case for the necessity and possibility of (imperfectly) egalitarian social reform and ever greater (if not absolute) tolerance of human difference through reasoned and (mostly) unimpeded conversation, demonstration, and debate." He admits this is an unwiedly description, but that's how liberalism works. It cannot be easily contained within slogans and catchphrases.

Liberalism emerges out of humanism, and Gopnik argues that humanism continues to come before liberalism. The movement begins with Montaigne's critical self-examination and willing to try out new ideas. It develops through modern efforts to eliminate cruelty.

What Gopnik does is not present simply the ideas of major thinkers, but he describes the lives of various figures, with John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill as his paradigm examples. For he believes that liberalism is a way of life more than a set of ideas and that we learn about it by learning about the lives shaped by it.

I found the ideas he advances to be Mill as filtered through Karl Popper and updated by Richard Rorty. This despite Popper rarely appearing explicitly in the book (though his defenses of the open society and scientific thinking do) and Rorty is only mentioned once in the bibliography (though his spirit and themes are throughout the book).

Gopnik refines his presentation of liberalism by contrasting it with both the Right and the Left. In each case, he looks for the best examples of each (Charles DeGaulle and Emma Goldman) instead of arguing against straw persons. And he shows how liberalism has learned from both movements and also contributed to them.

I very much appreciated the chapter contrasting liberalism with the Left, as it helps to clarify tensions I have felt professionally and personally in recent years as different approaches to Trumpism and other issues have emerged. In this chapter he tackles many current topics including free speech, religious tolerance, pronouns, etc.

Note: Gopnik argues that Liberalism is NOT centrism, which is its own movement. A chapter contrasting the two would have been helpful. It is interesting to note that David Brooks's column from last week mentioned this book and is why I ordered and read it.

Overall, I recommend it. Now, what I'd like is for Amy Kittelstrom to moderate a discussion over liberalism with Gopnik and Marilynne Robinson (her recent article in the NY Review of Books sets up an alternative view of liberalism's origins) and then for the responder to be Wendell Berry.

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Robinson on Puritanism & Liberalism

Speaking of Liberalism, a fine essay by Marilynne Robinson defending the liberal history of Puritanism, along the way pointing out the illiberalism of the Lockian tradition.  

In a fun aside, she mentions that interpretation of Walt Whitman should begin with an understanding of Puritan theology.

The closing paragraph is fine; here are the final two:

Our heavily redacted history has meant the loss of many options. The idea of a good community, one whose members are happy in the fact of a general well-being, is not native to us, natural to us, possible for us—or so we are to believe. It is too far left. It is downright socialist. Hugh Peter [a Puritan divine] speaks in terms of practical enhancements, crowned roads to help prevent flooding, for example. He proposes that all advocates and attorneys should be paid by the public, that no one should be above the law. He proposes that artists and craftsmen of modest income should not be taxed. There is nothing sectarian in his list of reforms, assuming that most of us would be pleased to have improved infrastructure, equal justice before the law, a creative environment that acknowledges the social value of art.

We know our penal system is unfair and inhumane, that our treatment of immigrants threatens the ideal of a just nation. Why are we paralyzed in the face of these issues of freedom and humanity? Why are we alienated from a history that could help us find a deep root in liberality and shared and mutual happiness? Those who control the word “American” control the sense of the possible. Our public is far more liberal than our politics. Our politics must change if there is to be any future for representative democracy.

 


Brooks on the current kerfluffle and Liberalism

In a smart column that one wishes was a longer essay, David Brooks writes about the current debate in the Democratic party and how this is a debate over the future of liberalism.  An excerpt:

Liberalism loves sympathy, suspects rage and detests cruelty. Politics is inevitably a dialogue between partial truths. Compromise is a virtue, not a sign of cowardice. Moreover, means determine ends. If you win power through rhetorical violence, and by hating those who disagree, your regime will be angry and destructive. Liberalism arose out of the fact that political revolutions, while exciting at the outset, usually end up in brutality, dictatorship and blood. Working within the system is best.


River of No Return

A powerful essay by Ted Genoways (whose book This Blessed Earth I just finished reading) on the flooding in Nebraska this spring and how this demonstrates two failures--a failure to maintain our infrastructure and a failure to cope with climate change.  He lays the blame on the far right ideology of the GOP and Democrats ignoring the realities of rural life.  The essay is a moving portrayal of the damage done to Nebraska farmers.  


The Investigation

The other day the World-Herald had three good pieces of commentary on the Mueller investigation and the fallout.

There was a piece by Marc Thiessen called "The Trump-Russia Collusion Hall of Shame."   It quite rightly (though with charged language) asked about all those politicians and former intelligence officials who promised us that there was evidence of collusion that was yet to be made public.

