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More than a crisis

Paris Breakfast, Arc de Triomphe (Photograph by Maurice Sapiro, 1956)

Variations on the general theme that things ain’t what they used to be are often heard but rarely taken seriously. And, as a general rule, the older the speaker is, the less seriously the claims are taken. Of course he would say that, the old codger. Life was so much better for him back then.

A couple of years ago the German-born fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld admitted to feeling that the world he had once lived in had ceased to exist. Paris, where he has lived and worked since the 1950s (when “it looked like an old French movie”) had never been as gloomy, dangerous or depressing as it was now.

Another notable old complainer is Paul Volcker. Late last year, past 90 and in very poor health, he spoke to the New York Times. Volcker saw “a hell of a mess in every direction,” including a lack of basic respect for government institutions:

“Respect for government, respect for the Supreme Court, respect for the president, it’s all gone. Even respect for the Federal Reserve… And it’s really bad. At least the military still has all the respect. But … how can you run a democracy when nobody believes in the leadership of the country?”

Quite. There are preconditions for democracy.

Human communities and societies have always been bound together and defined by sets of implicit rules and customs and, as societies become larger and more complex, political systems develop to deal with an inevitable proliferation of beliefs and practices. The best systems try to accommodate differences rather than trying to stamp them out.

On the whole, the modern, liberal, Western tradition struck a good balance between privacy and individual freedom on the one hand and the need to maintain a broad social and moral consensus on the other. The evolution of modern forms of government in Europe was not always a smooth or peaceful process but the trend (inexorable perhaps only in retrospect) towards the creation of liberal, secular states and associated institutions coincided with a flowering of creative energies such as has rarely been seen in human history.

Given recent developments in Western countries, however – spiralling debt, failing economies, loss of confidence in government and professional elites, the intrusions of fundamentalist Islam and rise of fundamentalist forms of Christianity and Judaism, increasing social divisions and apparently increasing social conflict and violence – we seem to be in the midst, not just of a crisis period (crises pass), but of a period of epochal change.

Comparisons are often made with the 1930s but the resurgence of religious fundamentalism suggests that liberal democracy is facing a different kind of challenge from that once posed by various forms of fascism and radical socialism. Our situation is also complicated by the yet-to-be-understood impact of digital technologies. In fact, in social and cultural terms, so much has changed – and changed so radically – over the last fifty or sixty years that it is tempting simply to see the tradition of Western thought which led to the creation of modern liberal democracy as having finally played itself out.

This is not quite true, of course. It was a rich and varied tradition comprising many elements, some of which continue to find expression in current institutional arrangements. But political ideas and institutions do not develop or exist in a cultural vacuum. They are necessarily dependent on – and only work well in the context of – particular social and cultural conditions. To a large extent, the preconditions for liberal democracy no longer prevail.

What these preconditions are (or were) is impossible to specify precisely but they would, I think, include relatively stable regional and national cultures (essential as a basis for trust), a sense of continuity with the past, and an enlightened and science-friendly perspective. A science-friendly – or at least technology-hungry – perspective still prevails, but the humanizing elements which once went hand-in-hand with science are failing.

In Western societies the erosion of traditional culture is already well-advanced and is evident not only in regard to the loss of shared narratives and traditions at local, regional and national levels but also in respect of stories and traditions which transcend national boundaries (the Western classical heritage, for example).  The loss of these cultural frameworks weakens and isolates communities, cutting them adrift from the past and leaving them more vulnerable to demagoguery, dogmatism and social fragmentation.

Part of the problem, in fact, can be seen to lie with classical liberalism itself – at least in so far as it constitutes a philosophy or ideology. Its fatal flaw relates to the rationalism from which it derives and manifests itself in a tendency to see societies and individuals in abstract, timeless and universal terms and to underplay the significance of social context and history.

Though we can reason, we are not the “rational beings” philosophers once imagined us to be. A self or a person is not some kind of metaphysical entity but rather the tenuous product of a particular set of social and cultural experiences and the constellation of social connections which this history makes possible.