Another piece was by Mona Charen, a conservative who has not yet jumped on the Trump bandwagon.  Her column was entitled "Mueller did the Right Thing." Her criticisms were leveled against the President and his cohort for their attacks on the investigation all along and how they ended up being wrong.  Her conclusion, "Honorable people did the right thing. Politics did not taint a criminal investigation. But that reality is buried under an avalanche of bad faith."

The final piece wasn't a national columnist but a local piece by former Senator Bob Kerrey in which he asked "How did Department of Justice get the Trump-Russia investigation so wrong?" It was interesting and refreshing to read a Democratic leader so critical.  He wants a non-partisan commission to investigate this whole sordid episode, "Our democracy will survive the hostility of Vladimir Putin. What it may not survive is distrust of our system of justice. At the moment that distrust is deep and wide. We need a nonpartisan national commission to tell us what has just happened and to advise us on what we need to do to keep it from happening again."


McCain

McCainFuneral

I first remember being aware of John McCain when I was impressed by his speech to the 1988 GOP convention.  He was the first politician I ever gave money to, during the 2000 primaries.  Over the years he was as likely to frustrate and anger me as he was to do something I admired.  His speech on torture I play in my ethics classes when we discuss respect for human dignity after reading Immanuel Kant.

This weekend generated some very good articles about him and his funeral (and Aretha's too).

This article at the Guardian was quite good in discussing the complexity of his legacy.  I felt it was in bad taste for it to be published before the funeral--they should have waited till this week.  But the article is, nonetheless, good and accurate, I believe.

This CNN article discussed both major funerals--Aretha's and McCain's--and what meaning we could take from them.  The references to Pericles at the beginning remind you of the importance that a public funeral can play for a society. Excerpts:

While McCain's funeral recalled Eurocentric classical traditions (Athenian democracy, after all, did not extend to women and slaves), Franklin's evoked the scores of civil rights funerals at which she had sung, or at which her father had preached. 

***

There was one further question hanging in the air this weekend. Where do we go from here? Could we ever see Obama, Dyson and Williams organizing in the same civil rights movement? A rallying cry for voter registration is at least a start. At McCain's commemoration, former Presidents from the GOP and the Democratic Party were able to give speeches touching on the same virtues of civility and political self-sacrifice.
 
But on the frontlines of this November's election battles, the tone is still set by Donald Trump and his Twitter feed. To many American voters, the very bipartisanship of Saturday's gathering at the National Cathedral will testify to the herd mentality of a Washington elite.
 
Pericles had an advantage. If we believe his biographer, the historian Thucydides, his listeners shared his definition of his nation's values. They just needed an eloquent reminder. The broken body of Emmett Till exposed an evil so explicit that its presence in America could no longer be denied. But it is not clear that the vast TV audiences for Aretha Franklin's homegoing are all on the same page about racial justice. Nor that the millions who watched John McCain's funeral share his vision for America. Meanwhile, to many voters elsewhere in America, unity looks like weakness.

And the New Yorker reflected on the civil religion aspect of McCain's funeral, as it considered him "Americanism's High Priest."

Sublime happiness and metaphysical enlargement, achieved through the transcendence of self, are promises usually reserved for divine, not patriotic, worship, and McCain’s invocation of liberty, justice, and respect reads like the Jeffersonian shadow of St. Paul’s list of virtues: faith, hope, and love. He was an understated Protestant, not given to much mention of the Biblical God, but, when we understand Americanism as a church, we can see the true McCain, as religious a figure as has lately crossed the national stage.

This, I think, is the key to interpreting McCain’s funeral.

But this the article's dark conclusion:

But for all of the scorn heaped on Trump—whose name was never mentioned outright—there were questions left unanswered at the service. First: Is it really possible for a person to rise to power in a country with which he has absolutely nothing in common? Isn’t it more likely that Trump, whose most fervent devotees are white evangelicals and proponents of the fraudulent prosperity gospel, is just as archetypically American as McCain, embodying an alternative set of equally real national principles: anxious acquisitiveness, a distaste for deep thought, endless aggrandizement?

Then, too: Even if the American religion is good, and inclusive of certain eternal truths, if it can be thrown so quickly into crisis, turned so violently on itself, how sturdy was it, really?

My favourite parts of the funeral were actually when the words of the Episcopal ceremony were read about him, the same words read about every departing Christian.  This was a reminder that these same words are said about both the simple and the great, a truly Christian message.  So, I was most annoyed when the online footage from NBC I watched on Monday (on Saturday, the day after my step-father's death, I had not been in the mood to watch the funeral) ended with annoying historians and political commentators talking over the clergy's close of the service.  How incredibly disrespectful, as the service was not over, yet they seemed to think the religious words unimportant, a clear sign of the degradation of the nation and their fundamental misunderstanding that this was a worship service, not merely an act of civil religion.