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This weblog has been around for 4+ years now. It started as a way to give voice to people who lean Right who are not necessarily libertarian. America’s conservative party, the Republicans, have lost their second presidential election in a row to a definitively liberal candidate. Whether America is a “center-right” country, center-right politics are having difficulties at the national level. A primary problem seems to be that the Republican party has to account for the reality that religious social conservatives are a necessary part of their coalition, but they need to expand the tent out toward more secular and socially moderate voters. The gay marriage debate is to some extent a signpost for the general conundrum; how to hold onto to the base, while attracting converts.

There are no easy answers here. The substantive issue is fundamentally tricky, because many social conservatives have strong principles in particular domains which brook little margin for compromise. On the other hand there are many younger and secular individuals whose aversion to the Republican party and conservative politics seems to be one of identity, not issue. The simple and clear message of liberty, order, and security, should have broad appeal. Unfortunately though the Republican brand in the minds of many has become exclusively identified with religious social conservatives, even though in terms of policy I would argue this component of the coalition receives by and large lip service.



Why are you a conservative?

This is addressed to people who consider themselves fundamentally conservative, and not libertarian, and, also reject the supernatural. By this, I mean that if you do support libertarian policies (I often do) it is not necessarily because you are at the root someone who is motivated by liberty as the summum bonum. By rejecting the supernatural I mean that you don’t accede to the plausibility of gods, spirits, etc.

Sometimes the answer can be somewhat vague and general. For example, by conservatism, as I implied below, is rooted in the social dependence of human flourishing. This necessarily entails that individual freedom is not the ultimate ends, and means that I am opening to diverging from libertarian logic in many specific cases. Or, more precisely, in the case of the United States I think that this nation-state is a good thing, that it has legitimacy, and that it’s coherency as a nation-state should be defended as a long term project. It’s not a mere convenience for the execution of legal prescriptions.

I throw the question out there because I’m wondering how people will take the ideas I’m going to present at the Moving Secularism Forward conference this March.

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The media joke

Donald Trump says he won’t run in 2012:

The publicity-loving New York developer and reality-TV star pulled the plug on his would-be 2012 presidential run Monday afternoon, saying he still believes he’d be best for the job but that he’s not ready to give up on making money in the private sector.

The move came after NBC officials, whose network his “Celebrity Apprentice” airs on, said they would have an answer within 24 hours as to whether or not The Donald would be back for another season next fall.

Always a joke.




They don’t have oil and nuclear weapons

A friend of mine asked what I thought about the protests in North Africa. I’m busy with some scientific issues and problems now, so I haven’t devoted much attention to them. All things equal I support a democratic government over a non-democratic government. But I think modern Americans tend to fetishize populist revolts. Russia in 2011 may not be the enemy it once was, but it is no Czech Republic. Iraq is now verging toward a moderately sectarian Shia regime thanks to popular elections (though counterbalanced by secular Kurdish nationalism). Iran is a famous case, with its revolution turning toward authoritarian rule by clerics after an initial period of hope and promise.

Because of the nature of its secular civil society I have more hope for Tunisia being a civilized popular democratic state than Egypt, which I think is more likely to go in an unrecognizable direction because of the power of the Islamic Brotherhood. But at the end of the day, does this matter? Neither Egypt or Tunisia have significant oil reserves, nor do they have nuclear weapons. I am skeptical of the future of any liberal democracy in Egypt, though less so in Tunisia, but it probably doesn’t matter to the rest of the world.*

One thing I will say: the Copts should view with foreboding what democratic government wrought for the Christians of Iraq. The majority of Egyptian Muslims may not be willing to take up arms against their ancient Christian minority, but a motivated minority unrestrained by an authoritarian state can cause great suffering and havoc. Democracy empowers popular majorities, but it often oppresses dispossessed minorities.

* Unlike Iran a religious regime with popular support in Egypt does not have the luxury of petro-dollars. Additionally, I don’t think Israel is actually that important to our geopolitics either, if you are curious.




Addicted to activism

The Discontent Baseline:

I asked this on Twitter yesterday, but I think it’s an important issue. At lunch with a coworker last week talking over the “pay freeze” nonsense and the bargaining over the Bush tax cuts, I was a bit ready to throw the towel in over Barack Obama….

Now in political advocacy terms it doesn’t make sense to say “well, I’ll forgive a misguided pivot to austerity because the Vietnam War was a bigger mistake.” Nor does it make sense to say “I don’t care about claimed assassination powers because the internment of the Japanese was a bigger curtailment of civil liberties.” Nor does it make sense to say, “I won’t complain about cutting a deal with Pharma to get a major expansion of the welfare state because FDR cut a deal with white supremacists to get his.” You need to stand up for what you believe in in politics and complain when elected officials don’t do the right thing.

I listen to Slate‘s political gabfest, and last week Emily Bazelon was bemoaning the lack of effectually of the Democratic majority in 2008-2010. David Plotz pointed out the passage of healthcare reform, and Bazelon brushed it off with “oh yeah.” Basically, it seems like liberals just want an eternal revolution and deny the reality that change is hard. Conservatives aren’t the only “stupid party” (Bazelon is a Yale graduate,* but that doesn’t prevent her from behaving in a petulant manner because the Democrats didn’t dole out all the policy candies she craved).

* No offense to Yale graduates as a whole of course!



Original thoughts re: election 2010

Anyone have any after the election? My main issue is the “half a glass” phenomenon which has been cropping up. The Tea Party pushed the maximal candidates in Nevada, Colorado, and Delaware, which likely lost the Republicans those states. But without the Tea Party enthusiasm it is less likely that the Republicans would have made it over the edge in Illinois and Pennsylvania. On the other hand, some pundits are claiming that Pennsylvania was close in part because of spillover from Delaware, where O’Donnell’s campaign was making the nuttiness of some Tea Partiers more salient and dragging down Pat Toomey’s name brand. Wheels within wheels.

Too busy to look at the exit polls, but I’m always fascinated by differences in support to the two parties as a function of class by region.

For what it’s worth, I’m skeptical that there’s going to be that much change in domestic policy in the next two years. And I’m still skeptical that even if Republicans win back the Presidency and Senate in 2012 they’ll be able to rollback the Democratic achievements of 2008-2010. Sometimes it isn’t quantity, but quality. Grover Cleveland served twice as many years as James K. Polk, but the latter has had a lasting impact on the American republic, above and beyond many two term presidents.

Open thread I guess….



Christine O’Donnell is one of you!

Ms. O’Donnell makes very explicit one of the aspects of contemporary right-wing populism. On the one hand it is surely true that the American Elite Establishment has become stagnant and calcified. On the other hand, do we really want Average Joes in the halls of Congress? Where only 25% of the American have a university degree, 99% of the Senate does (Mark Begich being the exception). Good or bad? My heart leans toward elitism, but my head isn’t so sure.




The markets are rational?

Sarah Palin: Still Not the Front-Runner:

…But right now, in autumn 2010, at what seems like a moment of maximal populist outrage and anti-establishment fervor, Sarah Palin can’t crack 20 percent in primary polling, and Mitt Romney (for all his manifold weaknesses) still has the most plausible path to the nomination. Which suggests to me that concerns about stability, solidity and electability may play a bigger role in the 2012 Republican campaign than many observers seem to think.

I have expressed skepticism of a Mitt Romney candidacy before in large part because he backed a health care plan in Massachusetts which prefigured much of what we saw in the Democrats’ plan. As this may be the peak of anger about the Democrats’ legislation in the medium term I’m struck by the fact that Romney still has polling traction at all. I do remember being very confused as to why John McCain hadn’t been totally discredited when it came out that he’d seriously mulled switching to the Democrats in the early 2000s.

That being said Romney does seem like a candidate who is good on paper, but can never come through on the national stage. Honestly, I really don’t know what the hell is going on.

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