The Open Society & Its Enemies

The Open Society and Its Enemies: New One-Volume EditionThe Open Society and Its Enemies: New One-Volume Edition by Karl R. Popper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This major work has been "on my list" since I read that marvelous little book Wittgenstein's Poker about the time Wittgenstein supposedly got so angry at Popper he brandished a poker at him (if you haven't read that book, I highly recommend it). After the election of Trump I thought I should hurry up and get it read.

This is a major tome that takes some work to get through (though you can effectively skim through portions). If you want to grasp the summary, read the chapter with the same title as the book.

The First Volume is a marvelous take down of Plato as the source of authoritarianism in the Western tradition. I must say, I was initially quite surprised with how critical Popper was of Plato, but the more I read the more convinced I became of Popper's analysis. Plato was an enemy of Athenian democracy and his philosophy has provided intellectual fodder for opposing the open society ever since.

The Second Volume is a criticism of historicism in more contemporary philosophy, first the conservative type represented by Hegel and then, more thoroughly, Marxism. Popper eviscerates Hegel with sentences that had me laughing out loud (despite the fact that I was reading them in my stepdad's hospital room). Popper greatly respects Marx and what he set out to do, but still thinks he was wrong. But this is judged on scientific grounds. Marx proposed a theory, Popper analyses and tests the theory and finds it wanting. He credits Marx with showing "that a social system can as such be unjust; that if the system is bad, then all the righteousness of the individuals who profit from it is a mere sham righteousness." Marx showed that we are responsible for the system.

And in this way, Popper contends that Marx contributed to the open society, for it is one in which we are all responsible. In fact, that's why there is often backlash against it--being responsible for oneself and one's society causes strain and stress.

What does sustain the open society? Democracy. The humanitarian spirit. Brotherhood. Individual freedom. Rational argument. Critical reason. Institutions. And incremental changes rather than bold revolutions. He places much emphasis on the role of institutions (a message I've been more open to since Trump, having revised my typical Gen X distrust of institutions).

And Popper doesn't think that you can give an argument to prove that the open society is right, believing in it is a matter of faith.

So, if you are looking for any purpose or meaning in history or politics, it is the purpose and meaning that we decide it will have. "Progress rests with us, with our watchfulness, with our efforts, with the clarity of our conception of our ends, and with the realism of their choice."

In the final paragraph he writes, "We must become the makers of our fate. We must learn to do things as well as we can, and to look out for our mistakes."

***
I wrote on the final page, "Very good. Now I have many questions." Popper wrote this book in the midst of the ascendancy of the totalitarians of the twentieth century, so he would be an excellent giver of advice for how the open society should respond to those who don't engage in rational discourse and who destroy the institutions that support democracy, but he doesn't provide such practical advice. Are we to simply continue on doing the best we can and hope that we survive? He doesn't think our success is inevitable or that history bends toward justice. So it would seem that the believers in the open society could do our best and still be defeated.

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Democrats, Democrats

In the wake of Donald Trump's inauguration, I decided to take a moderate position.  It seemed to me that what was most essential in this crisis was reweaving the social fabric and committing to core ideals and virtues.  I even for a while had a podcast making this point.  

I came to this conclusion because Trump, to me, appeared to be a symptom not a cause, so focusing on him and his daily outrages was not going to be long-term helpful.

This also meant that I should set aside some things that matter deeply to me in order to build alliances in a moment when the survival of the republic and the moral order mattered more.  So, for instance, Russell Moore, the head of the Ethics Commission for the SBC, has been a Trump opponent.  I had long viewed Moore as an antagonist to my well-being as gay man, but our shared opposition to Trump matters more in this moment.

But it seems that the Democratic Party and many of the progressive activist folk I've worked closely with for the last couple of decades largely made other choices.  One could see this split occurring even during the 2016 election.  

Back in 2009 I was angered that the Democrats, when they did have power, didn't use it more effectively to achieve longterm goals.  I have also complained many times that the Democrats have failed to play the political game as effectively as the Republicans.  So, I do understand the position of those who think now is a time to fight more earnestly for longterm goals.

But I do worry that it is a failed strategy to solve the immediate needs of the country.  I do hear those that say the leftward tilt of the Democrats will work because it will mobilize more voters who have otherwise stayed home.  Maybe they are right, and some elections so far give evidence of that.  This is an empirical claim that will be answered in time.

Today I read two things that sent me into pondering these questions in more detail.  The first is an article in The Guardian about how Democrats are misunderstanding the moment and how their daily outrage is actually strengthening the Trump coalition.

The second is a good column from David Brooks about how the Democrats needs to decide on a compelling narrative.  I happen to like the one he suggests.  He writes:

Maybe the right narrative could be rebuilding social mobility for the young: America is failing its future. We need to rally around each other to build the families, communities, schools, training systems and other structures to make sure the next generation surpasses this one. People are doing this at the local level, and we need a series of unifying projects to make national progress.

This story pushes people toward reconciliation. It is future-oriented. It points to a task that we urgently need to undertake. 

What are your thoughts on these vital questions?